Sunday, December 9, 2012

An Auditory World: Music and Blindness (Chapter 13 of Oliver Sacks' Musicophilia)


Oliver Sacks Musicopilia (2007)
Chapter 13: An Auditory World: Music and Blindness

Music, Mind and Brain Blog: Jauary 12, 2012. Accesssed December 6, 2012.



In this chapter, Oliver Sacks looks at how music is processed in the brain of the blind. As an example, he mentions Jerome, a friend who was nearly blind until the age of two and had a special sensitivity to sound. As well, he mentions Martin, a musical savant who was functionally blind until the age of three. Sacks muses whether blindness had a role in making him a musical savant.

Sacks notes the strong historical tradition of extraordinary blind musicians - from Gaelic harpers and pipers to modern jazz musicians. He notes that children are often precocious verbally and will naturally "discover or create a rich world of touch and sound" (p. 173).

Sacks cites a study in which Adam Ockelford, who teaches music at the Royal National Institute of the Blind in the UK, compared 32 families of children with septo-optic dysplasia, a condition that can leads to minor, and often profound, blindness. Half of the children with septo-optic dysplasia were blind (they had no vision or could only perceive light or movement) while the other half were partially sighted. There was significantly more interest in both groups in music compared to that of sighted children. Additionally, the group that was blind showed considerable more inclination toward music-making and above-average ability than the partially-sighted children. Often this interest would present itself without any formal musical training. In other studies, Ockelford found that 40-60 percent of blind children had perfect pitch independent of the start of musical training (compared to 10 percent of sighted children).

Sacks notes that cortical reorganization may occur when visual input is lost. With a third of the human cortex devoted to vision, this part of the brain does not remain functionless but rather takes on other sensory inputs - such as hearing and touch. A study found that people who were blind from an early age were significantly better than sighted people at discerning "the direction of pitch change between sounds, even when the speed of change is ten times faster than that perceived by controls" (p. 175), an extraordinary difference in any study.

Sacks closes with a touching story of a blind writer, Jacques Lusseyran, who writes how extraordinary it was for him to first attend a concert. "For a blind person music is nourishment... music was made for blind people" (p. 176).


I briefly met a nearly -blind little girl at a concert last year who was tremendously drawn to sounds, which is what drew me to this article. The girl seemed to have a visceral reaction to music. While I often tell music students to attend concerts, I know that unless they have some familiarity with the music being played as well as extraordinary attention spans, most will not get so much out of a serious concert as they will when they are older. But this little girl's experience seemed to be tremendous - I was awed and humbled by her reaction to a serious orchestral concert.

Sacks mentions that blind and nearly-blind children have a greater aptitude for music in part because the brain reallocates the part of the brain that would otherwise be devoted to sight. I would have been curious to hear more descriptions of how these children perceive music as compared to sighted children. I imagine that it is as if one's mind were ten-times more focused on sound than it already is, with an added visceral element - every sensation intensified. I also would have been interested to read about how music instruction differed for blind children as compared to sighted children - not only though the incorporation of reading musical-Braille, but also how "reading" music is processed differently in the brain in the absence of a visual mode of input, since the music is "read" through touch.

As an example of this kind of cortical reorganization, I found a study in which Ockelford states that in blind and autistic children it is possible for perfect pitch to develop "in the absence of language" - that is, before the ability to even name notes. Ockelford demonstrates this by describing an autistic boy with no language ability who could point to the correct key on the piano that corresponded to the pitch he was singing. These children show tremendous ability and love ot music without access to language - something truly humbling. 


1 comment:

Vivek Sharma said...

It is true that there is a predominance of visual processing in human cognition. One can only imagine how plasticity would reorganize functioning in order to utilize this freed up neural anatomy in people who are blind.

The fact that blind children would have more interest than non-blind children in the sonic world of music makes perfect sense. I often try to imagine what it's like to only utilize sound spacialization to known were I am in a room. Even with musically trained ears, loud sounds can be startling when my eyes are closed and I can't see why that sound occurred. The relationship a blind person must have with sound and music is an enigma that fascinates me.

The acquisition of absolute pitch without being able to access language is not only baffling but also demonstrates the powerful connection humans can have with musical sound. As you said, it is something that is truly humbling.