Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory

by Drew Martin
Two nights ago I watched a remarkable documentary called Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory, which follows social worker Dan Cohen around America’s nursing homes in a quest to unlock the minds of people with dementia.

Cohen’s approach is simple but the results are mind boggling. He loads an iPod with the music the person loved most when he or she was younger, helps put on the headphones and explains how to turn on the device. The rest is magic: people who cannot recognize their own children, or even themselves in old photos all of a sudden are naming their favorite performers and songs, and start singing word for word. Even more incredible is that once these people are turned on they are much more lucid in general and can answer questions they seemed too distant to respond to prior to hearing the music.

One younger subject whose baby boomer husband looks after her at home, is a shadow of herself and cannot remember if the down elevator button of her apartment building is the one on top or bottom. She is dour and scared looking and does not know how to put the headphones over her ears without assistance, but once the Beach Boys start piping through, she jumps up and starts dancing as if she is in a bikini at a beach party and invites the camera crew to join in.

In addition to Cohen, we hear from a couple musicians and doctors about this phenomenon. Most notably is Oliver Sacks, the 
British-American neurologist and writer who took America by brain-storm in the mid 1980s with his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. More relevant to the theme of this documentary is his 2007 book Musicophilia. Sacks chimes in throughout the film and explains that our memory for music is least affected by Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. He also says that it is the back door to memory, which means you can access other memories once the part of the brain for music is stimulated. Sacks reminds the viewer that Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher from the 1700s, called music the "quickening art."

The once popular social question, "What's on your iPod?" might one day be a welcomed standard medical inquiry.