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Posts tagged ‘Oliver Sacks’

Oliver Sacks at the American Museum of Natural History

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Oliver Sacks at the American Museum of Natural History here in New York City. He spoke about his latest book, The Mind’s Eye, which like his other books, tracks his experiences with patients with neurological disorders. He focused on three of his subjects: Lilian Kallir, a concert pianist who suddenly lost the ability to read music; Patricia, who suffered from aphasia; and Susan who overcame mono vision after 48 years.

Sacks opened his talk, as he did with the The Mind’s Eye, with a letter from Lilian. It reads as follows:

Dear. Dr. Sacks,

My (very unusual) problem, in one sentence, and in non-medical terms, is: I can’t read music, or anything else. In the ophthalmologist’s office, I can read the individual letters on the eye chart down to the last line. But I cannot read words, and music gives me the same problem. I have struggled with this for years, have been to the best doctors, and no one has been able to help. I would be ever so happy and grateful if you could find the time to see me.

Sincerely yours,

Lilian Kallir

Lilian had alexia, which occurs when people lose the ability to read. But what made her unique, as Sacks explained, was that her alexia, “manifested first with musical notation, a musical alexia.” Over the years, it spread such that she had trouble reading words and recognizing pictures as pictures. Obviously, this made life difficult for Lilian. Her handicap affected her everyday from home life to playing the piano. And sadly, her condition worsened over time to the point were she no longer played the piano much. Sacks eventually came to believe that she suffered from posterior cortical atrophy (PCA), which describes people who have “complex visual disturbances – difficulties reading or recognizing faces and objects, occasionally even hallucinations.” Lilian passed away in 2004.

Patricia, as I said, suffered from aphasia, which “means, etymologically, a loss of speech yet it is not speech as such which is lost but language itself – its expression or its comprehension, in whole or in part.” She acquired aphasia tragically. After calling the police, her daughters broke into her house (she had not responded to phone calls in days), and found her lying in bed unconscious. She had been in a coma for twenty hours, which resulted from a large clot of blood in the left half of her brain. Though her chances for survival were bleak, she ended up recovering. She never fully regained her ability to speak, but fortunately, as Sacks explained, “she developed a knack for understanding other people by their gestures and expressions as much as their words. She could indicate her own thoughts and feelings not by speech but eloquent gesture and mime.” By 1996 (five years after her stroke), her “aphasia had lessened; she was able to understand a little speech, though still unable to express herself in speech.” Sacks was happy to report that she continues to remain “active and engaged with the world.”

Finally, there was Susan Barry, or Stereo Sue as Sacks termed her. Sue lacked stereo vision – the ability to see in three dimensions. According to Sacks, her condition is not that uncommon: “Perhaps 5 to 10 percent of the population, for one reason or another, have little or no stereo vision, though they are often not aware of this and may learn it only after careful examination by an ophthalmologist or optometrist.” Sue’s two-dimensional world came from growing up cross-eyed; because her eyes didn’t work together, she had to view the world with one eye at a time. Her disability, however, wasn’t really a disability. She couldn’t perceive depth but she could get a sense of it using other cues. This allowed her to interact with the world – drive a car, go to the mall, or watch a movie – as well as anyone. What was more remarkable was the fact that through extensive therapy she was able to gain stereo vision. In his talk, Sacks described the joyful moment Sue had when she first saw snow fall in 3D. As she explained, “the snow was falling lazily around me in large, wet flakes. I could see the space between each flake, and all the flakes together produced a beautiful three-dimensional dance. In the past, the snow would have appeared to fall in a flat sheet in one plane slightly in front of me…. but now, I felt myself within the snowfall, among the snowflakes.”

Sacks finished his lecture with a few anecdotes from his own struggles with neurological disorders (they are nicely and dramatically explained in a chapter in The Mind’s Eye,which I recommend), including his own inability to see in 3D – although he did say that he once saw flowers in 3D after smoking pot. It was fitting to hear that his next book, due out in the spring, will be about hallucinations. He is getting old – he was at times a bit slow and had trouble reading from his book – but his intellect is still sharp and I enjoyed what he had to say.

