Remembering Oliver Sacks

I was always doubly tantalised by music - first of all, by its patterns, its symmetries, its proportions, its mathematical perfection and abstractness. And second, by the excruciating pleasure which it could produce, and the sweet pain which was beyond words, beyond concepts, beyond expression, by anything else.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks passed away on August 30 at the age of 82. He was an esteemed clinician who published best-selling books of case stories that opened up the wondrous aspects of how the mind and brain work. He is probably best known for his books “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” and “Awakenings”. Both are enthralling reads, perhaps owing to his warmth and ability to empathize with the experiences of his patients and the skill of delivering them in highly engaging literary form.

In another popular book “Musicophilia”, Sacks, a pianist himself, wrote about extraordinary music-related phenomena. The book includes description of striking cases, such as a man in his 40s who became obsessed with music and developed musical ability after being struck by lightning, of composers with synesthesia who would experience tones, keys, and musical structures as color, of patients for whom particular music would induce epileptic seizures, and of a patient who had lost the capacity to experience and express emotion - except through music. By reviewing the science behind how music and language are connected, how rhythm and movement could aid in movement disorders, how music therapy enabled previously unresponsive dementia patients to interact, and how music and emotions are inseparably linked, he made the neuroscience of music approachable and meaningful to the broader public. 

In this he is still perhaps unparalleled: communicating about the mysteries of music with a combination of intellectual acuity, deep caring and compassion for people, and with deep understanding of what is meaningful in life. 

A video of Oliver Sacks speaking about his book Musicophilia includes a wonderful statement on the origins of his own fascination with music, summing up with tremendous beauty the universe of ways in which music touches human existence. We are grateful for Dr Sack's contribution to the field and for furthering the interest in understanding of the effects of music on the body.