Profiles in Neuroscience: Oliver Sacks

When I think about my passion for music and neuroscience, I realize I owe that development to Oliver Sacks, and not to Daniel Levitin.

Oliver Sacks should have been my first profile as his writing introduced me to Daniel Levitin.

But, I have some time right now, so let me tell you about Oliver Sacks. If you’re familiar with the name, it’s probably because you saw the movie, Awakenings, with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. That movie was based off of Sacks’ book of the same name.

Dr. Sacks is a medical neurologist, author, and neurology professor.

What drew me to his research was a book called Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. Musicophilia, or literally, love of music, talks about the effect music has on neurological disorders including brain trauma. I didn’t know that Dr. Sacks was a medical neuroscientist, so I assumed this book would talk about music and learning. Silly assumption!

At the time I read the book, I was experiencing epileptic seizures. It was a new diagnosis for me, so I found anything talking about seizures interesting. And, Dr. Sacks had a chapter on music and epilepsy in his book. He explains that for one epileptic, a type of music caused seizures. For another with constant seizures, music was the only thing that could stop the seizures. Music of all genres is a passion of mine, but fortunately (or unfortunately) it has no correlation to my seizures.

Sacks quotes Georg Philipp Friedrich Frieherr von Hardenberg, better known as Novalis, who wrote, “Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution”. The doctor discovered this was true as he saw patients with Parkinson’s, aphasia, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and Tourette’s syndrome respond positively to music. Sacks explains, music works because it engages so many parts of the brain. Rhythm, actual or imagined, activates areas of the motor cortex, crucial in synchronizing and energizing movement.

Why music can sometimes complement or even replace medication for serious brain anomalies is still a mystery, but it is still fascinating. In a subsequent interview about the book, Sacks addresses the correlation of music to brain development, stating, “Regular exposure to music, and especially active participation in music, may stimulate development of many different areas of the brain . . . In terms of brain development, musical performance is every bit as important educationally as reading or writing”. He references Daniel Levitin at this point, who wrote in The World in Six Songs that music has become more of a listening activity rather than a full-engagement activity: “music-making engages much more of our brains than simply listening”.

The 81 year-old Sacks recently disclosed his advanced ocular melanoma which has metastasized to his liver. His remaining time in this world is short, but his discoveries and advancements in the world of neuroscience will continue in the works of those he inspired and mentored. His latest book, On the Move: A Life, is set to release in May.

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