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Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
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Chrissy (navaboo) What did you learn about music or neuroscience from Oliver Sacks?


message 2: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Danskin I thought it might be interesting to do this one as an ongoing discussion - the book is divided into four parts, so I'll seed discussion at the conclusion of each part, rather than at the end of the entire book.

So: I've just finished Part 1: Haunted By The Music. This chapter's largely about relationships between the brain and music that are abnormal and spontaneous - nonmusical people who become composers right after a head injury, music-induced epilepsy and seizures - about half of Part 1 is a long chapter on musical hallucinations, where Sacks seems dedicated to sharing every case he can find.

If anyone wants to cherry-pick chapters, the one I found fascinating was Chapter 5, which goes into the unique way memory interacts with music. Most memories are an act of reconstruction - you have a series of sense-memories (how the air smelled that day, how someone's voice sounds) and the imagination reconstructs the actual scene (and if I remember my Radiolab, the more you remember something, the more your imagination erodes the actual memory). But music isn't reconstructed. Every aspect of a song - pitch, timbre, tonality, rhythm, even the singer's tone of voice - is remember with surprising accuracy, and the imagination doesn't seem involved at all.

The fact that the brain remembers music in a fundamentally different way from all other memory is my favorite tidbit in the book so far. What do you think of that?


Chrissy (navaboo) Episodic memory (that is, memory for events in your life) is reconstructive. Importantly, these memories are of events that we experience only once through perception, and then retrieve and reactivate through memory. You're right, the reactivation process is subject to confabulation.

On the other hand, songs or facts are things that we generally encode to memory, through sensation, more than once. We have more traces in memory for them than we do for any given life event. My educated guess is that music itself isn't remembered in any special way, but rather that our traces for it are just (generally) more numerous. Not to mention that songs generally contain repeated melodies, rhythms, and choruses, so each listen is reinforcing the memory for that rhythm multiple times over.

I doubt that memory for music would be particularly more accurate than for an episode, given a single listen of a single bar of melody (which would more closely liken it to how we experience episodes).

Likewise, you can consider that your memory for a face you see often is much more accurate than for a face you see once. Remembering a face you saw few times will introduce confabulation into the memory. Remembering your mother's face probably won't.

tl;dr: Music is sharply memorable because it is a highly repeated sensory experience and does not rely on a single trace as most episodic memories do.

Glad you're enjoying it! I really, really liked this book. Sacks always has insanely fascinating case studies ready for any given subject.


message 4: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Danskin I may have been fishing for clarification, knowing there was a neuroscientist in attendance. Success! I'll have to look up this "traces" thing, memory has been a point of interest for me lately.

Sacks says as much toward the end of chapter 5, though it seems he still finds it remarkable just how clearly humans can remember a song from very little exposure - we can sometimes remember a song very clearly from a single listen. There are definitely movies I've watched a dozen times, but I can't recall any individual shot from them as clearly as I can recall a song I've heard a dozen times, but that's anecdotal evidence from a non-scientist.

I mentioned this ease-of-reconstruction to a friend, and she had to throw a monkey wrench into the machinery: apparently, whenever she remembers a song, she hears it with her own voice singing it, and all the instruments are her voice making sound effects. She has to listen to the song again to hear it the way it actually sounds. But I've long suspected her brain isn't normal.

tl;dr: Science!


Chrissy (navaboo) Haha, as someone who prowls the askscience subreddit looking for memory and learning questions to answer, I am happy to help ;)

Memory traces lie more in the field of memory theory than they do neuroscience; it's a theoretical placeholder for what we think might be happening on a conceptual level in the brain, based on observation. There are a lot of memory theories that don't involve traces as well.

Re your friend's anecdote.... I actually saw a talk at a conference this past month that brought forward that very finding: most people remember songs in their own voices. The researcher's name was Ira Hyman if you wanted to look him up, but I'm not sure how much of this work is published yet.


message 6: by Ian (last edited Nov 24, 2011 07:37PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Danskin So I've been done with Part 2: A Range Of Musicality for a little bit, but the spacebar on my keyboard is broken, so I've had to borrow time on a different compy to finally post about it. Being embedded in part 3 now, I'm having to review!

