SPIEGEL Interview with Neurologist Oliver Sacks 'I Think of Us as a Musical Species'

Oliver Sacks' new book "Musicophilia" deals with the mysteries of music and the brain. SPIEGEL speaks with him about the Jewish patient who had hallucinations of Nazi marching bands, the Tourette's percussion orchestra and about why he wants to kill people with iPods.

SPIEGEL: Dr. Sacks, close your eyes and think about music. What do you hear?

Oliver Sacks: A Chopin mazurka is coming to me. It is one in B flat major, and I feel an itch in my hands to play it. I can sort of see the keyboard in front of me...

SPIEGEL: The tune, the mazurka, the keyboard. All of these seem to be present all of a sudden. How can that be?

Sacks: Don't all of us probably have latent powers and passions of one sort or another that can hit us unexpectedly?

SPIEGEL: You are obviously aware of your own passion for music. However, in your latest book, "Musicophilia," you claim that music can strike even completely unmusical people out of the blue.

Sacks: Yes, that's how it was with Tony, a patient of mine. Tony was a busy surgeon who had no particular interest in music and no special talent for music. But then, in fall 1994, he was transformed after he had been struck by lightning and was clinically dead for a brief period of time. He had a cardiac arrest probably for 30 seconds, and his brain didn't get enough oxygen. And, since then, he has been a changed man, in that he now has a passion for music, and he’s discovered a considerable talent for music. He is also, to use his own word, 'obsessed' -- or 'possessed' -- by music. It comes with a certain mystical or religious feeling that it is a gift from heaven.

SPIEGEL: Do you have a rational explanation for what might have happened to his brain?

Sacks: I'm sure that the lack of oxygen caused some type of reorganization in Tony's brain. Nerve cells were presumably damaged or there was some new growth, so that certain parts of the brain that were previously inactive have become active -- and have become constantly active. He feels he hears piano music all the time, his own compositions. This is not dissimilar to what happens to people with frontotemporal dementia, but in that case there's a very clear mechanism whereby damage in this area removes the inhibition in other areas. With Tony, though, it's not clear.

SPIEGEL: Has Tony been possessed, or has he become a good player?

Sacks: He is no (acclaimed Russian-American pianist Vladimir) Horowitz, but he can play Chopin scherzos well enough to fill a concert hall and attract an audience, and he will always play some of his own compositions. His own latest composition is called the "Lightning Sonata," an attempt to put in musical terms some of the strange events of 1993.

SPIEGEL: Can such people suppress their musical urges for years and then have it set free by dementia or even a bolt of lightning?

Sacks: I think the brain is a dynamic system in which some parts control or suppress other parts. And if perhaps one has damage in one of the controlling or suppressing areas, then you may have the emergence or eruption of something, whether it is a seizure, a criminal trait –- or even a sudden musical passion.

SPIEGEL: And how is this expressed? Do affected people sing all day long?

Sacks: The powers that tend to come out are of a highly concrete and sensory quality. There will typically be a flow of patterns, perhaps musical patterns, perhaps visual patterns, perhaps numerical patterns. People affected by this will probably enjoy it because it seems to be a gift, something which has been added to their life, although it could be intrusive in the way that hallucinations can sometimes be intrusive.

SPIEGEL: What does the human way of dealing with music tell you about the human mind and its workings?

Sacks: What is apparent is that there is no one part of the brain which recognizes or responds emotionally to music. Instead, there are many different parts responding to different aspects of music: to pitch, to frequency, to timbre, to tonal intervals, to consonance, to dissonance, to rhythm, to melodic contour, to harmony. So, if you do brain studies, you find that the same areas which are active in listening to music are also active when you imagine music, and this includes the motor areas, too. That explains why earlier, even though I was only thinking of the mazurka, I was thinking in terms of movement.

SPIEGEL: How is it, then, that some people can be prodigies, while others go that extra mile and practice every day but always remain average?

Sacks: It's clear that there is a great deal of variation, much more so than with language. With language, every human being -- even quite severely retarded people -- acquires language, and grammatically competent language, if they're exposed to it. But not everyone can master a musical instrument. I'm not sure how to explain it. But even though there's variation, I think there is no culture in which music is not very important and central. That's why I think of us as a sort of musical species.

SPIEGEL: Are we really the only musical species? Legend has it, for example, that cows give more milk when they listen to Mozart...

Sacks: First of all, I'm not a veterinarian, and I don't possess a dog, although I would like to. I tend to stick to my own observations, which are about patients. Now, if a man with a dog sits quietly enjoying music and smiling, his dog might sit down beside him and smile, too. But who knows whether the dog is having a comparable experience or whether the dog is simply happy that his master is happy. My impression is that a sense of rhythm, which has no analog in language, is unique and that its correlation with movement is unique to human beings. Why else would children start to dance when they're two or three? Chimpanzees don't dance.

SPIEGEL: According to Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard University, music is useless in an evolutionary sense and has no adaptive value.

Sacks: Steven Pinker is himself very musical, and I think he would be very unhappy if music suddenly disappeared from his life. But, to deal with that question, my feeling is that certain aspects of music are hard-wired, built-in, biological, universal and arose in the course of evolution. For this reason, even babies just a few weeks old wince when certain musical intervals, like a major second, are performed. Beyond the sort of very general universals of timing and tone, I suspect that music is a cultural construct which makes use of whatever is available in the brain.

SPIEGEL: The linguist Noam Chomsky proposed a similar mechanism for the acquisition of language. According to him, babies are born with a sense for grammar that allows them to quickly pick up the respective language in their environment.

Sacks: I suspect that music has qualities both of speech and writing -- partly built in, partly individually constructed -- and this goes on all through one's life. So, if one is used to Western European music, you may not be able to make anything of Hindu music. But then, if you continue to listen, you start to get it. You start to see patterns.


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