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May 21st, 2009
Music and the Brain
Parkinsonsism and Music's Ability to Heal

Oliver Sacks: Although personally music has been very important to me from before I can remember. As a physician it only hit me really in the 1960s, and that was when I found myself at a hospital in the Bronx seeing the frozen post-encephalitic patients whom I later wrote about in Awakenings. These were people with very profound Parkinsonism, so profound that sometimes they would stay absolutely motionless for hours on end and could not initiate any movement or speech or indeed thought, although one learned that later, but so much so, “What’s going on with these people?” “Are they there?” “Is there anyone at home?” And it was originally the nurses and people who knew of these patients well who said they could be transformed by music. If there’s music, these people could dance, they could sing, they could talk, they can do things, they can think, they can become almost normal while music is there.

And then I saw this for myself, and I was stupefied. I don’t know what term to use. And 40 years later I find it astounding and it needs to be seen as someone for whom music—someone for whom movement is unimaginable suddenly able to move. But it strictly goes with the music, and when the music stop, they stop. So music therapy for these Parkinsonian patients was my first experience as a physician, and I wondered what sort of music was involved or any music could do so. It didn’t have to be familiar music or loved music. It doesn’t sometimes have to be a conscious attention to the music. But obviously the rhythm and the beat and pulse of music was very important. And this would spontaneously and almost automatically I think allow people to move. So the good music had a strong rhythm, not overwhelming but a strong rhythm. But obviously I think if people like the music, so much the better.

Interviewer: And what have you found out about or what do you believe is going on in the brain that creates this effect?

Oliver Sacks: Well, this reminds me of the way in which all of us want to keep time and tap time, and how children spontaneously start to dance or keep time to music they hear or imagine. And that seems to be a very strong human attribute to have motor responses, movements synchronized with the pulse of music, the sounds.  And uniquely in the human brain, at least uniquely among mammals, one finds connections between the auditory parts of the brain and what’s called the dorsal pre-motor cortex, some of the motor parts. And it seems to be this conjunction of auditory and motor, which is so crucial for all of us in responding to music, but especially if you have something like Parkinson’s. So I think that’s one of the very important thing whether the shape of the melody and the life of the music. Kant the philosopher called the music the quickening art. And music seems inherently alive and to give a feeling of life and emotion and ongoing, and of a journey, a sort of trajectory. And I suspect important all of these could be important as well. It’s just not the rhythm.  Everything in music carries one along.

Also read Concetta Tomain’s article, “How Music Can Reach the Silent Brain.”

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