Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Author Explains Mysteries of Music and the Mind



We're all wired for music, according to my next guest. Think about your own experiences with music and, you know, you'll see what he means. From the earliest songs you remembered to the music of your teenage years, you know, music can bring back those memories just hearing a little bit of a song, to the tunes you play today to get you through a workout or a tough time, or the music that helps you celebrate or worship or dance. We each have a soundtrack for our lives, and you don't have to be able to make music or even understand it in an educated way to appreciate it.

In his new book, "Musicophilia," Oliver Sacks says that for all of us, our auditory systems, our nervous systems are exquisitely tuned for music. He's here with us today to make that case and to talk about what happens when the wiring goes bad, when we lose the power to perceive music.

Can't get it out of our heads, you know? How did that happened? You know, you hear it when it isn't really there. Sometimes, some people see music in full color. We're also going to talk about the healing power of music. How it can reach people with a wide array of neurological disorders from amnesia to epilepsy to Alzheimer's, when little or nothing else can get through to them.

So if you'd like to talk about music with Dr. Sacks, our number is 1-800-989— 8255, 1-800-989-TALK. You can surf over to our Web site at and meet some avatars wearing SCIENCE FRIDAY T-shirts over in "Second Life" in Science School, so a lot of different ways to interact with us.

Let me formally introduce Dr. Sacks. He's a neurologist and author. His most recent book is "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" is just out. His other books include "An Anthropologist on Mars: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," and "Awakening." You're familiar with him. He's professor of clinical neurology and clinical psychology at Columbia University Medical Center and a Columbia University artist in New York. He joins us here in our NPR's studios.

Welcome back to program.

Dr. OLIVER SACKS (Author, "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain"): It's nice to be here again.

FLATOW: You know, they created a special title for you up there in Columbia, didn't they?

Dr. SACKS: It seems so, yeah.

FLATOW: You were allowed to do anything you want to now.

Dr. SACKS: Well, not entirely, but I'll certainly commute between the two campuses and be a sort of in-between figure between medicine and art.

FLATOW: What are some the things you like to do most there? Tell me.

Dr. SACKS: Well, I'm - the things I like to do most are to see patients, which I was doing this morning, and to write about them, and to talk about them, and to think about them.

FLATOW: Now, you talk about a lot of your patients in this book, and some of them, well, they all have to do with music. What made you decide to go on this music bender, if I may put…

Dr. SACKS: Well, I mean, apart from sort of personal involvement with music as a physician back in the 1960s, when I saw the patients I later wrote about in "Awakenings" deeply in Parkinsonian patients who couldn't move or speak unless there was music, this was my first glimpse of the therapeutic power of music. And, subsequently, I saw that in many other conditions, although, often different sorts of music working in different ways. And I've also been consulted over the years by people with various musical problems…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: …as you've mentioned, from not perceiving it to not being able to stop it or hallucinating it. But I think the final thing for me is the fact that on the last 10 years, basically, there's been an amazing technological advances so that the functional brain imagery we could can at the brain when people are listening to music, imagining music, composing music, and we have a much clearer idea now of what goes on than we did 10 years ago.

FLATOW: Well, I want to get in to all of that because it's also interesting. But let me start with the first - one of the major points that you make in your book is that our brains are wired for music the same way we're wired for language.

Dr. SACKS: Well, and even more extensively, there's no particular music center but there are many different parts of the brain, many networks, many systems -in the auditory parts of the brain, the visual parts, the executive parts, the motor parts - and there are like 20 or 30 different parts of the brain which are recruited for musical experience and performance. And this is much wider than for speech, which is the reason why if people lose language in aphasia, they still have music available.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And you quote Steven Pinker in the foreword of your book, in the preface saying, you know, there's really no biological reason for we, as an animal, to be so - have music such an integral part of ourselves. Would you agree with that?

Dr. SACKS: No, I think, I disagree rather strongly, although, really, one can only speculate. But music occurs and is central in every culture we know of, we have known of. There are musical instruments which go back 50,000 years - bone flutes, which have much the same tonal intervals as we have now. We have things like - something which is exclusively human and doesn't have an analog, and speech is our movement synchronized with beat, with rhythm. One sees every child spontaneously starts to dance…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: …or to keep time. You don't see this in a chimpanzee. This seems to be an exclusively human thing. And it wouldn't have been preserved - I mean, to invert the argument - if it hadn't been useful. I mean, Darwin thinks of music in terms of courtship he felt was - had a strong evolutionary sexual selection. I also wonder about a cultural selection because music is so powerful for bonding people together.

