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Monday, September 7, 2009

Dr. Oliver Sacks on media: “Something has to ignite the brain”

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Dr. Oliver Sacks is now publishing a page-turner on hallucinations. A year ago, I spoke with him about music and the brain, from “Happy Birthday to You” to Beethoven. Sacks is using the power of traditional media to say truly cutting edge things. In this series of encore interviews I originally published in huffingtonpost a year ago, he’s one of a group of creative people who see what’s next. Now. For others in my “mini-series” of encores here on T/S, read Larry Gelbart, Barbara Feldon, Kurt Andersen, Lisa Belkin, and Elvis Mitchell. Here’s Dr. S …

It seems — this is my interpretation — that neuroscience is turning into art, even independent film. It’s all about the beautiful, remarkably detailed, and sometimes navigable images created by PET scans and MRIs. I caught up with Dr. Oliver Sacks this week, just as his latest book, “Musicophilia,” is being released as a Vintage paperback, and he had the most wonderful things to say about how, in scans, the brain can look like a galaxy or even pop art. “Awakenings” — the Oscar-nominated film starring Robin Williams as Dr. Oliver Sacks — was based on Sacks’ work at Beth Abraham, a chronic-care hospital in the Bronx, where several of his patients, frozen solid for years by neurological illness, come alive for a while with the aid of a drug called L-Dopa. Now, according to the eminent neurologist, we’ve found something equally startling and useful for treating the brain — music.

Far more than a way to enhance your focus and mood, it’s turning out to be capable of bringing large skill sets, memory, language, and more, back to people with neurological conditions produced by strokes, Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. And singing “Happy Birthday to You” may be more effective than listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

What does music do for the brain?

Dr. Sacks: Music profoundly affects the brain. I first encountered this back in 1966 when I went to Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx and met the large group of patients I later wrote about in Awakenings. At that time, there was no medical approach of use to them. They were transfixed and unable to initiate speech or movement. Some of them had been this way for several decades. They couldn’t say a single syllable – unless music was there. Music had this amazing ability to allow them to move and speak and think. It was very startling. I’ve seen it numerous times since, but it still astounds me.

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