23 October 2007

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for E-Flat

Last week we had the privilege of hearing Oliver Sacks lecture on music and the brain. He's touring on behalf of his new book, Musicophilia. After reading so many of his books and essays, it was a pleasure to see him in person. I knew he was British but his accent is stronger than I'd imagined it in my mind's ear. He writes so well that his rather diffident, professorial manner onstage was a bit surprising. But even in the freewheeling (and too long) Q&A period, he never had trouble finding the right phrase, the perfect metaphor. The printed program included an interview conducted by our friend Steve Silberman that appeared originally in Wired; how cool to see Steve's byline in this unexpected context.

About three weeks ago, my brother fell at work and suffered a concussion. Tests revealed no bleeding or gross injury to his brain, but he's definitely not himself, whatever that means. He speaks very slowly and hesitantly, and is much better at remembering events from before the accident than what's happened since. There is a There there, which is a very positive sign, but it'll be a while (weeks? months? years?) before Larry's fully functional again.

At the lecture, Jerry happened to sit next to a neurologist (not surprising, considering the occasion) and, in the context of small talk about the amazing resiliency of the brain, mentioned Larry's injury and how he seems to be coping with it so far. "I'll bet he's scared," she volunteered, "really really emotional. 'Labile' is the term for that. And he's probably reluctant to go very far outside his normal routine because stuff is coming at him faster than he can process." Yup, she pretty much nailed it.

Sacks made the point that heavy involvement with music induces visible changes in the brain, and that musicians are the only profession that can be distinguished in this manner. Catatonic patients have been shown to respond to music; otherwise mute individuals can sometimes sing fluently; music temporarily alleviates the tremors of Parkinsonism and the fog or agitation of Alzheimers. It acts on the brain in profound and powerful ways that we don't fully understand.

Larry's friend Kate has been trying to get him to practice guitar every day; it seemed intuitively like a good thing to do. It certainly couldn't hurt.

1 comment:

Terry said...

What a fascinating man. (Oliver Sacks, that is) Last February when we went to Mexico I discovered his book, Oaxaca Journal, in the lounge at the hotel where we stayed in Oaxaca. I took it back to my room and devoured it at the end of each day in Oaxaca, so I could return it before we left. Such an original thinker and observer.

My mother-in-law had Alzheimer's and had forgotten so much, but could sing every song she ever knew. When she became agitated or frustrated we knew we could calm her by beginning to sing or hum one of her old favorites. She'd pick up the song and sing every word from memory, which thrilled even her. It was the one great joy that she retained until the end.