FLATOW: Right. You say it's not only what - that we appreciate music on an emotional level, but that we have a, quote, "largely unconscious structural appreciation of music." What do you mean by that?

Dr. SACKS: Well, with experience as with language, I think, as it were the grammar of music or particular music, the rules, the laws, the way it is going, come to one, and so much of listening to music is anticipation. And one can whistle along sometimes with a piece one has never heard. You were almost composing it with the composer. He's hinting all the while as to where it's going. And if one gets a sudden sense of shock or dissonance that there's a surprise.

FLATOW: You say - you talked about having a musician's brain. Are the brains of musicians really different than the brains of non-musicians?

Dr. SACKS: Well, everyone's brains are different, but the brains of musicians are grossly different. A man called Schlaug, Gottfried Schlaug at Harvard have shown that various structures in the brain, the corpus callosum, big band between the hemisphere's auditory cortex, motor cortex, visual cortex are all visibly enlarged or so visibly enlarged in musicians that you could look at a brain and say, I think that's a musician's brain, but you couldn't say it's a mathematician's brain or an artist's brain.

FLATOW: So which came first: that the brain shape make you a musician or that being a musician changed the shape of your brain?

Dr. SACKS: Well, it's probably not a neither/or, but we do know that a lot of training, like the Suzuki method, can make a lot of difference in a year. On the other hand, it's obvious that, you know, the Mozarts of this world are born as well as made.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's talk about some of the patients and some of your own experiences with music. And I think - let's start with a thing that all of us have experienced. It's that tune you get into your head, and when you hear it, you could have it - you were talking about people having it for days, weeks, months.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: The brain worm, is that what you call it?

Dr. SACKS: Well, the music industry originally called it an earworm. I somehow like the term of a brain worm, which I imagined it boring into the brain, and certainly it goes round and round in the brain. I mean, I think, all of us have a sort of involuntary tunes, which go through the head in which often pleasant and sometimes and usually associated with thoughts or moods.

With a brain worm, this has gone wrong. And you will have a fragment of tune which gets into a loop and goes and round and round and loses all sense, all connection. And it's very difficult to stop sometimes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. It just had to go away on its own or…

Dr. SACKS: Yes, I…

FLATOW: Can you talk yourself out of it?

Dr. SACKS: Some people can or they will sing it through to the end or they will sort of slap cold water on their face or jump up and down, but sometimes, you just have to wait for it to go away.

FLATOW: Is there one that's, you know, should we start one now?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: If you got a tune, let's get everybody in our audience for the rest of the day tuning in their heads. The Sara Lee theme, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: Well, yeah. Well, actually, as you said that, I thought of da-da-da-da.

(Soundbite of laughter)


FLATOW: Beethoven's Fifth…

Dr. SACKS: Just thought about a Beethoven rhyme.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right. We'll have the whole country on Beethoven. Let's talk about, you write about musical hallucinations. One of your patients talked about musical hallucination.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Well, a hallucination is quite different from imagery or brain worms. With a hallucination, you suddenly hear it as if it's for real. It's just like perception - indistinguishable. People are very startled. They look around and say, hey, you know, you heard that?

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: They look for a radio or something, and only if they can't find an external source, they then realize that something unprecedented is happening in their brain or their mind. And they're often very scared because it's just unprecedented, it's uncontrollable, and people say…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: …you know, hearing things, am I crazy?

In fact, this is not at all like hearing voices. It's not at all like a psychotic hallucination. It tends mostly to occur, not exclusively, mostly in people who are pretty deaf. And it's as if when the hearing parts of the brain aren't getting their usual input, their usual nourishment, then they dig down into memory and they activate themselves. So usually, these hallucinations are usually of popular songs, hymns, whatever one has heard in early life.

FLATOW: I hear music and there's no one there…

Dr. SACKS: Right.

