I’ve just seen Tuesday evening’s Imagine with Alan Yentob, ‘Oliver Sacks: Tales of Music and the Brain’, based upon Oliver Sachs’ new book, Musiciophilia, which looks at the neurological origins of our musical ability and appreciation, exploring cases in which the wiring seems to have got crossed.
It was quite astounding to see people with sleep sickness emerge from a catatonic state to sing and dance. Matt Giordano, a young man with severe Torettes discovered at the age of two that drumming helped to bring some order out of the utter chaos in which he existed, and it was incredible to see him conduct a large group of fellow sufferers for whom the same experience of drumming provided the same sense of peace.
Derek Paravicini, a blind man in his twenties who is severely autistic with huge learning difficulties is able to play the piano brilliantly. Derek can hear a complex piece of music just once and play it back perfectly, processing the music at lightning speed. He can then take the same piece and improvise around it. This man, who in all other respects is like a four year old who has trouble counting to ten, plays with nuance and refinement, and is able to perform publicly as part of a jazz group, demonstrating an impressive rapport with the rest of the band.
Alan Yentob himself became a guinea pig, allowing his brain to be scanned by MRI as he listened to three very different pieces of music. The most interesting result came while listening to Jessye Norman singing one of the Richard Strauss, Four Last Songs, a piece which Yentob acknowledged has special emotional meaning. In the two other pieces there was minimal brain activity, but in this piece his brain was bathed in blood, showing an intense emotional response. As one reviewer put it, ‘He listened to her and his mind blushed. The neuroscientist said he had never seen anything quite like it before.’
In commenting on the subjects of the programme, the same reviewer said this, ‘When you saw them playing solo you wondered briefly whether in rhythm and melody they'd simply found a more appealing prison cell for their trapped and trammelled minds, but the film revealed at the end that they could play in concert with others too. Music wasn't a different kind of cage, it was an opening to the world of ordinary talents.’
One part of me was ‘wowed’ at the potential of the human brain to do this sort of thing, and ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ came to mind. And with this a gladness that for these people and those who love and care for them, this is indeed ‘an opening to the world of ordinary [or extraordinary] talents’. However, this was in tension with another part of me which observed that these ‘Heroes’-like abilities have emerged out of such dysfunction leaving me feeling quite uncomfortable with the ‘wow’. I guess that this is another stark example of the ambiguity of living in God’s beautiful, incredible, yet broken and distressing world. Sometimes the brokenness emerges out of the beautiful, and sometimes the beautiful emerges out of the brokenness.