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This Is Your Brain on Music

This week I’ve been re-reading sections of Oliver Sacks’s 2007 book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain in which the neuroscientist delves into the science behind his long-term interest in music. As Sacks said last October at Frederick P. Rose Hall, where Musicophilia was awarded an ASCAP-Deems Taylor award, since he was about 5 years old he has had two loves: Bach and smoked salmon. Sacks, now 75, reports that both of these preferences have been remarkably consistent over time.

Finding out why we have the musical preferences we do is just one of the investigations of Nova: Musical Minds, which airs this month and was inspired by that book. Sacks is unusual in his field because so many of his published studies have crossed over into pop culture: books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Island of the Colorblind and Seeing Voices. Robin Williams famously portrayed Sacks in the 1990 movie Awakenings, based on Sacks’s book of the same name that tells the story of the doctor’s experiments with L-dopa to “awaken” patients (including one played by Robert DeNiro) who had become catatonic after an encephalitis epidemic.

Oliver SacksFor the Nova show, Sacks offers himself up as a subject, putting himself into an fMRI machine while listening to Bach, as well as music by Beethoven, the latter of which he reports “doesn’t really do much for him.” (You can watch a clip of Sacks’s fMRI study here.) As he listens to music, he self-reports his own emotional response to the music as it progresses, and at the same time the fMRI tracks which areas of his brain light up as he listens to music. Sacks reports that the Bach “blew him away,” while he didn’t feel a strong reaction to the Beethoven, and the fMRI backs him up on this. In more obscure musical sections, where Sacks reports that he isn’t sure whether he’s listening to a Bach or Beethoven excerpt, the fMRI picks up a much stronger response to Bach, particularly in the amygdala, the area of the brain associated with pain/pleasure.

Some of Sacks’s most interesting patient research has involved pathologies associated with music and hearing. That’s some of what you see in the Nova program—the intersection of music and a patient with a severe case of Tourette’s Syndrome; an autistic and blind pianist with the auditory equivalent of photographic memory; a woman with amusia (essentially the inability to distinguish musical sounds as music); and a surgeon who was hit by lightning and subsequently developed the ability to compose and perform music on the piano. Sacks was a professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine from 1966 to 2007 and now is on the neurology and psychiatry faculty at Columbia University Medical Center. Having reached a point in his field where he is in a position to pick and choose which unusual and interesting cases to take on, Sacks likely isn’t someone you can consult with garden-variety music/neurological questions. However, in connection with the Nova program, Sacks has offered to read questions from listeners up until July 1, so here’s your chance if you have a brain-related music mystery you’ve always wondered about. Answers will be posted at the site on July 6.

Photograph of Oliver Sacks copyright Elena Seibert 2007.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.

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