Books, Booze + Brains: Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Music can move us to the heights or depths of emotion. It can persuade us to buy something, or remind us of our first date. It can lift us out of depression when nothing else can. It can get us dancing to its beat. But the power of music goes much, much further. Indeed, music occupies more areas of our brain than language does–humans are a musical species.

Oliver Sacks’s compassionate, compelling tales of people struggling to adapt to different neurological conditions have fundamentally changed the way we think of our own brains, and of the human experience. In Musicophilia, he examines the powers of music through the individual experiences of patients, musicians, and everyday people–from a man who is struck by lightning and suddenly inspired to become a pianist at the age of forty-two, to an entire group of children with Williams syndrome who are hypermusical from birth; from people with “amusia,” to whom a symphony sounds like the clattering of pots and pans, to a man whose memory spans only seven seconds–for everything but music.

Our exquisite sensitivity to music can sometimes go wrong: Sacks explores how catchy tunes can subject us to hours of mental replay, and how a surprising number of people acquire nonstop musical hallucinations that assault them night and day. Yet far more frequently, music goes right: Sacks describes how music can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who cannot otherwise speak, and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.

Music is irresistible, haunting, and unforgettable, and in Musicophilia, Oliver Sacks tells us why.

After such a successful kick off to Books, Booze & Brains, I was looking forward to reading Musicophilia. First of all, it’s about the brain, which you very well know is a passion subject of mine. Secondly, Oliver Sacks is an author who has been on my tbr for a long time. Toss in an inexpensive used copy from Thrift Books? Heck yes.

There are four parts to this book, and each has a lot to unpack. I really feel like I just went further into the brain than I’ve ever gone before. Sacks really provides such great, interesting science, all while hooking the us in with case studies and “correspondence” from readers who share stories of their own experiences.

The footnotes are extensive–almost as lengthy as the book itself–taking up half pages. They are worth reading as you go, but pay attention because sometimes they carry on to the next page.

I was continually bothered by Sacks’ use of the term “retarded” when speaking of his patients with lower than average IQs. I find that term to be extremely derogatory. Sometimes I look the other way, especially in scientific nonfiction in older books, but this was published in 2008. That is recent enough to not used “retarded” instead of mentally disabled if not intellectually disabled (I think that’s a newer term), and writing books like this should know better.

I do wish there would have been a little bit more about mental illness, like depression or anxiety, but I suppose that’s maybe not his field of expertise. There was a short chapter on it, just as much as I was wanting.

Overall, I did really enjoy the book. It wasn’t what I would call a “page-turner,” but for science nonfiction, I definitely found it fascinating, and I have several people I want to recommend it to.

(After writing this, I ended up with a 5 day migraine and missed out on the actual Books, Booze & Brains discussion. If you went, I’d love to hear how it went!)

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