Exploring the Relationship Between Music and Memory Oliver Sacks, the prominent neurologist, author and researcher, talks about the many mysteries of the human brain. He's working on a new book about music and memory, focusing on a musician whose memory lasts but for a few seconds but who can recall whole musical pieces, and even conduct an orchestra.

Exploring the Relationship Between Music and Memory

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Neurologist and famed author Oliver Sacks has spent a good deal of his life translating medical mysteries into common language, bringing science and medicine into the public arena in a way like no other storyteller. Through his musings and writings about his patients and his own life, Dr. Sacks has brought us greater understanding of neurological maladies, including autism, prodigies, vision loss, coma and migraines and how they affect people in their daily lives.

Oliver Sacks is clinical professor of neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and adjunct professor of psychiatry assigned to neurology at New York University School of Medicine. And this being our last show of 2005, we've saved the best for last this year. He's here with us today to talk about his work in progress, which is really interesting. It's a new book on his fascination with music and memory, how music offers a unique way to look at the human brain, how the power of music transcends otherwise devastating memory loss to seem to make life more bearable for people who are afflicted with memory loss. He's got a story about one individual that we're going to focus in on today, and he's here with us in our studio in New York.

Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Dr. Sacks.

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Author, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"; Albert Einstein College of Medicine): Nice to be here again.

FLATOW: Let's talk about your foray into memory and music. What got you started?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I think it probably goes back decades, to the post-encephalitic patients, the "Awakenings" patients, who before L-Dopa became available could be activated by music. These were people, often, who couldn't take a step but who could dance, people who couldn't talk, utter a syllable, but could sing. And music somehow seemed to give them a flow they couldn't initiate for themselves.

And then I was very struck--at some of the hospitals where I work, we have a lot of people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia, and often how some of these people, although they'd lost the powers of thought and language, might recognize music, might sing along, might suddenly become lucid when they were exposed to music. So I think the power of music...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: But then I think probably back in the '70s originally, when I saw a patient with amnesia, one I call "Jimmy," who had lost so much memory he couldn't remember people or events, lost things in a few seconds, but he had a good memory for music. And this reaches an extreme in the patient Clive, who we're going to...


Dr. SACKS: ...talk about.

FLATOW: Yeah, let's talk about Clive. Who is Clive and how'd you get interested in him?

Dr. SACKS: Clive was an eminent musician and musicologist in England, an expert on Renaissance music, who in 1984 had a devastating encephalitis due to herpes--shingles. This had the effect of destroying much of his memory; in particular, it destroyed what's sometimes called event memory or episodic memory, so that he couldn't remember what had happened five seconds before. He would greet one pleasantly, but then if he walked out of the room, he wouldn't recognize you when he came back.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: Also, there'd been a retroactive deletion of memory so that, really, for two or three decades before the encephalitis, he had only very hazy memories. He probably seemed to have no reliable memories since childhood. He didn't recognize the room in which he was. And so it came as a great surprise given this utter devastation when it turned out that his memory for music and his ability to sing, to play the organ or piano, to conduct an orchestra or choir, was brilliant, and quite unimpaired.

FLATOW: So he could sit down at the piano or the organ and play a whole piece without--from beginning to end, or he--I heard you speaking before about he could actually conduct an entire orchestra?

Dr. SACKS: Indeed, and beautifully, and turning to all the different sections of the orchestra and, obviously, knowing the piece in great detail. You know, this was very beautifully shown in our film, which Jonathan Miller made back in '86, where--both the devastation and the incredible musical preservation, and when he conducts an orchestra or a choir, when he sings, he seems absolutely normal. You wouldn't think that anything was the matter.

FLATOW: But he has a memory that's five seconds long.

Dr. SACKS: The--a film has recently been made about him called "The Man With the 7 Second Memory."

FLATOW: "7 Second Memory," yeah.

Dr. SACKS: And...

FLATOW: Right. Does he recognize people?

Dr. SACKS: In general, no. You might not realize this at first from the charming way in which he greets people. You know, he improvises his greetings but he doesn't genuinely recognize anybody except his wife. He--the two of them were married a little bit before his encephalitis and they're still very much in love and Deborah has recently written a book about him, which she calls "Forever Today," and it has a subtitle of "A Memoir of Love and Amnesia." Now if he just sees his wife walk past, he won't recognize her. But he recognizes her footsteps.


Dr. SACKS: He recognizes her voice. He recognizes her gestures, her approach. And above all he recognizes her kisses. So he recognizes sort of physical and auditory contact with his wife.

FLATOW: Does this tell you that there is a special place in the brain for music that it stays there even when you lose your other memory?

