Since 1970, British writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks has been publishing his accounts of the intriguing pathologies he’s encountered during his career — astounding and often heartbreaking clinical menageries filled with Tourettic jazz drummers, Tom Jones-obsessed autistic savants and visual agnosics so impaired they, well, mistake their wives for hats. With his latest book, Musicophilia, Sacks revisits these and other case studies for this exploration of music and the brain, combining them with a dizzying array of new material. An accomplished musician himself, Sacks examines the neural underpinnings of such phenomena as earworms, musical hallucinations, synesthesia and perfect pitch. One particularly gut-wrenching chapter focuses on Clive Wearing, an English musicologist with such severe amnesia, his window of recall lasts no longer than an eye blink; helplessly adrift in the river Lethe, this man is anchored only by his love for his wife, Deborah, and his love for music. After phoning Sacks at his Greenwich Village office, my one major regret is that I failed to ask him about the “Welcome Squid Overlords” T-shirt he’s wearing in the photo accompanying his Wikipedia entry.
The book really feels like it’s tying together so many different strands from your other work — almost like an anthology.
Well, it’s something a little like an anthology, as you say. Besides new experiences, I’ve been revisiting a lot of old experiences, memories — which, for me, are never exhausted. I go back to them again and again. I certainly have written about music in many previous books, from Awakenings on, and it seemed time to bring things together. I started to see connections which I didn’t see before, and also there’s been this amazing emergence of a newer science of music and the ability to look at the brain when people are listening to music, or imagining it, or composing it, which was so new, so amazing.
It was very striking how those studies [by Harvard Professor Gottfried Schlaug] suggested that musicians’ brains are physically distinct from non-musicians’ brains.
Well, this is a very Bostonian finding, with Gottfried Schlaug in Boston, whom I visited. I’d read his papers over the years and had been really astounded at the specificity and the grossness of the changes he’s been measuring. Although there’s some uncertainty as to what extent these are the result of intensive musical training and to what extent they’re the result of innate giftedness. I mean, it’s confusing, because most children who are gifted musically will then be trained musically. But one can see very consistent changes in the brains of musicians, especially professional musicians. My father was very musical; my mother wasn’t. I suspect in this way that their brains would have been very different; mine would be somewhere in between.
Your visit to the Williams Syndrome Association’s music camp in Lenox, MA, sounded amazing.
Well, that was an amazing place. I’d never encountered anything like that. And they really are like another species in a way, although I don’t mean this in any alien sense.
You mean the consistency of the abnormalities [elfin facial features, extreme perceptual deficiencies, chattiness, affinity for music]?
Yes. People with Williams syndrome are not all talented musically, but without exception, they are enraptured by music — I mean, sometimes almost helplessly. Grief and pain and pleasure and exhilaration just overwhelms them when they listen to music. And you see this in brain imagery, how much of the brain is activated.
That emotional quality — it seems like such a large distinction between people with Williams syndrome and autistic savants.
Well, yes, I think they’re almost opposites, in some sense. I was certainly very impressed by my autistic friend Temple Grandin, you know, coming to New York and going to Bach concerts, and finding them fascinating and ingenious, but not actually being moved by them.
The story of Clive Wearing, the amnesiac — that was just the most heartbreaking story.
I agree. That was the first thing written in the book. I visited him a couple of years ago, and I just came back and wrote it straight out. You know, I had written on musical hallucinations in an earlier book, as well as music therapy, but this was the first thing designed as a piece.
When you finally met him, 20 years after developing amnesia, he’d become so talkative — as opposed to the first few years, when he’d been so despondent. So he seems to be internalizing something, developing coping mechanisms. Is that emotional memory at play, helping him?
Well, the loquacity is common in people with amnesia, and really vital — they almost have to leap from one thing to another, because a space, an interval may turn into an abyss, as it were. I mean, this may be the case with all of us, to some extent [laughs], but it’s terribly dramatic in people with amnesia. But there’s obviously this consistent emotional memory. Although I wrote mostly about music and amnesia, this one relationship [between Clive and Deborah Wearing] is so, so extraordinary. I don’t know whether her book has been published over here. It should be. It’s the most amazing account, and the expertise and compassion and intimacy are beautifully — and sort of appropriately — brought together.