“I had been given a cassette of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor–this was the only music I had, and I had been playing it for two weeks almost nonstop. Now suddenly, as I was standing, the concerto started to play itself with intense vividness in my mind. In this moment, the natural rhythm and melody of walking came back to me, and along with this, the feeling of my leg as alive, as part of me once again. I suddenly ‘remembered’ how to walk.”(1) So writes renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks in his book Musicophilia, describing his personal recovery following a serious injury to his leg in a climbing accident.
Sacks perhaps became more popularly known as the real life individual who inspired the character portrayed by Robin Williams in the 1990 film, Awakenings, a film later nominated for an Oscar. But the description The New York Times bestowed upon him as “the poet laureate of medicine” well sums up an impressive biography that includes the story of a physician, scientist, writer, and artist. A fascinating man, a lengthy article could be written in attempt to do yet small justice to a remarkable life story and his pursuit of treatment for those suffering from illnesses like autism, parkinsonism, epilepsy, phantom limb syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, Tourette’s syndrome, schizophrenia, and the great pandemic of sleepy sickness following World War I. For today, I want to bring a magnifying glass to his research of music therapy as treatment for the above mentioned conditions, and more.
His writing in Musicophilia explores the power of music to move us, to heal us, and to haunt us. While he often draws from his experience with patients, I like the words one reporter wrote when he described the role of music in Sacks’ own recovery: “his own mind was his best laboratory.” For this is true for all of us, perhaps.
What is it about music that can awake one out of catatonic state and can instantly carry us back to a time and memory etched in our minds long ago? Sacks says that music is processed in multiple centers of the brain, more even than language. Thus, when one or even several centers incur damage, the ability to process music is still alive in the surviving rooms of our mind. “In the senile, music can help recall lost memories; in the speech-impaired, it can bring back words,” the neurologist writes. “Immobile patients may get up and dance or sing.”(2)
Not long ago, I had the privilege of bearing witness to music therapy. I observed children on the spectrum of autism and Asperger’s clench their fists with determination as they focused their energy and desire to press their lips together to form the letter b, in response to the skilled music therapist looking them so sincerely in their eye as she provided a therapeutic answer cloaked in musical notes to help them confront their challenge. I swallowed hard as I glimpsed the ever so slight movement of a wounded veteran paralyzed by a brain injury as he answered her invitation to sing a favorite Blues Brothers song he learned to love long before his accident on the battlefield. It is a fascinating field helping people to override the limitations of the body in favor of the strength and awakening of the mind. It is providing a quality of life, a reminder of the life within.
I have always been one deeply affected by music, and often noticed how the sounds of a familiar tune can take me back to the sights and even smells of a certain time. I might struggle to recall my current zip code, but I can remember each word of a song I have not heard in over 25 years. And recently, I have been exploring the potential for healing found in the gift of music. I am fascinated by its reach, amazed by the depth of its capacity. And oh! Now how I regret my incessant protests to piano practice that eventually wore down my weary mother who finally allowed me to quit in my teenage years!
When the magnificent workings of the human body incur injury and fail us, how incredible is it that God as master artist and designer equipped us with something we carry inside that extends beyond language into that which cannot be fully articulated, and connects us to all of the emotions of life from celebration, to mourning, to laughter, to remorse, to worship.
“I have seen patients weep or shiver as they listen to music they have never heard before,” writes Sacks. “Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music, and only music, can do the calling.”(3)
For the believer, music is but a marvelous gift and tool for the one who created our innermost being to do the calling and remind us, to awaken, what is locked inside. We marvel at the symphony: how do we begin to marvel at the one who designed each one of its several hundred individual components and the ability to interpret and understand it in the spaces of our mind, to see its reach to the places it can heal?
Naomi Zacharias is Director of Wellspring International.
(1) Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia (New York, Random House: 2008), 255.
(2) Jordan Lite, “Oliver Sacks: Music can heal the brain” Daily News, October 29, 2007.
(3) Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia, 385.