Dr. SACKS: Well, it certainly indicates that there are many sorts of memory. Now one should say that there are other things which Clive retains. He's able to dress himself very nattily and to talk fluently and to walk around and to--all the sort of simple daily things are preserved, and--along with various skills. People sometimes use a different term and call this procedural memory. But whether this rather narrow-sounding term can be expanded to include all of his musical powers, I don't know. I--but...

FLATOW: Does this interest you, though?

Dr. SACKS: It interests me very much, indeed. The more so because I've seen this with other amnesic people...


Dr. SACKS: ...and it's been described, but so far as I'm concerned it's not been explained. Now there've also been other things I've been interested in and heard about, like musical hallucinations where sometimes relatively unmusical people will hear something in great detail, a detail they never knew that they knew, and I begin to get the impression that musical memory is--can be extremely exact and faithful in pitch, in time and all the subtleties...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...in almost everybody.

FLATOW: Because we can remember things when we were little kids--Can't we?--about music that we heard, as if it were yesterday?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: But we might forget, you know, things we did the day before or events before. Is something special going on there?

Dr. SACKS: And typically in musical hallucinations, the music hallucinated is usually music from early life, sometimes very, very early life.

FLATOW: So has Clive been well-studied? Are you studying him now or dealing with him?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I'd originally heard of Clive 20 years ago when this happened. I recently sort of saw him and his wife again and I want to sort of do what study I can as an observer, and of course he has a piano and an organ in his room which makes it easier to do things. But he also needs other sorts of studies like brain imagery to show exactly what is going on in his brain when he perceives music, when he recollects music, when he plays music. And this--the techniques like this weren't available 20 years ago.

FLATOW: You've given me a list of the essays you've written about music and the brain, and it goes on for more than a dozen essays. So you're trying to synthesize something here, a new book possibly?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I think it may be a new book. I--whether it will be a synthesis, I don't know, but all of these essays have arisen from clinical experience, from meeting...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...a Clive, meeting someone with musical hallucinations, meeting a number of blind people who feel that music is extremely important for them and who seem specially gifted and meeting people sometimes who have seizures elicited by music. I saw a lady like this just a couple of weeks ago who was originally found unconscious with a bitten tongue by the radio. The last thing she could remember was that there had been Neapolitan songs on the radio. No attention was played to this but then when this occurred again and again, it became clear that Neapolitan songs, and no other music, this was a specific trigger for her, and again this must tell one something about the brain. So I think of music as an unexpected way of getting into the mind and brain, in all sorts of ways, in all sorts of directions. And it's relatively new. I think music was--if you look at a neurology or neuroscience book of 20, 25 years ago, you don't find any reference to music.

FLATOW: Is that right?

Dr. SACKS: But it's as rich as language. I mean...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...I think we are a musical species, no less than a language species.

FLATOW: But it's been ignored.

Dr. SACKS: Pretty much.


Dr. SACKS: Or just treated anecdotally.

FLATOW: Because we don't think that's an important thing to survival, right? I mean, we think about evolution, things like that, where would music fit in?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, well, certainly, Steven Pinker has referred to music as auditory cheesecake, and--or just something which happens. And, I mean, I suspect, as some others do, that the origins of music and speech go together, and the two of them co-evolved. There's certainly no culture in which music isn't important, whether as a means of expression or communication or ritual or enjoyment.

FLATOW: Right. And we also find mathematicians pretty good in music, too, these--some sort of connection there. Yeah.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Yeah. A lot of them. And, of course, there are sort of formal connections which Pythagoras found where...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...thirds and fifths all represent simple numerical ratios.

FLATOW: All right, we're going to take a short break and come back, and I'll give you a phone number, 1 (800) 989-8255 is the number, 1 (800) 989-8255. We're talking with Oliver Sacks. Here's your chance to talk to Dr. Sacks. You can ask him about his many books. "The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat" still in print, Dr. Sacks?

Dr. SACKS: Right.

FLATOW: "Uncle Tungsten"--other books here that you've always wanted to ask him about. He's here to answer your questions. Perhaps you can give--share with us a music memory. Maybe there's some people--maybe some good people you need to talk to on the line here. So stay with us. We'll be right back with Oliver Sacks after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with Dr. Oliver Sacks, author, neurologist, intrepid fern and squid hunter, which we'll talk about in a little bit. Let's talk about it right now. You have a--What?--two or three squid, giant squid--last time you came on the program, you were wearing a squid T-shirt. You got your squid--`Welcome Squid Overlords' on it. When did you get so interested in squid?