Chapter 10, on cochlear amusia, got me thinking: in this chapter, a man's ears go out of whack and higher notes distort, to the point where the top octave on a piano can sound up to an entire note sharp. He lives with this worsening condition for several years, trying to compose music in spite of it (by writing in lower registers and transposing it up), and training himself to, on occasion, focus on what a note is supposed to sound like and train his ears to hear it properly - which works for a few hours before things start to distort again.

But when he takes a commission to write a lengthy piece, the constant exposure to lots of music in that register, the constant training, is like boot camp, and by the end of the writing and recording session his amusia is almost completely sured - after something like 5 years unable to hear music properly.

Whenever I suffer from insomnia, or other problems I just have to put up with for a while, some part of my brain always looks for that "magic bullet," the secret technique that will make my problem just go away. And, of course, I always just have to live with it til it passes. Or, with other weird foibles of slowly getting older, get used to them staying forever.

I'm jealous as SHIT that this guy found a magic bullet, is what I'm saying.

More thoughts soon! Chapter 10 is worth reading, cherry-pickers.


message 7: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Danskin (Chapter 14, on synesthesia, also worth reading - though Sacks does, sometimes, seem dedicated to including every single case study he has in his notebook. Kinda did the same thing in the earlier chapter on musical hallucinations.)


message 8: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Danskin Part 3: Memory, Movement, and Music was kind of a slog, honestly, and I'll confess to abandoning the last chapter about halfway through. It's all fairly interesting stuff - music and amnesia, music and Parkinsons, etc. - but it's mostly related only tangentially to music. The chapter on music and amnesia, for instance, is mostly about amnesia, with a musical lens added because the amnesiac was a musician. The chapter on musician's dystonia, which I finally skipped part of, was shaping up mostly be about dystonia.

Not that these things aren't interesting! Just not quite what I was looking for when picking up a book on music and the brain. Part 4 looks like it'll have more to do with cognition, so I'm looking forward to it.

Cherry-pickers: Chapter 19, Keeping Time: Rhythm And Movement, was, if I recall, fairly interesting, talking a bit about where our innate sense of rhythm might come from, how it may have been evolutionarily advantageous. Worth a look.


message 9: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Danskin Sweet Jesus, I finally finished it. Yesterday at the laundromat. From Part 4, Chapter 25: Lamentations: Music and Depression was the standout.

In the end, I think I do like Oliver Sacks, but as it wore on Musicophilia became a slog. It doesn't amount to much but a string of facts and anecdotes, often only tangentially related to music. I appreciate his writing, and learned a lot of interesting things about music and cognition, I will say that. But it did not really cohere. I haven't read any entire books by Sacks before, and even I could tell that much of the book was rehashing previous case studies.

Overall, a good writer with some keen insights, but if I read him again I'll be sure to pick something more focused.

But out of curiosity: Chrissy, in your review of Musicophilia (which popped up on my feed) you were critical of Sacks for being very autobiographical. That's definitely something that can be taken too far, and I think Sacks crosses the line into too much storytelling, not enough hard data, but much of the time I actually appreciate it. It's a stance I usually take with journalism: admitting that there is a writer, that all this is getting filtered through a single lens. Sort of admits to the inherent fallibility of science, that it all has to come from people.

I think there's a good middle ground between too much autobiography and too much objectivity, and I do think Sacks crosses into the memoir end too much. Mostly I'm curious as to where the sweet spot is. What do you think is the right amount to put the writer into the work?


Chrissy (navaboo) I definitely feel that my personal "sweet spot" for objectivity/subjectivity is pretty far into the objective edge when I'm reading neuroscience books. I feel like that spot is a moving target that depends quite heavily on the reader's pre-existing knowledge and their experience with the field of discussion.

That said, and I believe I said it in my review, I felt he did a decent job of this one as compared to some others of his I've read. I have another of his I haven't read yet, I wonder what that will be like-- whether his writing has improved over the years or whether this one was an outlier.


message 11: by Ian (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ian Danskin Which others have you read? I've been interested in An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales since reading this one. Sounds a little more focused, I guess...? Plus I've been meaning to read about Temple Grandin for a while, since I work with an autistic man.


Chrissy (navaboo) I have read Anthropologist on Mars. That was THE one I was so completely unimpressed by. I dabbled into "Man who mistook his wife for a hat" a bit afterward as well, but could not get through it.

I'm thinking I need to revisit Sacks sometime, give him another chance. :)


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