Good Reads

17 Nov

I have an instinct to be a kind of good-read evangelist, compelled to share whatever I’ve read that’s been interesting, inspiring, and/or enriching.  Here’s some of the best stuff I’ve come across lately.  

In the journal Nature, a young neuroscientist writes about being diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.  He recalls when he first knew that something was wrong.  He was only 36 years old when 

I was filling out a mountain of order forms for new lab equipment. After a few pages, my hand became a quaking lump of flesh and bone, locked uselessly in a tense rigor. A few days later, I noticed my walk was changing: rather than swinging my arm at my side, I held it in front of me rigidly, even grabbing the bottom edge of my shirt.


He writes that ever since his diagnosis, 

I have had a different relationship with the brain — my scientific focus for the past 20 years. I now know what it is like to have a brain disorder and can explore its manifestations first hand. Take the very peculiar symptom known as ‘freezing’. Occasionally, when I attempt to lift my hand it well … won’t. Notice that I didn’t say can’t. There is nothing wrong with my arm. It is still strong and capable of moving, but I have to put effort, even focus, into getting it to move — frequently to such a degree that I have to pause whatever else my brain is doing (including talking or thinking). Sometimes, when no one else is around, I use my other hand to move it.


As a neuroscientist, it is simultaneously fascinating and terrifying to be directly confronted with the intersection of the neurophysiological and philosophical constructs of ‘will’. The way my mind and body do battle forces me to reconsider the homunculus, a typically pejorative (among neuroscientists) caricature of a little man pulling levers inside our heads, reading the input and dispatching the output. Virtually all that we know about how the brain is organized belies this image, and yet there is a dualism to my daily experience.


I keep coming across the subject of music and the brain lately.  For my younger son with autism, a music class has brought to life hitherto hidden parts of his precious mind.  And a study from George Mason University “found that nursing home patients with dementia who sang along with show tunes did better on cognitive tests than counterparts who just listened to the music.”  

Over a four-month study, the mental performance of patients who took part in regular group singing sessions improved compared with others who just listened.

In the sessions, patients were led through familiar songs from The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, The Wizard of Oz and Pinocchio.

The sessions appeared to have the most striking effect on people with moderate to severe dementia, with patients scoring higher on cognitive and drawing tests, and also on a satisfaction-with-life questionnaire at the end of the study.

All of this makes me want to read Oliver Sacks’ Musicophilia, his book exploring the relationship between music and the brain.  

These days many people seem to love to hate Malcolm Gladwell.  But I’m reading his new book David and Goliath and finding it so very fun and thought-provoking.  Its theme is that sometimes what seem like weaknesses and disadvantages can become great strengths.  He wrote a great essay in the New Yorker in 2009 exploring this idea.


Posted by on November 17, 2013 in Uncategorized


3 responses to “Good Reads

  1. christa

    November 18, 2013 at 5:52 pm

    Dr. M, Thanks for encouraging your readers to read Oliver Sacks. I respect him as a writer, a scientist, an educator. Over the course of his life and writings, he has made his readers aware of brain abnormalities which lead to different unvoluntary behavior. Instead of writing about this in a clinical manner, he makes his patients seem oh so very interesting. I remember living a few houses away from a highly educated man who had Tourette’s Syndrome. When I first met him I didn’t know what was causing his face tics but after reading Dr. Sacks I knew exactly and I interacted with my neighbor in a totally different way.
    Thanks also for leading me to research ABA theory. That’s great that it is helping your son. Music seems to me to be a universal language. Whenever I listen to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, especially the Sonatinas I feel like I have been through a beautiful mathematical proof where everything comes together at the end in harmony.


      November 19, 2013 at 2:29 am

      Thanks, Christa. Here’s a link to a great interview with Sacks describing how to came to his calling as a writer. He recounts how he was essentially kicked out of a neuroscience research program and forced to engage in what was viewed as the much lower status work of caring for patients. This turned out, however, to be his entry into writing about people living with neurological conditions.


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