The Listener

Brain & Behavior / by Jonah Lehrer /

As Oliver Sacks observes the mind through music, his belief in a science of empathy takes on new dimension.

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Photograph by Doron Gild

In 1974 Oliver Sacks was climbing a mountain in Norway by himself. It was early afternoon, and he had just begun his descent when a slight misstep sent him careening over a rocky cliff. His left leg was “twisted grotesquely” beneath his body, his limp knee wracked with pain. “My knee could not support any weight at all, but just buckled beneath me,” he wrote in A Leg to Stand On. Sacks began to “row” himself down the mountain, sliding on his back and pushing with his hands, so that his leg, which he’d splinted with his umbrella, was “hanging nervelessly” in front of him. After a few hours, Sacks was exhausted, but he knew that if he stopped he would not survive the cold night.

What kept Sacks going was music. As he painstakingly descended the mountain, he began to make a melody out of his movements. “I fell into a rhythm,” Sacks writes, “guided by a sort of marching or rowing song, sometimes the Volga Boatman’s Song, sometimes a monotonous chant of my own. I found myself perfectly coordinated by this rhythm—or perhaps subordinated would be a better term: The musical beat was generated within me, and all my muscles responded obediently…I was musicked along.” Sacks reached the village at the bottom of the mountain just before nightfall.

A long convalescence followed, as he tried to regain the use of his injured leg, but the nerves in his limb had been severely damaged. When Sacks tried to walk, he was forced to consciously calculate his movements, to think before each step.

Once again, Sacks was saved by the sudden appearance of song. As he was struggling with physical therapy—and growing increasingly frustrated—his mind was inexplicably filled with the resonant strings of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. “In the moment that this inner music started,” Sacks recounts, “the leg came back. With no warning, no transition whatever, the leg felt alive, and real, and mine.” Sacks would later describe his vivid hallucinations of the Concerto as a kind of miracle, in which the music “descended like grace,” reminding him of his own “kinetic melody.” The song had restored him to himself.

I’m sitting in Oliver Sacks’s office in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Bookshelves are cluttered with neurological texts and periodic-table paraphernalia, so that a rod of tungsten (his favorite element) sits next to the collected works of William James. The air conditioner is perpetually set on high, its wheeze so loud that it drowns out the noises of city and street. This is where Sacks writes, at a desk facing the window by the air conditioner, on long yellow sheets fed into a manual typewriter. “I like the clacking of the keys,” he says. “I can’t write without that sound.”

Sacks’s latest book is Musicophilia, an exploration of the musical mind. As in his previous works, such as An Anthropologist on Mars, or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks describes a series of ordinary people transformed by their extraordinary neurological conditions. He writes, for instance, of Tony Cicoria, who, after being struck by lightning, suddenly developed an insatiable obsession with Chopin’s piano music. Before the accident, Tony had been a respected surgeon, with little interest in classical music. But now he insisted on spending all of his spare time practicing the piano. He even began composing his own pieces, “giving form to the music continually running in his head.” Sacks also describes the case of Martin, who developed uncanny musical talents after contracting meningitis as a child. While the affliction impaired many aspects of Martin’s mind, it left him with a limitless auditory memory. And then there’s Mrs. C., who was besieged by musical hallucinations after becoming deaf. She couldn’t stop hearing Christmas carols.

But Musicophilia is not just a collection of neurological case studies. There is an unexpected thread running through the book. That thread is Sacks’s life. Even as he explores the neurology of music, Sacks returns, again and again, to stories from his own past, almost as if he’s rediscovering them. There are the famous patients from Awakenings, who were unfrozen by the sound of music. There are the musical hallucinations of his mother, who, at the age of 70, was temporarily seized by patriotic songs from her childhood. And there’s the tale of Sacks’s own musical healing so that at times it feels like a memoir told through the prism of music. In Musicophilia, Sacks is both a sensitive observer and a subject. As usual, his own story is inseparable from the stories of his patients.

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