Published on: February 16, 2012
by Dr. Oliver Sacks for Alzheimer’s Weekly:
Where I work at a hospital and at a number of old age homes, there are a lot of people who have Alzheimer’s or other dementias of one sort or another. Some of them are confused, some are agitated, some are lethargic, some have almost lost language.
But all of them, without exception, respond to music. This is especially true of old songs and songs they once knew. These seem to touch springs of memory and emotion which may be completely inaccessible to them.
It is most amazing to see people who are out of it and sort of dark respond suddenly to a music therapist and a familiar song. At first they will smile, then perhaps keep time, and then join in. They sort of regain that time of their lives and that identity they had at the time of their lives when they first heard the song.
It is an amazing thing to see and, of course, to experience. That sort of lucidity and pleasure can last for hours afterwards.
A common thing in Alzheimer’s is to lose one’s memory for events and to lose one’s biography, one’s personal memories. It seems they cannot be accessed directly. But personal memories are “embedded”, to some extent, in things like music. This is especially true about songs one knew, or which one learned, and especially songs which one sang.
So the past which is not recoverable in any other way seems to be sort of “embedded in amber”, if you will, in music. People can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while. One does not have to be especially musical to respond to music, to recognize music, to react to music, emotionally. Virtually everyone does, and they will continue to do so, despite a severe dementia.
In a severe dementia, one may have lost the power of language and may have lost most of one’s “event memory”, so one can remember very little of one’s past. But one will always remember songs one has heard and sung and familiar music.
The parts of the brain which respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion and mood. So familiar songs will bring back memories, perhaps, of when the music was originally heard. It may have been an outing, something on Coney Island, the kids were there. All this which has been lost in amnesia will come back, as if it were embedded in a familiar song. It can come back.
In amnesia, whether or not in Alzheimer’s, you lose your life. You have lost your past, you have lost your story, you have lost your identity to a considerable extent.
You can at least get some feel of it and regain it, for a little while, with familiar music.
Although it’s great to celebrate the big achievements, it’s also important to celebrate the small wins.
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