FLATOW: …a volume in that song. But you also talk about how when you recall music, some people just hear instruments, some people can hear a whole orchestra, and that you can recall it as if it were live. You know, live being played live. You talk about whether Beethoven or it was Bach who lost his hearing who would have gone nuts if he hadn't been able to do that.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Well, I mean, I would think most professional musicians, and especially conductors and composers, you know, could do that. And when Beethoven lost his hearing or became deaf, whatever - however wretched this made him in other ways, it certainly didn't disable him as a musician. In fact, it may even have heightened his musical imagery because deafness tends to heighten the sensitivity of the auditory parts of the brain.

FLATOW: And in some people you write about, it can be so strong that they swear there's the radio on or something like that.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Well, then there's a hallucination. But I don't think Beethoven hallucinated. I think there may be a sort of continuum between image and hallucination, but they're pretty different.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. We're talking with the incomparable Oliver Sacks, author of "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" just out in hardcover, and I know it has a cover that you hate on, that you hate looking at your own picture, right?

Dr. SACKS: Well, you know - once is enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Fame is a heavy burden. Stay with us. We're going to come right back and take your phone calls, talking with Oliver Sacks about "Musicophilia." We'll be right back.

Share with us your, you know, your musical recollections, things that drive you nutty, maybe some experiences of your own. 1-800-989-8255. We'll be right back.

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

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

We're talking this hour with Oliver Sacks, who really needs no introduction. You know him from all his books in the past. His latest book is "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain" out this year by Knopf.

Our number: 1-800-989-8255. Also, we're in "Second Life." You can meet an avatar there and get to know and ask questions and send us a question here also via "Second Life."

Let's talk about something that's really fascinating. And you talk about it in the book, and I really didn't know about it, that it existed until I read about it in the book. That's the orthopedic surgeon who was struck by a lightning and had suddenly an onset of musical interest that never he had before. He never had it before in his life.

Dr. SACKS: No. He was in his early 40s and really had very little interest in music, apparently not much talent, didn't have a piano in the house. But about three weeks after he'd been struck, which gave him a cardiac arrest, basically have killed him for a minute.

FLATOW: Had that out-of-body experience, the whole thing.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. SACKS: And then he thought, you know, it's all over. But about three weeks later over the course of a weekend basically, he got transformed and he developed what you call as an insatiable passion for hearing piano music, then for playing piano music and then for composing piano music. And he acted on this straight away. He got a piano, he got a piano teacher. He continued to work as a surgeon, but he started getting up very early, and all his time was spent with music. He said his wife wasn't best pleased, and this has continued for 15 years.


Dr. SACKS: There's really been a transformation and a slight mystical or exalted feeling which goes with it. He feels he may have been saved for the specific purpose of delivering this. He talks - he says he feels he tunes into heaven for his music.

FLATOW: Now, how do you as a scientist explain this?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I asked him and he said, as a doctor, I can't explain. I think it's spiritual. And I said, well, fine, but might not anything spiritual have to operate via the nervous system. So he says, okay. I would suspect there's been some activation or reorganization of structures around the temporal lobes of the brain, the right temporal lobes, which are especially concerned with musical patterns and sometimes with mystical or religious feelings. I think something happened there.

FLATOW: Hmm. You mentioned the tools we have today, the ability to actually image the brain as it's working in helping these things. Tell us how useful that is to you as someone studying music and neurology.

Dr. SACKS: Well, I think it would be useful here. Originally, he wasn't inclined to allow any sort of investigation, but he will allow it now, and I think we could actually watch his brain while music is coming to him. He'll say it comes from heaven, you know, I might say (unintelligible)…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: …heaven is in the temporal lobes, hell as well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Well - either a music center in the brain or is it distributed?

Dr. SACKS: It's widely distributed…


Dr. SACKS: …but elaborate - the final synthesis and their emotional components probably especially have to do with temporal lobe and its connections.

FLATOW: If I'm listening to a song, I'm humming or - is it actually playing in my brain?

Dr. SACKS: Oh, it's absolutely playing in your brain. And even if you don't make any movement to keep time, the rhythm is playing in your brain, so there's - it's really a little internal performance.

FLATOW: Because we hear scientists talk about we create our own memories, you know, as if they're real, could we create our own music experiences as if they're real also?

