Another thing I got from Oliver Sacks’ book was a new notion of the power of music in dealing with dementia. My previous post on music and Alzheimer’s dealt exclusively with the notion of music as a memory stimulant. But Sacks’ book made me realize that music can be used as a tool to organize thought and action in the present—in the midst of neurological damage.

Yesterday as I lay down for a recuperative nap, I listened to a Scarlatti sonata in the background, and immediately got a visual sense of what goes on in the brain when music is played. The first picture that came to mind was an animation of DNA transcription: that funny little zipper head that makes a perfect copy of your DNA as it unzips the double helix. Nibble, nibble, nibble, copy, copy, copy. Then I saw Scarlatti’s sonata as doing the opposite with my thoughts: grabbing all the randomness in my mind and knitting it into a useful strand, or, if you want to be more esoteric, turning it into functional narrative.

In Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the first clinical case is of a man who had lost all “sense of familiarity:” he could not recognize faces, body parts, food, clothing. Sacks wondered how the man (also a music professor) could function with this neurological deficit, so he went to visit him in his own home. It turned out the man had a very musical brain, and he functioned by humming a tune as he went about his daily business. He could eat as long as he sang, but if interrupted, would no longer recognize his food and would stop eating. He could dress by the same means. His wife would set out his clothes for the day, and he would only recognize them as clothes and dress himself once he started singing! His musical brain was compensating for his lost sense of recognition.

And now I remember a funny little entry by Bob Demarco on the Alzheimer’s Reading Room that is seriously brilliant. He talks about using music to stimulate his mother into action:

My sister was shocked when I told her on the phone that I finally “convinced” my mother to drink prune juice after years of trying and failure. Joanne was here and saw my mother refusing to drink and calling the prune juice poison. It was only after I introduced the “prune juice song” that my mother starting drinking the juice every day and the dreaded Poop-E problem was solved.
I also have the pee song, the poop song, and a long list of songs soon to be number one hits.

This is exactly what Oliver Sacks would have recommended! Music and Alzheimer’s (and Parkinson’s and most other dementias): stimulating the mind into action.

See also: Alzheimer’s and Music: Stimulating the Brain to Remember