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Brains, Music, and The Bad Plus

A lot has been written about the neuroscience of music lately, including these two articles in the NYTimes, a blog post by Jonah Lehrer, books by Oliver Sacks and Daniel Levitin, and a paper in Nature Neuroscience. What are they all saying? To get a sense, meet The Bad Plus, a Minneapolis trio known for a unique brand of rock infused Avant-garde jazz music. The Bad Plus have been around for just over a decade and have made a name for themselves by covering famous hits from the 80s and 90s – everything from Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ to Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ – as well as producing original material.

If you have ever listened to The Bad Plus you will know that their music can be a bit challenging. Instead of the standard verse-chorus, 4/4 time structure that most pop songs are constituted by, Bad Plus songs are much more chaotic. Often switching from one unusual time signature to the next (5/16 to 3/4 to 10/8 for example), speeding up and slowing down the tempo, and rarely repeating previous motifs, their songs could be classified as lawless. However, beneath all the disorder, The Bad Plus nonetheless maintain a deep and steady structure that binds all of their songs together – and this is what makes them successful musicians.

It is their ability to combine what we expect with what we don’t expect that separates them from most. Sometimes this is frustrating, and other times it is confusing, but it is ultimately enjoyable. Why? It all goes back to patterns, expectations, and predictions – three things that brains love. When it comes to music, brains are focused on identifying patterns, forming expectations, and then predicting where the song will go based off of the patterns and expectations it has identified and formed. Brains like it when they do this successfully and hate it when they don’t. This is one reason singers like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake are so popular –  their songs are structured by patterns and expectations that are very easy to predict. When we listen to ‘Baby One More Time’ or ‘Sexxyback’ we know exactly what we are going to get.

However, groundbreaking musicians like The Bad Plus know that it is ultimately more enjoyable to hear a song violate an expectation instead of fulfill an expectation – this is why many of their songs replace the expected with the unexpected. Unlike a pop song, a Bad Plus song challenges your brain to figure out the new pattern. Many times this is difficult, and this is probably why the average listener does not give The Bad Plus a chance. But if you give your brain enough time to figure out the new pattern it will reward you. It’s like doing a difficult math problem, at first it sucks, but it feels great to figure it out, especially if you worked hard to get it.

All of this is explained by neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin in his 2006 book This Is Your Brain On Music:

As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one, and takes delight when a skillful musician violates that expectation in an interesting way – a sort of musical joke that we’re all in on. Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized (Levitin, p. 191).

One of my favorite Bad Plus songs, which exemplifies what Levitin is talking about, is a cover of the academy award-winning theme song, “Titles,” from the 1981 hit Chariots of Fire. Below is a video of The Bad Plus performing this song live, and there are three things that you should pay attention to. First, notice how the song begins with what you are familiar with – the Chariots of Fire theme. Second, listen at the 1:53 mark to how The Bad Plus deviate from what you are familiar with and notice that you do not find this particularly appealing. Finally, if you were patient enough to listen through the entire middle section where the band seems to get buried in its own sound, pay close attention to what happens at 5:39. Amidst a smattering of bass notes and drum crashes, pianist Ethan Iverson slowly brings back the familiar Chariots of Fire motif. The song climaxes at 6:22 when all three members strike the same chord and deliver “Titles,” as you know it.

If your brain is like most, it will love this moment. As Levitin explained, it is an instance where the brain rewards itself for being able to understand a pattern that had been previously violated – this is why Bad Plus songs are ultimately rewarding. They establish a pattern we know, they deviate from this pattern, and then they reward us by bringing the pattern back to its original state (for another good example of this listen to their cover of the Radiohead song “Karma Police”). I challenge you to listen to “Titles” several times – give your brain a chance to “get to know its patterns” so that it can successfully predict what comes next. Listened to enough times, I suspect that the 6:22 mark will eventually become extremely enjoyable.

How a musician understands and uses patterns, expectations, and prediction largely defines the quality of his or her music. Musicians who only deliver what is expected may be popular, but they certainly won’t go down in history as one of the best. It is people like Dylan, who took folk electric, or the Ramones, who introduced punk, or Jay-Z, Kanye West, and Girl Talk, who sampled other songs to create new songs, who will be remembered. Though it took audiences some time to get used to these artists, their music became celebrated once brains adapted to the new patterns e.g., electric, punk, or sampling.

I look forward to even more literature that addresses the relationship between brains and music. If the last few years are indicative, we should see many more insights.

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