Dr. SACKS: Well, this is what happens in a hallucination.

FLATOW: Yeah. It it's in the hallucination, yeah.

Dr. SACKS: But even a shorter that - whenever we visualize anything, the visual cortex gets active and imagination is very real and hallucination even more so.

FLATOW: Let's go to Janet(ph) in Tucson, Arizona.

Hi, Janet. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JANET (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, Janet. You got to turn your radio off.

JANET: Ira, it's off. I'm on my cell phone.

FLATOW: Hi. Go for it.

JANET: Okay. Well, I come from a real musical family. I'm actually related to Felix Mendelssohn. And our music is so much part of my life. I'm a vocalist. And my husband's son, my step-grandson is - cannot stand music in any form. It just freaks him out completely. And I was wondering if you'd ever heard anything like this. I mean, the kid is 7 years old, and he cannot stand any kind of music?

FLATOW: He writes - you write about that in your book.

Dr. SACKS: Well, not enough, you know? Quite a lot of people have been telling me about musicophobia…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: …and a hatred of music or - and I think I probably should have written more. I wonder what goes on in that 7-year-old. Is he averse to all music?

JANET: Yes, all music. He can't stand it. I'm wondering if it's a function of some form of autism because Asperger's runs in that side of the family.

Dr. SACKS: Does he recognize the music he dislikes?

JANET: He just doesn't like any kind of music at all.

Dr. SACKS: Okay.

JANET: If there's any kind of music at all, he can't stand it.

Dr. SACKS: Okay. Because there are some people with a rare disorder called amusia, and these people don't have pitch discrimination. They can't hit tones and semitones. They don't really hear music as such. They may just hear it as noise. One of my patients with this said it's like pots and pans being thrown around at the kitchen and this would certainly make one hates music.

FLATOW: But one of your patients had a cure, did she not, for this problem - who hated music? I thought - maybe I thought I read that in the book, you know?

Dr. SACKS: Well, this was another patient, a composer who had distortion of a somewhat deaf at the high-end.

FLATOW: Oh, I see.

Dr. SACKS: And with him, things got better. But, I mean, one needs to sort out what's going on with your boy.

FLATOW: Could he grow out of it? I mean…

Dr. SACKS: Well, I hope he can grow out of it. He'll be helped out because, you know, there's a huge source of joy and, you know, one would say innocent joy in music.

FLATOW: Can a mother like Janet do anything - take her son…

Dr. SACKS: Well, I think she needs to sort of find out what's happening and whether the audiologist will do this or the psychiatrist or the neurologist.

FLATOW: Good luck, Janet.

Dr. SACKS: Good luck.

JANET: Thank you very much.

Dr. SACKS: Right.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Let's go to - back to phones to Jane(ph) in Columbus.

Hi, Jane.

JANE (Caller): Hi. I wanted to mention - I don't have a question, but I do have a comment. I had a dear aunt lived with me. She was in her 90s…

FLATOW: We lost her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: We lost everybody on the phone. I saw her question, she said she had an aunt who lived with her in her 90s and she was getting Alzheimer's disease.

Dr. SACKS: She says - she was saying that?

FLATOW: And yes, she said it on the screener. And she was very close and - but she could still hear the music.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Well, however severe Alzheimer's is, the musical parts of the brain, the many networks are very robust and they tend to survive something like Alzheimer's so that even if someone can't understand language…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: …and stay out of it generally, they'll still recognize music, respond to it, join in and have their moods and their memories stimulated. Music is tremendously important, I think, for people with Alzheimer's.

FLATOW: Yeah. I had an aunt who had some sort of dementia before that we knew what these things were, you know, years ago…

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: …gave the names. But as she regressed, she sort of regressed to being a teenager in her mind and she started singing arias. She was a world-class singer and she hadn't sung them in years and people love to just come listen to her sing.

Dr. SACKS: Oh, that's fascinating. I'd like to make that a footnote in the next edition.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yeah, it was very funny. What are the - let's talk about some of the other kinds of patients. You've had a patient with extraordinary talent for music but severe deficits in other cognitive activities.

