Sunday, November 11, 2007

And The Music Never Ends...

Oliver Sacks, the famous neurologist who has studied the mysterious ways of the brain and their effects on individuals in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and The Awakening (later made into a movie staring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro), has a new book, Musicophilia. He explores his own fascination with music, how the brain makes and understands music, and, of course, the aberrations that can occur in the brain involving music.

Some of more astonishing facts he outlines in the book include the following:
  • We all have absolute or perfect pitch the first year of life.
  • Twenty to thirty parts of the brain are involved in making and processing music, making music a more complex function than language in the brain.
  • The brains of musicians are more distinct (and bigger in certain parts) than with any other group, including artists and scientists.
  • The anatomy of the brain changes even after a short period of what are called “hand practices” in the study of music.
  • Only humans have in an innate sense of rhythm demonstrated by swaying and keeping of tempo, even by very young children.
I was most struck by his analysis of a phenomenon that affected my own mother in her later years, the repetition of songs playing inside the brain, making it seem for all the world to the individual as if s/he is actually hearing music. He distinguishes these “musical hallucinations” clearly from “vocal hallucinations,” hearing voices in one’s head, which he says is often a sign of mental illness. Musical hallucinations, however, are often temporary and occur often in someone who is deaf or is becoming deaf. Sacks’ mother experienced several episodes when she was 75. My mother was just around 80 when she spoke of hearing “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and several other childhood songs. Work with a neurologist isolated some scar tissue from a TIA, or mini-stroke as they are sometimes called, leaning on one of the auditory centers in the brain. Medication alleviated the sounds, although the dosage ultimately created other issues for her. Sacks says that there is still plenty of research to do on musical hallucinations as he continues to investigate the brain’s plasticity and many mysteries.

We write a lot about the brain. We also offer a new brain tip every week. If you have not yet taken a close look at the Brain Fitness Program, please note that we are offering a free demonstration of the program on December 6 in our community room at Capabilities flagship store in Westminster, Colorado. We are doing it twice, once at 1:30 p.m. and again at 6:30 p.m. so you can choose the best time for yourself. For more details and to RSVP, see our Events page. You can also make an appointment with us for a personal test drive of the program if the date and time does not work for you.

For the music lover in you, check out Songs of Faith, a collection by Denver local, Dawn Wooderson. With a Ph.D. in Music, Dawn undertook as one of her many projects, the transcription of classic hymns in keys more suited to the aging voice. Her work with senior populations convinced her that the outcome would be worthwhile and it is. So many of us grew up on traditional hymns so they are etched in our brains. However, as we age, so, too, do our vocal chords, making it virtually impossible to reach some of those high notes. With Dawn’s transcriptions you can sing along easily and happily without screeching. Dawn periodically offers seminars and sing-a-longs at Capabilities. We’ll be sure to let you know when she is on the calendar again in 2008.

See our Poem Pick this week, too, for a poetic rendition of music by the 19th century French poet, Charles Baudelaire.

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