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Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Music and the Mind

Sometimes the greatest things are free! PBS & Nova aired a documentary in late June that is currently available on line free of charge until July 7th here.

In this magnificent film, based in part on psychiatrist Oliver Sacks' book Musicophilia, the astonishing power of the brain to recognize and appreciate music is explored by Sachs himself.
Can the power of music make the brain come alive? Throughout his career Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and acclaimed author, whose book Awakenings was made into a Oscar-nominated feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, has encountered myriad patients who are struggling to cope with debilitating medical conditions. While their ailments vary, many have one thing in common: an appreciation for the therapeutic effects of music. NOVA follows four individuals—two of whom are Sacks's case studies—and even peers into Sacks's own brain, to investigate music's strange, surprising, and still unexplained power over the human mind.
According to Sacks's latest book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, anatomists cannot identify the brain of a visual artist, writer, or mathematician—but they can recognize the brain of a professional musician. Music affects more parts of our brains than language does—clearly humans are musical animals. What can music tell us about our minds? And what can our minds tell us about music? Finally, can music aid people battling severe neurological disorders? To find out, NOVA follows the BBC's Alan Yentob on an intercontinental quest—from New York to England and Ireland—to meet individuals like those chronicled in Musicophilia, bringing Sacks's latest work to life through their intimate and phenomenal stories.
Three of the four case studies cope with neurological disorders: Tourette's syndrome, autism, and amusia, the musical equivalent of color-blindness, which results in deafness to certain elements of music. The last subject is a surgeon and rock 'n' roll lover who, after being struck by lightning, became obsessed with playing classical piano. Three of the four—all but the patient with amusia—have somehow, almost magically, unlocked a part of their minds to develop musical talents that were otherwise unimaginable.
The four individuals are:
Matt Giordano, United States. Since his childhood, Matt has suffered from severe Tourette's syndrome, which, coupled with his other neurological disorders, resulted in violent outbursts as a child. Even today his days are rife with pronounced involuntary tics, or movements he cannot control, but Matt has discovered the elixir for his outbursts: playing the drums. He currently leads drumming workshops to help others with Tourette's combat its symptoms, and his passionate drumming skills have made a positive difference in these patients' lives.
Derek Paravicini, England. Derek is blind, autistic, and completely reliant on others. He is also a musical savant whose talents on the piano are beyond belief. After years of practice, he has developed the uncanny ability to hear a piece of music only once and then play it back, no matter how complex it is. Derek continues to demonstrate his unparalleled musical skill to amazed audiences worldwide.
Anne Barker, Ireland. Anne grew up in a musical family—her parents own a village shop specializing in traditional Irish instruments—but throughout her life she never enjoyed music. Recently she has been diagnosed with amusia, the brain's inability to hear certain elements of music. Deaf to rhythm and beat, pitch and melody, Anne hears only noise when music comes on the radio and used to feel humiliated when she attended a dance. Today, she is taking part in a worldwide study to identify the potential causes of her condition.
Tony Cicoria, United States. In 1994, orthopedic surgeon Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning and quickly developed an obsession to play the piano. Before the accident he wasn't musically inclined, but ever since his urge to play has been insatiable. Today, he plays in front of sold-out audiences and NOVA's cameras are there for the premiere of his Lightning Sonata, a composition inspired by his extraordinary experience.
While these extraordinary stories offer examples of music's unquestionable power over the mind, scientists have yet to fully understand what happens in the brain as we experience music.
In an effort to unravel the mystery, NOVA puts Sacks himself into a functional MRI (fMRI) machine for two experiments. In the first, cutting-edge visualization shows that when Sacks imagines a piece of music, his brain reacts differently than when he actually hears the song. The second test shows Sacks's overwhelming neurological response when he listens to one of his favorite pieces, a Bach Mass in B Minor; but, when compared to a similar piece from Beethoven, Sacks's brain is almost unresponsive, revealing his clear distaste for the latter composer.
For the first time on television, NOVA provides a rare glimpse into the mind of the world's most famous neurologist. And, with Sacks's help, "Musical Minds" highlights the unusual disorders these subjects face even as it underscores how these people manage, survive, and transcend, often triumphantly. As Sacks says, it seems that music can bring back the feeling of life when nothing else can.
Watch the film online here until July 7th, or order on DVD thereafter.
Photo: Ajanta Caves, India

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