Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Guest Post: Jen brings us a review of "Musicophilia:Tales of Music and the Brain" by Oliver Sacks

All-Guest Post Week continues this morning with my friend Jen. Jen is one of my absolute dearest friends; she is smart, funny, a great dessert maker and has been a great friend from when we met as awkward 13-ish year olds until now our slightly less awkward late 20s. She was/is a great encourager of me (in general) and of the blog so I'm ever so pleased she is on here today sharing her love of the human brain and how it works (or sometimes doesn't)!


Wesley has been a dear friend of mine for many years, but I have a bit of a confession to make… I don’t really read. Actually, I should rephrase that – I don’t often read books for fun/pleasure/leisure. I really don't know why Wesley continues to tolerate this; although, to my credit, I am an avid blog reader.  To ensure that our friendship does not meet its untimely end, I signed myself up to provide a guest post to jump start my reading practice once again. When I do read for fun, it's usually non-fiction or on a subject I would like to learn about in greater detail. I know, I know, I lead a riveting life…

For my post, I chose something that was on my to-read list for quite a while, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain by Oliver Sacks. It meets both my criteria as it is non-fiction and about music and neuroscience (two of my favorite things!). 

Before I get into the book itself, I need to talk about Dr. Sacks. He’s kind of a rock star for bringing neuroscience into the world of mainstream popular literature; however, he is not without his critics in the scientific community for doing so.  He is a practicing neurologist, currently at NYU School of Medicine, but was born and raised in London in the 1930s to his Jewish physician parents. Side note specifically for Wesley: he was evacuated out of London and sent to a boarding school at the age of 6 to escape the Nazis. (Wesley's note:Damn Nazis, what don't they try and ruin. Argh!)  

He’s written 12 books to date and is the best known for Awakenings (which was the basis for the 1990 movie of the same name starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  I read the latter during my year off between undergrad and grad school. I soaked up every word of each case study, and it helped reinforce my choice to go back to school. A few years have passed since then, so I decided this would be a great time to revisit his work.

The book is broken up into 4 parts, each with a different general theme, and subsequently, every chapter tackles a case or group of cases with a common condition. This design makes it a great book to read in short spurts, maybe on your commute or during your lunch break.  I wouldn't pick and choose chapters though – it is best read beginning to end as it flows wonderfully, building on information from each chapter as you read.  From epileptic seizures brought on by specific types of music, to music’s incredible ability to provoke an emotional release, to a sudden onset of musicality after being hit by lightning, this book has a little bit of everything. Some of my favorite topics covered include:
  •     A chapter about the music in our heads:  We all get that annoying song stuck in our heads from time to time, and usually, we can get rid of the song at some point by listening to something else. But what happens when the music in your head suddenly becomes constant or like a radio with someone else controlling the dial? Musical hallucinations were new to me, and I couldn’t imagine a constant stream of popular songs from my childhood running through my head all day long. I love to listen to music, but if I’m not in charge of the remote, it’s a different story.

  •         A chapter exploring savants and their propensity for musical talents:  I love learning the stories of savants because of their unbelievable abilities in spite of other widespread disabilities. I will never forget a lecture I attended by an expert on savants (Darold Treffert who Dr. Sacks gives a shout out to in the book) and he ended with a clip of a middle-aged savant patient singing and playing a passionate rendition of “How Great Thou Art” on the piano for his very ill mother. Not a dry eye in the house, including mine.

  •         Later chapters on the advent of music therapists: Dr. Sacks worked in one of the first hospital wards in the 1960s to utilize music therapy with severely ill patients, mostly patients with movement disorders like Parkinson’s or advanced dementia. The effects of therapy he describes are incredible. Those with a gait made unsteady by Parkinson’s can walk fluidly to the beat of a song and those who are catatonic from dementia suddenly join in singing along to songs from their childhood.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, but there are a few things to address. A disclaimer – this book is quite technical in its use of clinical terms. The writing can be dense with scientific lingo at times, so you might want to keep Google handy to search anatomy terms and cognitive disorder as well as technical music terms and composers. Another thing to point out is the use of footnotes to expound on certain points. I can't decide if I found them useful or not, as sometimes they distracted me from the main page of text. Finally, the majority of music discussed was primarily classical or music from the patient’s childhood, but it would be interesting to hear about the effects of more modern music in some of these disorders. What about the effect of rock, rap, pop or electronic dance music in treating Parkinson’s? And what about the endless stream of music today? People grocery shop with their ear buds in and music turned up so are they more likely to be plagued with musical hallucinations when their ear buds are finally out?  I think I’ll be on the lookout for a book that covers this topic when I return this one, and maybe I’ll actually be able to keep this reading streak going

PS- If you are interested in the topic, but don’t want to read this whole book… the Wikipedia page for Musicophilia informed me that the book was also the subject of "Musical Minds", an episode of the PBS series Nova. Now I’m off to look for that episode on YouTube because Nova is my jam!


Nova totally is Jen's jam, she isn't even joking. Doesn't that sound like an interesting book? I'm officially intrigued! Thanks Jen for making the time to read and write for us today!


  1. Thanks for letting me ramble on your blog! Aaand here's YouTube link to the Nova episode: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hRFI_kSSGr4

  2. Jen - I enjoyed your review!! Seriously....


Thank you so much for your comment. I'd love to talk books with you!