Dr. SACKS: I think probably when I was a boy, the Natural History Museum in London had a model of a giant squid and it was such an amazing improbable life form that I was fascinated by it and still am.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: And I've--of course, everyone is fascinated by giant squids. It's sort of like dinosaurs. And it's very exciting that a living one has been filmed for the first time just this year.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. Would you love to go out and actually search for one with the scientists who go out there?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, I think so, in a sort of--in a relatively safe circles--submersible. Although, in general, with a single exception, sort of, squids are not too aggressive, at least, to human beings.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: The exception is a squid called Humboldt squid in the Gulf of Mexico, which is a very muscular, aggressive 200-pound squid, and that I'd prefer to see at a distance.

FLATOW: OK. Well, we have a lot of scientists who listen, so maybe you'll get a free ride or something from one of them. Well, 1 (800) 989-8255. We mentioned "The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat." Is the woman who was supposed to be the hat, is she still around?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. She's a remarkable woman. She's still around at the age of 100. And she herself is a very good musician, very charming woman. And I don't think I really sort of described her fully in what I wrote, but, amongst other things, she allowed the making of an opera, a Michael Nyman opera, of "The Man Who Mistook"--and there the wife was portrayed with great fullness. But a remarkable person.

FLATOW: Terrific. Do you keep in contact with these people over the years that you...

Dr. SACKS: Whenever I can, I keep in contact, yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. 1 (800) 989-8255. Michael in Ann Arbor, Michigan, hi, Michael.

MICHAEL (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me on. Hello, Dr. Sacks.

Dr. SACKS: Hello.

MICHAEL: My question I had for you was how have the people you've met who've retained the musical abilities, I guess, in the examples you've given, or any other significant skills despite major functional impairment, have they built on or grown their skills over time, and how is this process different or the same as somebody who maybe does not have functional impairments to deal with?

Dr. SACKS: In general, I would say, it's more a preservation of skills and knowledge, musical knowledge, than any enlargement of them, but I think with Clive and some other amnesics there can be learning. Some years ago I'd described an amnesic young man musically inclined in my "Anthropologist on Mars" book called Greg and how on one occasion I took him along to the Grateful Dead. He'd been a Deadhead in the 1960s. He was very--he sang along with the earlier songs. He was very puzzled by the later songs. He said it's like the music of the future, which in a way it was for him. Later he had no recollection of having been to Madison Square Garden but he did have some recollection of the new music. And so I think that new music can be learned by the amnesic.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling, Mike.

1 (800) 989-8255. You mentioned--when we had spoken last, I heard you give a talk about Clive, that he can sit down at a piano and play a full piece but he doesn't--he can't see the music or recognize the music. Did I understand that correctly?

Dr. SACKS: No, he will play a full piece either from memory or by sight.

FLATOW: Right. By sight.

Dr. SACKS: But he, five or 10 seconds after he's finished, he'll have no recollection of it. And sometimes if you ask him `Do you know such and such a piece?,' `Do you know this particular Bach prelude and fugue?,' he'll say no. But if you start him on one note, then he's got it. So the--he's not entirely conscious of what he has.

FLATOW: How do you go about investigating this in the brain? I mean, you've been around so long before the advent of these new scanning and PET scans and all these things. Do you use that now as tools?

Dr. SACKS: Well, as much as possible. Yes.

FLATOW: Yes. And you say you play the music while their brains are being scanned?

Dr. SACKS: Yes, indeed.

FLATOW: And you watch for what lights up?

Dr. SACKS: Basically, yes. And the--there is no--so many parts of the brain light up when music is being played...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...or imagined or hallucinated or recollected, and it's not only in many areas of the cortex...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...on both sides, usually somewhat more on the right but other parts of the brain, like the cerebellum, the basal ganglia, which may be involved in the sense of rhythm and timing, which, for example, is knocked out in Parkinson's disease, which is why music is so important for people like that. The--whether or not there's any sort of final music area, like a language area, people are not certain of. But there may be in one of the temporal lobes.

FLATOW: Speaking of lighting up, I understand that you have a rock collection that lights up. Is that right? There...

Dr. SACKS: I misund...

FLATOW: You have a rock collection that...

Dr. SACKS: Oh, indeed. Yes.

FLATOW: ...lights up in--under ultraviolet.

Dr. SACKS: Yes. Oh, I love fluorescent minerals, and one can go down to the Sterling Mine in New Jersey and get marvelous things. Sort of calcite, which is crimson willemite, zinc mineral, which is bright green. Yeah, I've always been very taken by fluorescents and I think my Uncle Tungsten introduced it to me long ago, and, in fact, tungsten itself, the mineral called scheelite, which contains tungsten, fluoresces a beautiful blue color, and you may not be able to detect it in daylight...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...but if you have a great ultraviolet search light. So tungsten is sought for--with--as a fluorescent mineral.

