You Are What You Read

Reviews of books as I read them. This is basically a (web)log of books I've read.

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Location: Lawrenceville, Georgia, United States

I am a DBA/database analyst by day, full time father on evenings and weekends.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010


I have been interested in the brain for a while and have recently gotten interested in neurology. Oliver Sacks is a noted neurologist and author on brain science, yet I hadn't read any of his books until I picked up Musicophilia. The book is a compilation of cases of people who have particular capabilities or impairments of enjoying music after suffering neural damage or a brain disease or in some cases being born with the condition.

Sacks doesn't start off with any theory or analysis of how the brain processes music, he just jumps right in to the cases. Starting with a man who suddenly gains intense enjoyment of music after getting struck by lightning, he discusses extreme cases of music processing in the brain. While some people have heightened enjoyment of music, others are plagued by musical hallucinations. These auditory hallucinations are different from the musical imagery most people can conjure up in their minds--the auditory processing of the brain makes it sound as if a real orchestra were playing in the room. Other people can have seizures when listening to music.

I was struck by the section on music and memory. Sacks shows that music is stored in a different sort of memory structure than normal episodic memory. Some patients who have lost all memory of who they are can still remember and sing songs from their past. One man with severe memory impairment could go through his daily routine as he kept songs running through his mind. Music can even help those who have lost all language; they can sing even when they can't talk.

Another interesting case is that of synesthesia, the condition of mixing of the senses. Some people can see colors in music. One man sees each key as a different color, but individual notes are meaningless. Others see each note as having a unique color. They sense music differently than the rest of us but to them it is just part of the experience.

Other people can memorize vast amounts of music, while others can barely perceive music at all. For the few people with absolute pitch, there is evidence to support heightened activity in certain auditory processing parts of the brain. In other cases, those who have lost hearing in one or both ears hear noise, sometimes nice, sometimes terrible, as the nerves in the brain replace the missing input with new sensations. A wonderful section describes the condition of Williams syndrome, where the patient is mildly retarded but very outgoing and extremely musical. Williams patients are often drawn to music. Sacks closes with a positive note about how music has helped many people with neurological deterioration improve their condition, and especially their enjoyment of life.

A wide range of experiences are described in this book, some wonderful and many terrifying. It is a fascinating look at how music works in the brain and how it can malfunction. I was most intrigued by the sections that described how music can help those with mental impairments. It is illuminating to consider that even if we lose all of our memories or our speech capabilities then we can still have a sort of musical existence. It is also interesting to ponder how music is perceived by those with extraordinary musical abilities. Even normal people can hold a tune and keep a remarkably close rhythm to the original piece. Music is a central part to the human experience. A-

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