Thursday, December 11, 2008

Oliver Sacks: Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement

Sharon Dutton

Sacks, Oliver, 2007 “Chpt 19, Keeping Time: Rhythm and Movement” Musicophilia:tales of music and the brain, pub. by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

Dr. Oliver Sacks is Professor of Clinical Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University. His latest book, Musicophilia, discusses the power of music that he has witnessed in his personal and professional experiences. In chapter 19, he explores the relationship between music, (rhythm in particular), and movement. He begins with a recounting of a climbing accident in which he injured his leg. In order to save himself, he was forced to “row” himself down the mountain, accompanying his heaves with a marching or rowing song: “Without this synchronization of music and movement, the auditory with the motor, I could never have made my way down the mountain” (233). Although the nerve and tendon damage rendered his leg useless, he recounts how one day, with the music of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto playing vividly and spontaneously in his mind, “the natural rhythm and melody of walking came back to me”, and, during these first few experiences, when the music stopped, walking stopped also. He met another person who experienced a similar relationship between her useless leg and an Irish jig, and hypothesized that “music could act as an activator, a de-inhibitor in the nervous system” (p 235). He speculates that in these two instances, deactivation occurred in the “body image”, or representation of the body in the brain, and that the music heard in the brain acted as the agent which triggered the brain’s representation function to “remember” the injured leg.

Dr. Sacks recounts other cases in which, while a patient has experienced brain damage, such as from Alzheimer’s disease, he or she is able to perform sequenced tasks (personal dressing), only when accompanied by a song. He also includes references to people who have memorized large amounts of information by setting the information to a melody, and comments that this could be one reason why music has persisted, even flourished in our evolutionary development.

Dr. Sacks, through quotes and references of Dr. Aniruddh Patel, claims that the “linking of auditory and motor systems seems universal in humans” (p 239). He refers to Chen, Zatorre, and Pehume (2006), who found “that listening to music or imagining it, even without any overt movement or keeping time, activates motor cortex and subcortical motor system, too. Thus the imagination of music, or rhythm, may be as potent, neurally, as actually listening to it” (p 240, 241).

Sacks acknowledges a special function of music – music as communal experience. “People sing together and dance together in every culture … in such a situation, music is a communal experience, and there seems to be… an actual binding or “marriage” of nervous systems, a “neurogamy”” (p 244). Sacks suggests that it is rhythm that accomplishes this binding. “Rhythm turns listeners into participants, makes listening active and motoric, and synchronizes the brains and minds (and hearts) of all who participate” (p 245). He claims that rhythm is the most powerful and primal musical element – with the power to “move” people both physically and emotionally. “Rhythm and its entrainment of movement (and often emotion – [e-motion]), its power to “move” people, in both senses of the word, may well have had a crucial cultural and economic function in human evolution, bringing people together, producing a sense of collectivity and community” (p 246).

Sacks and Barnhill (Barnhill 2008) are in complete agreement insofar as their claim that rhythm is the one element that binds together the various sensations experienced in the brain of a particular stimulus: “Just as rapid neuronal oscillations bind together different functional parts within the brain and nervous system, so rhythm binds together the individual nervous systems of a human community” (Sacks, p 247). His discussion on the communal experience of music speaks, in particular, to music’s power to access and engage not only the body and mind, but also the spirit.

There are enough references to human spirituality to suggest that music and movement have the ability to access and engage humans in spiritual experiences. If we supposed that music had this ability – to access, engage, and bond people (both internally and interpersonally) in a communal and spiritual experience, then it would seem probably that movement would be the experiential element that could connect a musical experience to a spiritual experience. Without movement, there is no life. I suggest that it is through rhythmic movement, that we are bound to our spiritual selves, to our communities, and to our greater environment.

Barnhill, Eric, Music and Imagination: The Rhythmic Brain, (posted) February 07, 2008

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