NOVA: Musical Minds

Tue, 06/30/2009 - 9:00pm
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Pictured: Dr. Oliver Sacks
Photo Credit: Adam Scourfield
Can the power of music make the brain come alive? Throughout his career, Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and acclaimed author whose book Awakenings was made into a Oscar-nominated feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, has encountered myriad patients who are struggling to cope with debilitating medical conditions. While their ailments vary, many have one thing in common: an appreciation for the therapeutic effects of music. NOVA follows four of these individuals — and even peers into Sacks’ own brain — to investigate music’s strange, surprising and still unexplained power over the brain in Musical Minds, airing Tuesday, June 30 at 8 p.m. on WXXI-TV (DT21.1/cable 1011/cable 11).
 
According to Sacks’ latest book, the national best-seller Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, anatomists cannot identify the brain of a visual artist, writer or mathematician — but they can recognize the brain of a professional musician. Music affects more parts of the brain than language does; clearly, humans are musical animals. Can music aid people battling severe neurological disorders? To find out, NOVA follows the BBC’s Alan Yentob on an intercontinental quest — from New York to England and Ireland — to meet individuals whose disorders are chronicled in Musicophilia, bringing Sacks’ latest work to life through their intimate and phenomenal stories.
Three of the four case studies cope with neurological disorders: Tourette syndrome, autism and amusia, the musical equivalent of color-blindness, which results in deafness to certain elements of music. The last subject is a former surgeon and rock ‘n’ roll lover who, after being struck by lightning, became obsessed with playing classical piano. Three of the four have somehow, almost magically, unlocked a part of their minds to develop musical talents that were otherwise unimaginable.
 
While these extraordinary stories offer examples of music’s unquestionable power over the mind, scientists have yet to fully understand what happens in the brain as we experience music. In an effort to unravel the mystery, NOVA puts Dr. Sacks himself into a functional MRI (fMRI) machine for two experiments. In the first, cutting-edge visualization shows that when Sacks imagines a piece of music, his brain reacts differently from when he actually hears the song. The second test shows Sacks’ overwhelming neurological response when he listens to one of his favorite pieces, Bach’s Mass in B Minor; however, when compared to a similar piece by Beethoven, Sacks’ brain is almost unresponsive, revealing his clear distaste for the latter composition.
For the first time on television, NOVA provides a rare glimpse into the mind of the world’s most famous neurologist. And, with Sacks’ help, Musical Minds highlights the unusual disorders these subjects face, even as it underscores how these people manage, survive and transcend, often triumphantly. As Sacks says, it seems music can bring back the feeling of life when nothing else can.
The four case studies in Musical Minds:
  • Matt Giordano, Rochester, New York – Since his childhood, Matt has suffered from severe Tourette syndrome, which, coupled with his other neurological disorders, resulted in violent outbursts as a child. Even now his days are rife with pronounced involuntary tics, or movements he cannot control, but Matt has discovered the elixir for his outbursts: playing the drums. He currently leads a drumming workshop at a hospital in New York to help others with Tourette’s combat its symptoms; his passionate drumming skills have made a positive difference in these patients’ lives.
  • Derek Paravicini, England – Derek is blind, autistic and completely reliant on others. He is also a musical savant whose talents on the piano are beyond belief. Since he was young, he has had the uncanny ability to hear a piece of music only once and then play it back. Derek continues to demonstrate his unparalleled musical skill to amazed audiences worldwide.
  • Anne Barker, Ireland – Anne grew up in a musical family — her parents own a village shop specializing in traditional Irish instruments — but throughout her life she has struggled with amusia, the brain’s inability to hear certain elements of music. Deaf to rhythm and beat, pitch and melody, Anne hears only a mess of noise when Chopin comes on the radio. She used to feel humiliated when she attended a dance.
  • Tony Cicoria, New York – In 1994, orthopedic surgeon Tony Cicoria was struck by lightning and quickly developed an obsession with playing the piano. Before the accident, he wasn’t musically inclined, but ever since, his urge to play has been insatiable. Today, he performs in front of sold-out audiences.NOVA’s cameras are there for the premiere of his Lightning Sonata, a composition inspired by his extraordinary experience.