Still practicing neurology at age 74, Sacks has written nine books over the last few decades. His most famous, such as "Awakenings" (1973) and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" (1985), have been anthologies of medical histories of patients (his and others) who have suffered dramatically and singularly from sometimes really rare and really, really bizarre mental diseases and disorders.
It's easy enough to dwell upon the morbidly weird repercussions of a human brain gone awry, but that has never been Sacks' intent or achievement. A consummate listener, with a startlingly deep identification with his subjects, Sacks' case histories tend to be anthems to his patients, explorations and exultation's about how they have learned to grow and adapt to the surreal situations created by their disordered minds.
His latest book, "Musicophilia," is more of the same, focusing this time upon a subject that his clearly close to Sacks' own heart and mind: the relationship between music and the brain.
Here too are the expected (and yet somehow unexpected) case histories: The woman who suffers spasms whenever she hears songs that remind her of childhood; the psychoanalyst who has hallucinations of a singing rabbi; and the surgeon struck by lightning who becomes obsessed with Chopin.
Sacks talks too about people for whom music offers no attraction at all, a condition called amusia in which melody, harmony and rhythm are nothing more than "plinking noises" and "an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds."
Some of these "amusiacs" are quite well-known. Among them: Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Nabokov, William James and Ulysses S. Grant.
Some case histories are almost too painful to read. You can't help but wonder how the subject finds the will to endure. Clive, for example, is a musicologist whose brain damage renders him a permanent prisoner of the present. Each moment feels like he's just waking up. Clive lives in a fog and responds by ceaselessly writing affirmative notes to himself: "I am conscious," "I awoke for the first time despite my previous claims," "This time I am properly awake."
The waking nightmare for Clive subsides only when he is playing music, when he can happily recall something else - the words and notes of remembered songs. Nothing else in the world makes sense.
Sacks doesn't solve the medical mystery of Clive or, in fact, any of the other patients described. Cases are described more in terms of psychology and philosophy than biology, mostly because hard scientific evidence is sparse but also because Sacks prefers to view music and the brain through cultural and personal prisms. It seems more real that way.
There are probably better books to read for the neuroscience of music. Two examples: Dan Levitin's "This Is Your Brain on Music" (just out in paperback) and Aniruddh Patel's upcoming "Music, Language and the Brain." Read Sacks for the stories.
- Scott LaFee