Music therapy for those with brain disorders

Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, by Oliver Sacks, Published by Picador, 2008

By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — The author, who has written several books about various aspects of psychology, among them The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and Awakenings, has extensive experience of working with individuals who have developed illnesses akin to Alzheimers, or who have been born with some brain disorder causing what appears to be mental retardation or abnormality of any kind.

Whether by chance or intention, Oliver Sacks embarked on courses of treatment involving music of one kind or another. The book begins with a series of case studies describing individuals whose treatment for mental disability has involved music or for whom music has become a significant aspect of their life. In between these individual instances Oliver Sacks mentions his own experience of music, whether his regret at being unable to sing in key or his affection for certain kinds of music. He is able to enjoy listening to music but is frustrated by being unable to join in when others sing.

But that is a minor irritation compared to the deeply-ingrained incapacity of some of the patients he describes to function on what we would call a ‘normal’ level, i.e., communicate with others via speech, attend to matters of daily toilet and routine, and so on. Yet somehow in many such cases these people are able to conduct themselves in an acceptable manner if they are singing or whistling or listening to music. He describes individuals suffering from brain damage of various kinds who are able to relate to the material world only if they are able to hear music.

Sacks hypothesizes that music, which is found throughout all human societies, may somehow be a more basic function of the brain than speech, and accompanies this with a detailed analysis of the parts of the brain involved in the various human functions. This concept is occasioned by the fact that singing, dancing, and listening to music seem to stimulate the mental faculties of people who have lost the ability to communicate normally through speech.

On the other hand, he points out, there are some highly musical individuals who are unable to listen to music as a background to work, as the music demands their full attention. Personally, I don’t fall in that category and in fact feel sorry for those individuals, as I know that I function better, whether I’m at the computer, in the kitchen, driving or anywhere, if I can listen to music at the same time. This has become something of an obsession with me, and every room in my house, including the smallest, must have a radio in it, and the radio must be tuned to the classical music programme. Luckily for me, my close family don’t seem to object to this, though their attachment to music is less intense than mine.

So in a way I’m somewhere on the spectrum of people who find that music helps them function on something near normality. In fact, I found it very consoling to read that patients with various forms of dementia are able to perform the tasks involved in conducting daily life if they hear music. Unfortunately, as soon as the music stops their mental state reverts to what it previously was. However, the concept of music therapy has been developed in recent years, and much is being done through this to help people in various stages of mental confusion. I only hope that if and when I find myself in that state someone will have the sense to let me listen to music.

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Shefer-Vanson is a freelance writer based in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevasseret Zion, Israel.  She may be contacted via [email protected].

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