Alzheimer's Disease and the Power of Music
Dr. Oliver Sacks talks about the powerful therapeutic effects of music on people with Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia.
Dr. Oliver Sacks: When I work at the hospital and an all of these old age homes where I also work, there are a lot of people who have Alzheimer's or dementias of one sort or another. Some of them are confused, agitated, some are lethargic, some almost lost language, but all of them, without exception, respond to music. Especially to old songs and songs they once known, and these seem to touch springs of memory and emotion, which may be completely inaccessible to them. And it's most amazing to see people who are out of it and down, sort of suddenly respond to a music therapist and to a familiar song. And first they will smile, and then start to keep time, and then they will join in and sort of regain that part, that time of their lives, and that identity they had when they first heard the song. So it's almost an amazing thing to see, and of course, to experience. And this sort of lucidity and pleasure can last for, you know, hours afterwards.
A common thing in Alzheimer's is to lose one's memory for events and really to lose one’s autobiography, to lose one's personal memories, and they can't access directly but personal memories are embedded to some extent in things like music. And especially in songs, which one knew, which one learned, and especially songs one sang, and so the pas,t which is not recoverable in any other way, it's sort of embedded as if in amber in the music, and people can regain a sense of identity, at least for a while. One doesn't have to be especially musical to respond to music, to recognize music, to react to music emotionally, and virtually everyone does, and they will continue to do so despite a severe dementia, and 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 different ones past, but will always remember songs they once heard and sung and familiar music. And music itself will use parts of the brain which respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory and with emotion and mood, and the familiar songs will bring back memories, which perhaps when the music was originally heard that it was an outing or something at Coney Island and the kids were there and that which has been lost in amnesia will come back and be can be embedded in a familiar song. It can come back. So really, I mean basically in amnesia, whether or not you lose your life you've lost your past your story, you've lost your identity to considerable extent, and get some feel of it and regain it for a little while with familiar music.