Musicophilia- musical brain damage?

I just read an interesting article in the July 23rd issure of the New Yorker written by a neurologist named Oliver Sacks. Oliver writes about patients that undergo some type of brain trauma and suddenly become obsessed with music- or 'musicophilia'.

The first example was about Tony Cioria, an orthopedic surgeon who was hit by lightning. Dr.Cioria had an out of body experience, watching from above as a woman performed CPR to revive his lifeless body.
After the accident Tony felt a little sluggish and had some problems remembering words and names, though his surgical skills remained unimpaired. An EEG and MRI found nothing amiss and soon he was back to his old self, almost. Over the course of about three days Tony developed and intense and insatiable desire to listen to classical piano music. Tony had taken a couple of piano lessons as a young boy, but had no real interest in classical music. What little music he did listen to tended to be Rock-n-Roll. He began to buy piano music and became especially enamoured with Chopin. His strong desire to play was facilitated when a babysitter asked to store her piano at his house. He slowly began to teach himself to play the piano and soon he began to hear piano music in his head, first in a dream, then all day long. A powerful presence would overtake Tony and he would struggle to notate on paper what he heard streaming into his head. His neurologist had no idea what to make of the music that would intrude upon and overwhelm Tony.

  • "The music was there, deep inside him- or somewhere- all he had to do was let it come to him."It's like a frequency or radio band. If I open myself up, it comes. I want to say,' It comes from Heaven', as Mozart said. His music is ceaseless. "It never runs dry", he said. "It was a terrible struggle," he said. "I would get up at four in the morning and play until I went to work, and when I got home from work I was at the piano all evening. My wife was not really pleased. I was possessed."
Tony became more and more focused on music as the years went by. He still worked as a surgeon, but his life was centered around music. His wife divorced him and he only intensified his musical composing and piano practicing. Last spring Tony gave an electrifying performance of Chopin and one of his own compositions at a piano retreat. He was said to have performed with " great passion, great brio," if not with genius, at least with creditable skill- an astounding feat for a self taught 42 year old with no musical background.

Another case was a research chemist in her early forties. This woman started having strange feelings that she was on a beach with people she knew while she experienced a strange taste in her mouth. After finally having a gran-mal seizure a brain scan revealed a large malignant tumor in her right temporal lobe. She was told that the operation to remove the tumor might cause some personality changes. She was able to return to work soon after the operation. Before the surgery the woman had been uptight, unemotional, obsessive about household chores, and self absorbed. After the surgery she suddenly became warmer, more interested in going to movies, parties and living it up and keenly sympathetic to her co-workers. Soon she was the office confidante and the social center of the entire lab. Like Tony she also suddenly became passionately excited by music. She was 'addicted to music' and it now moved her to rapture or tears. In both these patients the passion for music came along with a surge of emotionality, 'as if emotions of every type were being stimulated or released'.

Had these patients had their brains stimulated to more intense activity and greater neural connectivity or had they just experienced nothing more than brain damage? One theory was that seizures, surgery, electric shocks, trauma could intensify the neural connections between perceptual systems in the temporal lobes and certain parts of the limbic system. This hyper-connectivity could be the basis for the sudden emergence of unexpected artistic, sexual, mystical, or religious feelings that sometimes also occurs in people with temporal lobe epilepsy. Could this Musicophilia be caused by something like this?

For me this article raised some questions dealing with emotional intensity, musical ability or appreciation and neurology.

  • Do great musicians simply have overactive temporal lobes?
  • How is musical ability related to intense emotional feeling, does one come with the other?
  • Does a relaxed, happy and sympathetic temperament also increase musical thinking?
  • Do we just need to tune into the right frequency in order to hear the divine music that is constantly playing throughout the universe?
  • Should I start giving my students electro-shock therapy?


the improvising guitarist said...

Is musicianship a (serendipitous) form of brain damage?


David Carlos Valdez said...

I think you are talking about what is commonly known as the 'Keith Richards effect'. :-)

MonksDream said...

Or does it mean that a married musician must beware of too much practice in case his wife divorces him and he faces the alternative, homelessness.

No seriously, I read this article and it raises some interesting questions. I've noticed from observing the people around me, that, often after an intense accident or trauma, a great change might come over them, usually in the form of some renewed or new passion for some type of artistic or even athletic practice.

Oliver Sacks, with his usual panache, raised more questions than he answered and I wonder if this is an opening into more clues on how the brain works. Check out "Conversations With Neil's Brain," for a fascinating tour through the whole shebang, from the perspective of an engineer receiving brain surgery, a neurologist and a neurosurgeon.

Shit, this might be turning into just regular unabashed, non-saxophonist "American Splendor."

Adam said...

you gotta win some kind of Blog Award for Best Use of Graphics, or something.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Thanks buddy.