A Visit with Oliver Sacks

Driving through the streets of Oxford, England: Lined with all that grey stone in walls capped with the towers of ancient academe, these streets scream for quiet. But they’re not, they’re filled with traffic, and it’s slow going and no parking. James drops me so I can run and get a space in the basement of Borders. Yes, it’s the same Borders we have, all glitzed and overlit, except the audience slotted into the basement corner by the computer section is decidedly more eccentric and individualized than any you could find in America, even New York. Students dressed for another time – jersey skirts with horizontal stripes, a few scrinching their faces and muttering to themselves with the permission given the musically obsessed, old couples who have come to look like each other and the countryside they live in. But all polite, English craziness exudes none of the threat that pervades the American variety.

I am late anyway, and can only stand leaning against a rack of music videos across from all the Python and Assembly Language manuals, shifting from one foot to the other to keep from aching. Stacks of Sack’s new book, Musicophilia, sit on the table, along with the classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. He arrives on time, a short, broad man of 75 with a large balding head and neat white beard. He shuffles a bit on big sneakers worthy of a gangsta rapper. (His unsteadiness on his pins is the result, I suspect, of an old hip injury he suffered while being chased by a bull, described in the short but his most intensively relevant book for bodyworkers called A Leg to Stand On.) His pants are wrinkled from the train, or perhaps even the plane (he lives in NY and is in residence at Columbia), but his blue shirt bears the unmistakable wrinkles of the just-unwrapped.

He has a couple of minders who set him up with water in a Starbucks cup, but there is little to-do, and he begins his talk promptly. His hands are huge and beautiful (Quan would love him immediately for his hands), and they are frequently in odd positions around his wire-rim spectacles and face. He has a strong voice but a faltering way of speaking common to some writers. He will start down a road briskly for a sentence or two, think better of the way he’s come, um a little, cover his tracks by reaching stiffly for a sip of water, and return to begin again. His subject matter is fascinating – the power of music. He quotes (from memory) from William James and Steven Pinker, who both dismissed music as an addendum to human speech, providing no evolutionary advantage.

But as a young doctor, confronted with the gnarled victims of Parkinsons (as described in Awakenings), he noticed that the contractures that held these poor people motionless could be set free by music. He also quoted Auden, whom he had met as a shy young student at Oxford when Auden was poet-in-residence but got to know as a friend later in New York. Auden, himself a musician, came along to see the patients Sacks was working with and who in turn quoted Rousseau: “Every problem is musical problem, and every solution is a musical solution.”

The question of ‘what makes humans unique’ has haunted me for years, and Sacks too, in another field. We have all heard of homo faber – man the tool maker, or homo loquens or homo ludens or homo erectus or even our current classification homo sapiens sapiens – the one who knows he knows – but tonight I am pointed toward homo cantans – the only primate (how can we forget birds and humpbacks?) who sings and keeps a steady beat.

For the musical among us (he says intensive musicality can be seen in the brain, but no one yet knows if it is the brain that leads to musicality or that musical practice actually changes the brain), a beat and the harmony of tones seems so natural, so inbred, and so essential to human experience that it is hard to believe that there is no music in our nearest neighbors. While writing this, I’ve been listening to Lyle Lovett, who looks like some primatalogical poor relation of humans – but with an exquisite sense of sound (one can’t help but feel that that’s why he got to marry Julia Roberts).

Sack’s stories range through his usual catalogue of unusual neurology – people with amusia who can’t even hear music, others with musical hallucinations – and then he abruptly stops. Speaking to a crowd in this way is clearly painful for him, and answering questions isn’t much easier. I can’t resist: “In your first couple of sentences, you said that everything that goes on in the mind is recorded in the brain.  But there’s a thought abroad that perhaps the whole body thinks.  There are as many neurons around the gut as around the brain, and the indications that heart transplant patients sometimes ‘remember’ things from the experience of the donor – do you have any comment on the interactions between the brain and the rest of the body?”

Nope, he ain’t playing: All thinking happens in the brain.  I cannot follow up – his table is immediately crowded with the strange students and eager academics who want his signature from those huge arthritic hands in their clutched copies. I will get no chance to expand my thoughts, and will probably get nowhere in any case, because he’s right:  Despite my own mumbling obsession with the psychology of the body, the two pounds of custard between our ears is surely the seat (in the sense of coordinator or antenna, at minimum) of the complex consciousness we call human.

In spite of Quan’s low opinion of the state of human development, given our thoughtless treatment of animals and each other, people’s complexity and current dominance cannot be denied.  But with the glory of Beethoven, the mathematics of Bach, and the sly satiric lessons in humanity provided by Lyle and Randy Newman, there may be hope for us yet.  For better or worse, whether we ultimately populate the universe with art, or are reduced to a thin layer of plastic in the earth’s geology, the spongey custard white with fat and barked with cortex we call a brain has to be a central piece of the story.

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