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Book Review: Musicophilia – Tales of Music and The Brain by Oliver Sacks

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    Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed. Its very ubiquity may cause it to be trivialized in daily life: we switch on a radio, switch it off, hum a tune, tap our feet, find the words of an old song going through our minds, and think nothing of it. But to those who are lost in dementia, the situation is different. Music is no luxury to them, but a necessity, and can have a power beyond anything else to restore them to themselves, and to others, at least for a while.

With these lines and his universal empathy, noted neurologist and author Oliver Sacks closes Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, his tenth book chronicling almost 50 years of considering the brain. Sacks has been working up to this book all of his life. His previous books of essays, including Awakenings (1973), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985), and Anthropologist on Mars all have included vignettes of patients profoundly affected by brain injury and profoundly restored by music.

In Musicophilia, Sacks turns his attention front and center to music and the brain, introducing new cases and recapping old ones. His topics “Haunted by Music,” “A Range of Musicality,” “Memory, Movement, and Music,” and “Emotion, Identity, and Music” all have their genesis in Sacks’ personal experiences or those of his patients or correspondents. Only in the latter two sections of his new book does Sacks approach the perfect empathy of his impressive The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which, with Awakenings, remain his finest writing.

Sacks covers the gamut of conditions related to music. He speaks of patients with musical hallucinations, people who lose the ability to understand music and those who cannot function without it. Compelling are his descriptions of drummers suffering from Tourette’s syndrome unifying their respective tics and the Parkinsonian’s normal gait restored by singing.

Musicophilia closes with the primal relationship between music, memory and identity using dementia as his paradigm. Perhaps Alzheimer’s Disease will be Sacks’ next triumph in description and empathy. One can only hope so.

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About C. Michael Bailey

I am sanctified and Southern fried, My mama tried and daddy cried; I tell the truth 'cept when I've lied And I like my huevos on the side...