FLATOW: You seem to be such an eclectic guy. You have so many different interests. Have you thought about stepping into other roles, writing about some of your other interests like the squid or--or I understand you have a half int--a partial interest in a motorcycle, right?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: And then in your rocks. We know a lot about you.

Dr. SACKS: Well, I don't know that much about squids, although curiously I have actually just written about cuttlefish in another connection recently. I've--I'm very interested in stereoscopic vision. And I've been writing about a lady who was born with a squint and didn't have it or scarcely had it and who was very excited now at the age of 50 at having stereovision. She said, `You people who've had it all your life, you take it for granted. You don't realize how wonderful it is.' Now for myself as a member of the New York Stereoscopic Society, and a stereo buff since I was 10, I do realize, but specifically with cuttlefish normally they have their eyes on the side of their head so they have a panoramic vision, but when they go in for attack, their eyes are brought forward so there's a 70 percent overlap between the visual fields and then they have stereo and they shoot out their tentacles...

FLATOW: Wow. Wow.

Dr. SACKS: ...and if you blindfold a cuttle--one eye, not easy with a cuttle...

FLATOW: I use them for bait so...

Dr. SACKS: ...I tell you--then they miss and so, you know, I've heard some people call stereoscopy a gimmick, you know, who needs it, and films are two-dimensional, paintings are two-dimensional, representations of reality. But I think it's an amazing primal thing and I'm pleased that even cuttlefish have it.

FLATOW: Now I also understand that you're very much into ferns, the plants, that you're a member of the Fern Society and you're interested in ferns.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. I'm a member of several eccentric societies.

FLATOW: Ferns are not very eccentric.

Dr. SACKS: No. No. Well, of course, ferns--there used to be an absolute mania for ferns in the 19th century. Such a mania that it drove some ferns to extinction. And the--when I grew up, my--in England and London, before the war, we had a garden which was full of ferns. My mother adored them. When the war broke out, we had to have an allotment of Jerusalem artichokes. All the ferns were torn up but I've got a nostalgic feeling for ferns. And their beauty, their antiquity, sort of fascinates me.

FLATOW: The way they unfold is just gorgeous when they're coming up, after the wintertime, you know?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. You have these lovely crosius(ph), these fiddleheads, which unfold...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...in a sort of--like seeing contained time sort of slowly revealing itself. But there are a huge variety of ferns and especially in tropical regions. And it was a great joy to go to Oaxaca five years ago with these hugely knowledgeable and wildly enthusiastic members of the Fern Society to sort of see--I love to see sort of scientific enthusiasm and sort of the...

FLATOW: We've sort of lost that these days, you know what I mean? There's no time to just sit and think about things or to be enthused.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Well, of course, the--you know, most of the people in the Fern Society are amateurs, although there are...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: But amateurs--you know, we often think it means sort of sloppy but it really means that they love the subject and these are hugely knowledgeable amateurs, and they're also amateur astronomers and geologists.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: Amateurs are still very important.

FLATOW: And very much welcome, yes.

Let's go to the phones. Lisa in Reno. Hi, Lisa.

LISA (Caller): Hi. Thank you for having me on. Dr. Sacks, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to ask you a question. I have great respect for your life's work. I have a question. I'm a speech language pathologist and I work with patients who have had brain injuries, whether traumatic or stroke-related, and I have read a few books that you have either written parts of or had forewords related to it. I'm currently reading "The Executive Brain: Frontal Lobes and the Civilized Mind," and I'm fascinated by the complexity of attentional processes in perception and I'm wondering what you think about the role of complex attentional processes in the brain, how they differ in the perception of music vs. language? And I have a two-part question so that's parta one.

FLATOW: Oh, Lisa, you know, the first part for we laypeople is hard enough to follow, the complex processes part.

LISA: Well, I--the complexity of attention. Yes. Yes.

FLATOW: Do you want to explain that to us a little? No, let Dr. Sacks answer the question.

LISA: I was going to ask him to explain what his perception of it would be.

FLATOW: Oliver?

Dr. SACKS: Well, in no particular order, I did, as it happens, recently write about a patient, a woman, who had become aphasic and who had lost language but had not lost her musical abilities and how sometimes one could embed or she could embed, get the words of a song, not only the music of a song, but the words of a song. This at least pleased her very much because it showed that her language was there somewhere, whether or not it could be disembedded from the song. The--I love Dr. Goldberg's book, which you refer to. I'm not--I think your question is probably a little too complex for me to...

