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Oliver Sacks is a psychiatrist and neurologist best known for his collections of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a[…]

Oliver Sacks discusses changing the brain through meditation, and listening your way to Harvard.

Question: Is it possible to change the brain with medication?

Oliver Sacks: From what I read, I think that’s all sorts of changes, at least temporary changes may be possible. One can certainly get states of calm and alter the brain rhythms and have states of trance.

Whether they’re permanent changes, I don’t know. But any learning experience changes the brain and nothing more, incidentally, than musical learning, so that the brains of musicians are visibly different and even grossly different from the brains of other people.

Question: Are you a proponent of art therapy?

Oliver Sacks: Yeah. Very, very strongly.

Most of my own work is with elderly people with neurological problems of one sort or another. And I can see how their lives could be transformed by music and sometimes by poetry and art.

But, say, people with Parkinson’s may be unable to move or speak unless there’s music. People who have Alzheimer’s are confused and lost and agitated or disoriented, can be focused wonderfully sometimes by familiar music, which will give them a link to the past and to their own memories which they can’t access in any other way.

And sometimes people who are aphasic and have lost the power of language can get it back through music.

I don’t have direct experience with young people, but from everything I read, I think that music and other forms of art need to be in a central part of education. This is an essential part of being human.

And although I wouldn’t locate everything in the right hemisphere, we  are not calculating machines. We need the arts as much as we need everything else.

Question: Is it possible to enhance your mental abilities by listening to Mozart?Oliver Sacks: Well, this so called "Mozart effect" was described, actually, in a very modest way about 15 years ago and then got taken up by the media and hyped and exaggerated in a way which was rather embarrassing to the original describers.

I think there’s very little to suggest that, although Mozart as background will make any difference, on the other hand, real engagement with music, and especially performing music, or listening attentively, can make a great deal of difference.

And especially early in life.  You’d see this in people, say, who do Suzuki training. And one a year of Suzuki training can not only enhance one's musicality and alter the brain quite visibly, but the effect seems to leak over to some extent into forms of visual thinking and logical thinking, pattern recognition, and so forth.

So, a little musical background is not enough, but real musical engagement, I think, can be very important.

Question: Are we living in an over-medicated world? Oliver Sacks: [Sigmund] Freud made a point, say, of distinguishing neurotic misery and depression from what he called common unhappiness. If the common unhappiness is what we all feel when we grieve, when we lose people, when things go wrong. 

Prozac has been and can be a life saver for people who are pathologically depressed. Depression is the main cause of suicide, and anti-depressants of all sorts have been very crucial. There are many different sorts, and so Prozac belongs to a particular sort.

But there’s all the difference in the world, having a medication for a pathological state and something which you want to enhance normal living. This becomes a huge issue, whether it’s steroids with athletes or whatever.

If Prozac can produce a bland, nonchalant state, the question is whether such a state is a good one or whether it’s morally responsible. I think one needs to have all one’s emotional sympathies and sensitivities and vulnerabilities out there. 

It sometimes seems as if childhood itself is being, it becomes the diagnosis, becomes a disease. Hundreds of thousands of children, I think, are probably improperly diagnosed as hyper-active or as having attention disorder of one sort or another, and are put on the amphetamines or Ritalin.

And I think there do exist genuine forms of attention hyper-activity disorder which, which may need medication. But I think, these are pretty rare. And I suspect that 9 out of 10 kids who were diagnosed as having this do not have any such syndrome, but are reacting to situations at school or it’s a normal stage of development.

Kids are impulsive. This is the nature of youth. It’s one of the wonders of youth. It’s one of the things one needs to keep all through life.

I think there are real dangers of over medicating children and of us all over medicating ourselves. And it may not stop with over medicating. Because sooner or later, we’d be able to have our genes altered or to have computer chips put in our brain. And the whole business of “an enhanced existence” as opposed to a natural one, is going to come up.


Recorded on: Sep 4, 2008