Dr. SACKS: Well, one sometimes see this in people with Williams syndrome, this is a rare congenital syndrome where people are often precocious and gifted in language and music, and they're very sociable but they're rather retarded in many other ways with low, low IQs.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Dr. SACKS: They can't usually function independently. But people with Williams syndrome, all of them, 100 percent of them, are enraptured by music. They're almost helplessly delighted or anguished or overwhelmed by it. A lot of them are musically talented. All of them are enraptured, but the other thing is one can have a musical savant. These are usually people who have autism, and interestingly at least half of the musical savants are also blind. And blindness disposes to musicality as well.

FLATOW: The last time you were on our program a couple of years ago, we got into music therapy, and that to coin a phrase, it really struck a cord in a lot of our listeners. And I'm struck by the wide range of patients, people with an array of neurological conditions who can, as you talked about in your book, be reached by music.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. Well, as I say, I first saw this with the Parkinsonian people who really have this motor problem, and for them, it's the rhythm which is important. The music doesn't have to be familiar or affect them in other ways.

For people with Alzheimer's, it needs to be a familiar song which has -especially which has associations and resonance and stirs memory and mood. For people who've lost language, people who have aphasia, may often find they can sing and get a lyric with that. I mean, this can delight them…


Dr. SACKS: …which shows that language is there, although it may be embedded in the song. And there are ways now - although it's a lot of work - of disembedding the language so they can reacquire it, sometimes with a different part of the brain with the right side of the brain. And one sees that people with Tourette's syndrome, with Huntington's chorea, with autism, with all sorts of conditions, can respond very powerfully to music.

FLATOW: I have a question here from "Second Life," from Rosemerta. She says I have a soundtrack in my brain pretty much all the time, and I feel lost without it. But I have gotten the impression that not everyone has this experience of always having music in their heads. Dr. Sacks, do you have an opinion on that?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I think this lady probably has it to an unusual extent. I have a cousin, a composer, who once said he had a 24 hour classical Muzak in his mind. I don't know whether this lady is herself a musician. But I think most people get tunes intermittently in the mind, which are not consciously summoned but which usually have some sort of association with their thoughts.

I think all of us have a sort of - many of us have a sort of musical companionship throughout our life.

FLATOW: When we hear music that is calming and soothing and revokes - evokes, you know, maybe the day you were out on the beach or something, are there actual runner's high, like, are their endorphins that are released? Is there sort of real feeling, you know? Is there a brain chemistry going on that created that soothing, you think?

Dr. SACKS: Yes. There's quite a lot of work on this and, you know, both the physiology of thrills and chills, but also of calming music. You can investigate it electrically by doing EEGs or by brain imaging, or by looking at some of the chemicals. I mean, the changes are very real, and David(ph) what he was doing with so…

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones, to Dan in Toledo. Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

DAN: Thank you. I had heard that Hendrix was one of these people that had optical and audio nerves crossed, so he…

FLATOW: Whoops - can you see the music, I think, what he was going to talk about. There are other people who see colors and things like that.

Dr. SACKS: Okay. Well, quite a number of people have some crossing of the senses, as this man puts it, in which they will involuntarily and automatically have see things, smells things, taste things as they hear them or vice versa. One of the commonest is to see colors with music, and this is not just a metaphor. It's not just a poetic association. This is totally real, so real that people who have this can't imagine how it would be to be otherwise.

I mean, I saw this. I am - when the composer, Michael Torke came to visit me, he told me that when he was 5, he said to his piano teacher, I love that blue piece. His piano teacher…

FLATOW: Oh, really?

Dr. SACKS: …said, blue? And he said, yeah, D major, blue. And his piano teacher shook his head and said, well, not for me. You know, Michael says that 40 years later, he still remembers the shock of finding that someone didn't have it. Ten years later, he met a - as a teenager, he met someone else who saw colors with keys, but the colors weren't the same as his.

FLATOW: Right. Oh, that's funny. We're talking with Oliver Sacks this hour, author of "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and Brain," out this month, on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

Bring us up to date on Clive. When you were here two years ago, he first started telling us your interest in Clive and his amnesia. Tell us - remind us who he is and what happened.

Dr. SACKS: Okay. Well, yeah. Clive was really the beginning of the book.


