This month’s section for my Dewey Decimal Discovery project is all about my greatest love… The world’s most heaven-sent pursuit… The core of my life’s endeavors– Nay! My life itself… ! (You’ll understand why I’m being so ~theatrical~ in a minute…)
…… The arts!
(The 700s also include sports, but as any American school budget can attest, arts and sports are at WAR and I will not dignify those sweaty ball-throwers with an inclusion.)
((Kidding! I’m not opposed to athletics, I’m just being dramatic [pun!] because a good ol’ fashioned butting-of-heads makes for livelier blogging.))
(((Or should I say PUTTING-of-heads! Get it? Golf? Golf’s a sport? Kind of?)))
((((Okay enough parentheses.))))
Anyway! This month’s nonfiction combines twoooo of my most favorite subjects – art and neuroscience. The book is “Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain,” by Oliver Sacks, DD# 781.11. (Sacks has some other awesome books on neuroscience, check them out!)
Here are some interesting tidbits from the book:
Intellectually speaking, music is a strange thing for humans to be so jazzed about. (Oh yes, the puns are strong today. I suppose you could call puns my… forte? 😀 ) Music “has no concepts, makes no propositions; it lacks images, symbols, the stuff of language. It has no power of representation. It has no necessary relation to the world.” (Page ix) All in all, pretty useless. Yet we can’t get enough of those sweet tunes!
But music isn’t always so sweet. In some cases, music can coincide with seizures. Sacks describes a number of people who experience “an explosion of music” in their brains at a seizure’s onslaught. It sounds so vivid that the person can’t differentiate between the internal songs and songs on a radio.
There is also a population of people without seizures who hallucinate music regularly. It’s not as pleasant as you might think. What melody the person is bombarded with depends on factors such as their emotional connection to it and how often they heard it in their life. These conjurings often reflect the time: earlier generations might hear patriotic tunes; later generations might hear commercial jingles.
The tendency for songs to get stuck in the average person’s head is a uniquely bizarre phenomenon. Sacks illustrates: “I see my room, my furniture every day, but they do not re-present themselves as ‘pictures in my mind.’ Nor do I hear imaginary dog barks or traffic noises in the background of my mind, or smell aromas of imaginary meals cooking, even though I am exposed to such perceptions every day.” (Page 39-40) The fact that these catchy tunes can be annoying or even repulsive “suggests a coercive process… forcing [the brain] to fire repetitively and autonomously.” (Page 41)
Perhaps what makes us so attracted to music is its repetition. Our brains crave patterns. Predictability is comforting, and music has that in full swing. (Yup, another pun! Are they staying sharp or are they falling flat by now? Hehehe. 😀 )
Certain neurological conditions can cause people to either not recognize music (amusia), or they hear it as a painful chaos of noise (dysharmonia). With amusia, rhythm and melody does not sync into a cohesive whole. An example is Mary, who as a child would watch her classmates singing and have no clue what they were doing. In music class, she could not tell one piece from another. With dysharmonia, music takes on a screeching or cacophonous quality. One person said, “If you were in my kitchen and threw all the pots and pans on the floor, that’s what I hear!” (Page 105)
Perfect pitch is the ability to identify a musical note just by listening. Someone with perfect pitch can hear a kettle whistle and instantly know, “Ah yes, that is a high C-sharp.” This ability is so rare that only one in many thousands is born with it. But why? “To give you a sense of how strange a lack of absolute pitch appears to those of us who have it,” an individual with the skill says on page 125, “take color naming as an analogy. Suppose you showed someone a red object and asked him to name the color. And suppose he answered, ‘I can recognize the color, and I can discriminate it from other colors, but I just can’t name it.'” Weird now when you think about it like that, huh?
One of Sacks’ cases involved an amnesiac named Clive. Despite his extreme memory loss, he retained his skill for playing the piano. How? Sacks explains that the memories most easily kept by an amnesic, deep in their subconscious, are procedural memories and emotional memories. Procedural memories are how to do something: the autonomy of riding a bike or the unthinking knowledge of where the coffee cups are. Clive could not tell you where the coffee cups were, but he knew where to go. Emotional memories are feelings that arise without thought, such as when a loved one enters the room. Clive had no memory of his wife, but would feel comforted by her presence. Here’s my hunch about why music can linger in an amnesiac: it is both a procedural act and an emotional act. Your fingers know the keys without thinking, while your feelings ignite as you play.
Music therapy can do wonders with conditions like Parkinson’s. With Parkinson’s, signals from the brain to the body are stuttered, causing movement to become jerky. The brain becomes unable to initiate a command, thus locking a patient into a sort of paralysis. The patient can respond, however. If thrown a ball they can catch and throw it back. The fluid rhythm of a song can unlock a Parkinson’s patient, bypassing those choked signals and allowing them to slide into the music’s flow. We can all appreciate music’s power to inspire foot-tapping and hip-shaking, but its effect on Parkinson’s shows just powerful that is. Music can literally galvanize one into action.
Isn’t that beautiful?