FLATOW: There you go.

Dr. SACKS: ...address.

LISA: Can I ask a second part of the question?

FLATOW: Quick one.

LISA: The frontal lobes, especially the frontal poles, being that they play a large part in novelty and inquisitiveness, I believe, do you believe that in improvisational musicians, that those frontal poles probably light up more so when a person is improvising music vs. playing what's written on the page?

Dr. SACKS: Well, that's a lovely thought. You know, we really have only just, you know, beginning to study creativity and what goes on in the brain, and, certainly, the improvising musician is the nicest, and, in a way, the simplest and most accessible example of creativity at work, and I agree it would be lovely to do such studies.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Lisa.

LISA: Thank you so much.

FLATOW: Have a happy new year.

Let's see if we can go to Nancy in Traverse City, Michigan. Hi, Nancy.

NANCY (Caller): Hello.


NANCY: I have a question. Thank you for this opportunity. I was wondering, Dr. Sacks, if you--I'm a music therapist, a board-certified registered music therapist.

Dr. SACKS: Good for you.

NANCY: I was wondering if you're aware of the field and that we have thousands of us around the world and that we've been studying this mysterious thing called music since 1950 and if you're aware...

Dr. SACKS: Yes, I'm...

NANCY: ....of the thousands and thousands of things we've been studying upon?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, I'm very well aware of this. And, you know, in 1973, when a documentary of "Awakenings" was made, when the film director came to our hospital, he said, `Can I meet the music therapist? She seems to be the most important person around here.' And so for--and at one of the hospitals where I work we have an institute for music and neurological function. And so I think music therapists are very important, both in practice and as researchers and opening doors, and I have great respect for them.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling and happy new year.

NANCY: Well, thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

1 (800) 989-8255 is our number. We're talking about music and the brain this hour on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News with Dr. Oliver Sacks.

In the few minutes we have left, Dr. Sacks, where do you think you'll be heading? What--give us a direction on your research that you'd like--I'm going to give you the `blank check' question that I give a lot of researchers. If you had a blank check and you could spend it on anything, any amount of money, make any piece of equipment, do anything you wanted to do, what would you do?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I don't know that I'm a particularly sort of equipment-oriented person.

FLATOW: OK. Mm-hmm.

Dr. SACKS: I long to, in a way, to see more and more patients--or perhaps I should just say people--to get a feeling of how their minds work, of their special talents or otherwise. Although I think it's impossible, I sometimes long for something like telepathy...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SACKS: ...to know how it is for other people, and also to know how it is for other animals. How is it for a squid...

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: ...you know, for such an alien intelligence?

FLAYOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. SACKS: I mean, I think basically, I'm a sort of naturalist and an explorer, and I would just want to see more of the human and animal and plant and mineral diversity of the world. And why stop at this world? I would like to see Titan. I would like to see an extrasolar planet and so forth.

FLATOW: So little time, so much to do...

Dr. SACKS: Right.

FLATOW: ...is what you're saying. If you had to start life again, you'd be doing the same thing, or would you try something else?

Dr. SACKS: I suspect it might be something similar.

FLATOW: Yeah. Is it that you can't meet enough people because of the--just the number of hours in the day or the time that you can get to see them?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, I think it's basically that. But there is a sort of reaching out. For example, when I wrote something on musical hallucinations, then I've had literally hundreds of correspondents and I've met a lot of them. And that's been, you know, a delight to me and clarified things maybe helpful to them. So I just want to reach out to the world's diversity. I'm a describer. I--and an explorer. I don't how much of a theorizer or an explainer I am...

FLATOW: Your...

Dr. SACKS: ...but I think to tell accurate stories is crucial.

FLATOW: Well, your passion certainly shows about your work. I think it evokes things--you know, your passion evokes other feelings in people who want to know more and want to follow your work, also. So thank you for taking time to share with us today. We are going, and we'll all be looking forward to your next book. It's hopefully coming out--it's about music and the brain, right? We don't know when it will be out yet.

Dr. SACKS: Well, it's not even completed yet, but I hope it might be out next year.

FLATOW: And we hope you'll come back to talk with us again.

Dr. SACKS: I'd like to.

FLATOW: Would you? Thank you very--have a happy new year.

Dr. SACKS: And you.

FLATOW: We've been talking to Oliver Sacks, who is an author, neurologist, and intrepid fern and squid hunter. And he's clinical professor of neurology at Albert Einstein School of Medicine--College of Medicine; adjunct professor of psychiatry and neurology at New York University School of Medicine.

We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we're going to talk about the right way to teach science to the public. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.


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