Dr. SACKS: Clive was a - is a gifted musician who had a catastrophic illness, an encephalitis, in 1985, and this caused him to lose his memory for events in his life. So within a few seconds, memory of things is lost and memory is deleted backwards, so that he's almost lost his - much of his autobiography. And he's in a sort of terrified, confused state for much of the time, because he doesn't recognize his surroundings. He feels he's just broken up from a death-like state. But his memory for music or rather his ability to sing, to perform on the piano or the organ, to conduct a choir, an entire choir or orchestra, is totally spared.

I mean, he remains a marvelous musician at a professional level, although…

FLATOW: Still?

Dr. SACKS: Still. Although if you ask him, you know, do you know such and such a piece of music, he may not be able to - he'll say no, or he'll say he doesn't know it or he's never heard of Beethoven. But you start him on something, and it's all there, so basically that the performances and the procedure are all there. And they're all there because they utilize different forms of memory, forms of memory deep in the brain, in the basal ganglia and the cerebellum, and these are not affected by amnesia. And they're not affected by Alzheimer's either.

FLATOW: So you're saying that Clive has a seven-second memory is I think…

Dr. SACKS: Yes. Right.

FLATOW: …gone down or up, or is it still getting bigger?

Dr. SACKS: It's - the latest thing was said to be…

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, it doesn't really matter.

Dr. SACKS: I mean, but it is a few seconds.

FLATOW: Yeah. And the other - two fascinating things that you said is one is that he can - you can put him up in front of an orchestra, right, and he can conduct the whole orchestra.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Does he remember having done that when he's finished?

Dr. SACKS: No. No. No. Seven seconds later, he will - yeah. And if you ask him to start again, he would do it again without any memory that he did it before.

FLATOW: And also, he had an unusual relationship about remembering his wife…

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: …right?

Dr. SACKS: The two of them got married. They were very passionately in love. She's a singer as well, as well as a very good writer. She's written a beautiful book about him. They got married a couple of months before this. And emotional memory, and especially his love for her, again, seems all there. But each time he sees her, he greets her as if almost as if he's seeing her for the first time, and with a gospel of relief as if she's been away forever, even though she might been away for 10 seconds.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Oliver Sacks, author of "Musicophilia." What does that mean, "Musicophilia"?

Dr. SACKS: At least, love of music.

FLATOW: Comes from? The philia part.

Dr. SACKS: The philia part, the love part, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Were you always in love with music?

Dr. SACKS: I think so, yes.

FLATOW: So you were - you said you're a pretty good musician.

Dr. SACKS: Well, no, I don't say that. But I was brought up in a sort of musical household, and music brought the family together. And I loved it, and I love almost all music, with one or two exceptions.

FLATOW: So you're really writing about something you love, is it now?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: That's the best part of writing.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah. I'm always writing about something I love.

FLATOW: We're talking with Oliver Sacks this hour on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. We're going to go take a break now and come back and talk lots more with him. Maybe, you have a reminiscence of a musical event that's been there in your mind or you have something you'd like to share us. Give us a call: 1-800-989-8255, or go to "Second Life," where lots of folks were asking questions in Science City, so - Science School is the spot where you want to be. Stay with us. We'll be right back.

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

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, talking with Oliver Sacks, author of "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain," a really excellent book and is also - a lot of fun to read and, you know, Dr. Sacks is such a great writer.

What is it about the brain that it can survive all these injuries that happen to it, but the music is still there?

Dr. SACKS: Well, it's because so many different parts of the brain are recruited for listening to music and remembering music. And some of them may get damaged, but others are still there. But also, the brain is very plastic. And if one part gets damaged, other parts can take over. You see this with many things.

FLATOW: But to me, it's a recording in there. It's not that simple. I mean, if the recording part gets damaged - if put a whole in my, you know, LP, that's going to be a skip in that spot. You're saying that it's not so simple that other parts may be able to fill that in.

Dr. SACKS: Yeah, though I think it's not like a phonograph or, you know, I think that the pitch, the rhythm and all songs, all songs are put in separately, and absolutely one - you may miss one part, but others will fill in.

FLATOW: Isn't that amazing that we - that so much of the brain is involved in music that is not, you know?

Dr. SACKS: Well, you know, one would like to ask Steven Pinker, who feels that music is used less and, you know, why this should be so. I mean, I think the question has to be put, why are we so musical if music is of no utility.

