Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir
The neurologist Oliver Sacks has an extraordinary ability to write the life of the mind. Where others see illness, dementia, a fearsome strangeness and shy away, he’s respectfully fascinated and introduces us to other states of being. His profiles aren’t anything as clinical as case studies: he’s created a new kind of biography, from the inside out.
His new book is Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain.
In Musicophilia, he examines the powers of music through the individual experiences of patients, musicians, and everyday people—from a man who is struck by lightning and suddenly inspired to become a pianist at the age of forty-two, to an entire group of children with Williams syndrome who are hypermusical from birth; from people with “amusia,” to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans, to a man whose memory spans only seven seconds—for everything but music.
Our exquisite sensitivity to music can sometimes go wrong: Sacks explores how catchy tunes can subject us to hours of mental replay, and how a surprising number of people acquire nonstop musical hallucinations that assault them night and day. Yet far more frequently, music goes right: Sacks describes how music can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.
From the Oliver Sacks website.
He speaks, yesterday, to Terry Gross on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air.
In September Colombia University named him the first “Colombia Artist”, and The New York Times reported:
The new appointment will allow Dr. Sacks, the author of 10 books and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, to range freely across Columbia’s departments, teaching, giving public lectures, conducting seminars, seeing patients and collaborating with other faculty members. Many of the details of his appointment have yet to be worked out, but among other things, he will be teaching in the university’s creative writing department as well as at the medical school.
“My first year at Columbia is going to be, to some extent, a year of experiment and exploration,” Dr. Sacks said. “I very much look forward to meeting students and faculty and doing classes that could be about almost anything, from music to psychiatry to whatever.”
In an audio-file Oliver Sacks talks to the New Yorker about Musicophilia.