Music's Mending Powers

Dr. Oliver Sacks
Noted neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks has found a way to combine two of his greatest passions - music and the brain.

"I think nothing can move one into other worlds as much as music," he told
Sunday Morning host Charles Osgood.

Dr. Sacks, played by Robin Williams in the movie "Awakenings," tried using music to arouse the catatonic victims of a rare brain disease.

The movie was based on a book and documentary about Sack's patients in the 1960s.

"These were people who couldn't generate any movement or any speech for themselves, sometimes until or unless they heard music," Dr. Sacks said. "And then suddenly they'd be able to flow, to dance, to sing. It was miraculous to see them, amazing."

A pianist himself, Dr. Sacks has spent years exploring the effects of music on the brain, chronicled in his latest book, "Musicophilia."

"I see patients with all sorts of neurological conditions who could be greatly helped by music," Dr. Sacks said. "People with Parkinson's disease who can't generate a sense of rhythm of their own, who can't flow, who can't move, but you give them rhythmical music and they can discover their own lost rhythm."

At Beth Abraham Health Services in the Bronx, Parkinson's patients like Jane Kirby walk cautiously without music, but with music, they step much more boldly.

Music not only stimulates movement. It can trigger memory in Alzheimer's patients.

"There is something immensely tenacious about musical memory," Dr. Sacks said. "And I think this is partly because musical memory or performing memory is lodged in parts of the brain which are not attacked by amnesia."

Another example of the power of music is what Dr. Sacks calls "earworms."

"I think everyone has the experience sometimes of a piece of music which catches their mind, which hooks them, which bores into them, and keeps repeating," Sacks said. "If one looks at functional brain imaging, you will see a repetitive pattern going again and again across the cortex. I think it's almost like a sort of little epilepsy or something like this. But music is more prone to repeat itself than anything else - more prone than words, I think."

Dr. Sacks says humans are naturally musical.

"The ability to respond to rhythm seems to be exclusively human," he said. "It appears spontaneously in every human child. It's not seen in any other animal."

And, he says, music is instrumental to our well being.

"There is something health-giving, I think, about music," Dr. Sacks said. "One's blood pressure comes down. One's pulse is more regular. One's muscles relax when one listens to music. One's spirit is lifted and one is energized. I mean, music just has so much health-giving power."