FLATOW: How much research is actually going on in studying music and the brain? Not very much, I would imagine?

Dr. SACKS: Well, until a few years ago, not very much. I know I used to look at physiology books and neuroscience books and I didn't find it. But now, a lot is going on, at least in certain places, in Harvard and especially in Montreal. Montreal is the sort of the music neuroscience center of the world, in the heart of the West.

FLATOW: Harvard heard, yeah?

Dr. SACKS: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. So what's the frontier? What's the frontier of understanding, the cutting edge, so to speak?

Dr. SACKS: Well, almost all the scientists interested in music are musicians themselves and so they know it from the inside as well as investigating from the outside, which is very, very, unusual. And so they're really looking at every aspect of music.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So you have to be a musician to really study it better?

Dr. SACKS: You don't have to be, but it's nice if you are, because they deal both, as I say, both sides - inside and outside.

FLATOW: All right. I'm going to give you the blank check question I give sometimes, Dr. Sacks. Now, don't be afraid.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That is if I gave you a blank check and you could write any amount of money in it and perform any task or create some sort of research, what would you do with it?

Dr. SACKS: Well, I'm very excited now by music, and I would like to see sort of music research hugely funded.

FLATOW: Okay. Now, tell me where you would focus. You know, I'm now the executive committee, giving you this money, and I want you to fill out the proposal. What part of the brain or what - what are you going to hone in on that you would like to know?

Dr. SACKS: I think one would like to know what musical training can do, not only for the musical parts of the brain but for other parts of the brain.

This has been a sort of a hot topic. You know, people talked about the Mozart effect, but a little Mozart under the pillow doesn't do anything. That it looks as if musical training may not only increase one's musicality, but have bonuses in other cognitive areas.

FLATOW: Such as, you know, it tweaks up other parts of the brain?

Dr. SACKS: One's reading abilities as a child, one's abilities to recall, some of one's logical abilities; some of one's mathematical abilities, supposedly, are increased.

FLATOW: So if we do our homework by music, listening to music, is that better or worst?

Dr. SACKS: It depends. I mean…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SACKS: …some of us can't bear a musical background and have to listen. I think other people sort of do better. Nietzsche used to concerts with his notebook and he would…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: …say (unintelligible) makes me a better philosopher. So I would actually divide them on and I would put half into the early part of life, but the other half, I think, into music therapy of all sorts to try and validate it, because it's either disregarded now or overhyped. And one needs to carefully investigate it and define both its powers and its limitations.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Do we know how music forms the synapses and, you know, the wiring in the brain. Is that clear at all?

Dr. SACKS: Well, we, I mean, this is part of the general problem of learning…

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. SACKS: …and we know roughly, but we really don't have the instruments to look down at that level, although actually one worker in Boston has shown, you know, looking at the synaptic level, have shown changes with five-finger exercises even in a few minutes.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I'm talking with Oliver Sacks, author of "Musicophilia." 1-800-989-8255 is our number. Where do you - so, where are you going to go from here? You've finished this book. You have another interest, (unintelligible).

Dr. SACKS: I do, and it's - the next book is going to be a visual book. And one of the subjects will be the visual hallucinations associated with visual impairment, which I think are very similar to the musical ones associated with deafness.

FLATOW: Because you wrote a book about vision with the blind people. I…

Dr. SACKS: Well, I keep coming back. But I'm not finished with the subject.

FLATOW: Isn't it - I mean, the brain is like the final frontier, isn't it?

Dr. SACKS: Right, and that a huge amount of the brain is devoted to vision, as a huge amount is devoted to music.

FLATOW: As much, do you think?

Dr. SACKS: I think probably so, yes.

FLATOW: Well, I'm - we had you on two years ago, when you started on this quest about music. Now, you're telling us about vision. I want you to reserve the holiday season. You always come back on a holiday season to talk about your next book. So I want to thank you very much.

Dr. SACKS: Okay. Thanks, and I hope I could do that.

FLATOW: So do I. Oliver Sacks, author of "Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain," a terrific, interesting - make a great gift for this holiday season. Stay with us, we're going to switch gears and come back and talk about the robotic care race. We'll be right back. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.