MIND Reviews: February/March 2008

Reviews and recommendations from the February/March 2008 issue of Scientific American MIND


by Oliver Sacks. Knopf, 2007 ($26)

Music provides a fascinating window into the mind. In my research at the University of California, San Diego, I have found that music and language are deeply intertwined and that listening to music can involve striking illusions and perceptual disagreements. Now Oliver Sacks, world-renowned neurologist and author, has combined his lifelong passions for neurology and music to produce a masterly overview of music and the brain. In Musicophilia, Sacks focuses on individual case studies, which he presents vividly and with care. In so doing, he convinces readers that these cases illustrate—albeit in extreme fashion—aspects of musical processing that relate to everyone’s brain.

Sacks describes people who are so plagued with tunes stuck in their head that they urgently seek medical advice. He writes about patients who hallucinate music—sometimes unrelenting, loud music that interferes with their sleep and ability to function in everyday life. Many musical hallucinations are remarkably detailed, demonstrating that we must possess extraordinarily accurate and precise musical memories that are normally inaccessible to us.

Other cases involve patients afflicted with severe amnesia, aphasia (difficulty with speech) or dementia who have miraculously preserved sophisticated musical capacities. Sacks also encounters patients with Parkinson’s disease who, though usually paralyzed, will rise up and dance to music, as well as people suffering from Tourette’s syndrome who are relieved of their habitual ticks when playing in ensembles. Sacks goes on to consider, among other topics, people who develop insatiable desires for music following brain trauma and unusual musical phenomena such as absolute pitch.

Although the book is deeply personal in tone, Sacks expertly reviews perceptual and behavioral laboratory studies. He provides illuminating discussions of modularity in musical processing—currently a hot debate topic. His case studies strongly suggest that rather than a single music-processing center in the brain, there must be separate neural bases for the perception of rhythm, melody and timbre and for the integration of musical elements into coherent wholes.

Musicophilia is a landmark book—thoughtful, compelling and engrossing.—Diana Deutsch


by Dario Maestripieri. University of Chicago Press, 2007 ($25)

In 1513 Niccolò Machiavelli advised politicians that being feared was more important than being loved if they were to preserve a stable and healthy state.

About 2.5 million years earlier rhesus macaques, dusty-brown monkeys that are ubiquitous in mainland Asia, already used strong kin-based alliances and rigid dominance hierarchies to maintain order. Evolutionary biologist Dario Maestripieri of the University of Chicago, who has studied rhesus behavior for more than 20 years, attributes this species’ overwhelming success largely to a special set of cognitive adaptations, which they share with humans.

In Macachiavellian Intelligence, Maestripieri suggests that in response to the complexities of cooperation and competition that arose from life in large social groups, people and rhesus macaques “evolved a sophisticated and opportunistic form of social intelligence.” Stemming from these adaptations, he argues persuasively, are some of the most fundamental (and least commendable) human traits, including aggression, nepotism and xenophobia.

This article was originally published with the title "Read, Watch, Listen."

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