“musical minds,” oliver sacks, and the nicu

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the NOVA program “Musical Minds” was playing when I returned home from my first day of work. Coincidence! It was so well-done, and for that I’m thankful that it was not a steak. Instead of delicious char and even more delicious cholesterol, the program featured Oliver Sacks explaining how the mind can experience music in magnificent ways, using case studies to exemplify his point. Much of the content is taken from his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.

Oliver Sacks’ tour through the musical mind featured four fascinating cases: Derrick Paravicini, a blind and autistic musical savant, Matt Giordano, a sufferer of Tourrette’s syndrome who copes through drumming, Anne Barker, a member of a musical family who is diagnosed with amusia, and Tony Cicoria, an orthopedic surgeon who experienced sudden musicality after getting struck by lightning. The program also features Sacks submitting himself to an fMRI to compare the activity of his brain in several instances: listening to and imagining the same song, as well as listening to a song he liked and another he disliked.

Piano Man

Derrick, now in his 30s, lost his sight due to oxygen treatments meant to sustain him in the hospital after being born three and a half months premature. His autisim and learning disabilities put him at the functionality of a four-year-old, with no knowledge of his addres or phone number. But he was shown twinkling away on his piano with a prowess I associate with jazz and blues greats and is able to play back any piece of music after hearing it just once.  He started playing piano at age two and when he was brought to a school for the blind at four, he finalized his attachment to the instrument. His teacher noted that it took him years to learn proper fingering technique because he was only able to comprehend the proper method when taught tactiley; his teacher needed to press his fingers on the keys over and over and over again before the lesson stuck.

The Need and Wont to Drum

Matt first developed his affinity for the drums at age two when he began to drum along to the Moody Blues song, “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock n’ Roll Band.” The most interesting part of Matt’s story for me was that his penchant for drumming coincided with the onset of his psychological symptoms. After realizing that drumming quelled his symptoms, he began to almost self-medicate with the instrument to the point that when asked about his life without music, he said, ” I probably wouldn’t be here.” He now teaches drum therapy classes to other Tourrette’s sufferers, and the classroom transform from a cacophony to orchestration as soon as the drumming begins. Sacks commented that music demands focus and while the Tourrette’s doesn’t go away, the order of the music becomes a force against “the bastion of chaos.”

Cacophony, or Lacking Harmony

I feel most sorry for Anne, for whom music is an ugly noise. Amusic, she has the musical equivalent to colorblindness and is essentially deaf to melody and harmony in music. She has the auditory equipment to hear music as sounds, but lacks the perceptive capabilities to understand it as musical. She cannot sing or dance along to music, even though she would love to be able to do so. When listening to a (beautiful) Chopin nocturne, she described how much she hated the thumping of piano keys. Submitted to a series of those musical grammar tests I mentioned a few posts back, Anne got two out of ten correct and admitted after each sample that she was just guessing. It is especially hard for Anne because she comes from a musical family: her family owns a shop for traditional Irish instruments, and all of her siblings have been engaged with Irish dancing and music-making for their entire lives. Anne struggled with Irish dancing for six years until she realized that while she was able to learn the movements during her seemingly endless home practice sessions, she was unable to align her movements with the music at lessons

The Lightning Symphony

Tony Cicoria’s story is one of the most fascinating I have ever heard. When I was watching “Musical Minds,” I remembered exactly where I was when I first read about Cicoria in Sacks’ book. It is that kind of tale. Struck by lightning at forty-two, this former orthopedic surgeon experienced an out-of-body experience following cardiac arrest. Three to four weeks later, he suddenly developed an insatiable passion for listening to piano music. This passion for listening soon transformed into the desire to play and, eventually, compose music. Despite his strong desire, he had none of the music theory and did not know how to read music, so he would wake up at 4 a.m. and practice until he had to work, then return to the piano until he was too exhausted to see the page. An unfortunate but understandable detail of Cicoria’s story is that he does not want Sacks, or anyone for that matter, to study his brain in order to maintain the mystical, religious feeling he has about his sudden musicality.

The Brain Behind the Brains

Sack describes a bit of his musical and scientific history. His home was full of science, music, and medicine, so it was only natural for him to combine the three. For example, his father, a surgeon, was known to “read” scores between surgeries, apparently able to conduct them in his mind. Sacks became particularly interested in the power of music when he was working with patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in New York City who were suffering from a form of encephalitis known as “sleepy sickness.” Before it was discovered that the drug L-Dopa helped ease them out of their catatonic state, Sacks observed that music freed them as well. Singing and dancing happened where speaking and walking did not. Amazing! This finding inspired the creation of the Institute for Music & Neurological Function at the hospital.

Two short segments of “Musical Minds” focused on Sacks’ brain. (I almost capitalized brain; perhaps it should be in this case.) An fMRI was taken of his brain while listening to one of his favorite songs, Joseph Horowitz’s “Diversion.” Then, another scan was taken when he was imagining the song. The brain performed in the same way during both of Sacks’s engagements with the song, except an additional area in the frontal lobe involved in creativity and higher mental functioning was activated when he was told to imagine the song. Sacks’s brain activity also aligned with his preference for Bach and apathy towards Beethoven, with many brain areas activated during the Bach but none during the Beethoven.

To the NICU

Aside from the stories mentioned above, Sacks discusses anecdotal evidence concerning “the fetus question” which has shown that fetuses demonstrate preference for music they were exposed to while in utero. Research in this area is in its infant stages (ba-dum-chh), but what if the evidence consistently supports the anecdotes? It has definitely been shown that infants react more to music they prefer, so if prenatal music intervention can create musical preferences, the effects of this music on the stress reduction will be even greater.