In 1983, Oliver Sacks’s clinic admitted a sixty-one year-old man named Martin A., who had been suffering from Parkinson’s for many years. He was intellectually disabled, due to a case of meningitis he’d contracted as a baby; however, he excelled at music, partly because his father had been a famous opera singer. He could remember the melodies of thousands of operas, though he’d never learned to read music. He even remembered the names of the singers who’d played all the roles in different opera performances. He also had an encyclopedic knowledge of the New York public transportation system. Sacks wondered about Martin A.’s musical talent—if Martin had been born with a “normal” intelligence, would he have become a great musician like his father? Or was Martin’s musical ability his mind’s way of compensating for his limited intelligence?
Martin A. is another interesting case of how a mind with a supposed neurological disorder (intellectual impairment) seems to compensate with another mental function (in this case, musical appreciation and knowledge). It’s very important to keep in mind that Sacks isn’t arguing that all intellectually disabled people have prodigious, savant-like gifts; rather, he chooses to write about patients like Martin and Rebecca because they’re particularly striking, instructive examples of how the mind functions.
When Martin A. listened to music, or when he sang in choruses, he seemed to forget about his mental problems. In his day-to-day life, he had very little knowledge of the external world, and yet he had the ability to recall maps, newspaper articles, and lists in near-perfect detail. At times, Sacks notes, people with great memories, such as Martin, have immature personalities, because their abilities interfere with the growth of their character. Martin could be childish, spiteful, and mean, and very soon, he’d become unpopular in the hospital.
Sacks has written that Martin’s mind seemed to compensate for its cognitive impairment with a heightened knowledge of music. By the same token, however, Sacks argues that as a result of Martin’s prodigious gifts for music, he has never had the time or inclination to learn about the external world, or to develop emotionally—thus, his abilities cut both ways.
One day in January, Sacks was called to see Martin A., who desperately explained that he needed to go to sing in church on Sunday, adding, “It’ll kill me if I don’t.” Confused about why Martin hadn’t brought up singing on Sundays before now, Sacks assured Martin that he’d be allowed to sing in church. At the nearby church, Martin was greeted like an old friend, and as “the brains and adviser of the choir.” At the church, Sacks saw for the first time Martin’s deep passion for the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Henceforth, Sacks made sure that Martin visited church every Sunday, and, perhaps as a result, Martin became a different man—calmer, kinder, and more of a “real person.” When Martin sang, Sacks sensed, he focused his entire being on the beauty of the music, and attained a state of trancelike rapture.
Like many of the other patients in this book, Martin turns to art as a way of making sense of his life and preserving his dignity. Among fellow music lovers, Martin isn’t stigmatized for his intellectual impairment; on the contrary, he’s treated like a sage expert on music in general and Bach in particular. And, much like Jimmie G., musical performance gives Martin a deep, lasting sense of peace and joy.
In the Postscript, Sacks discusses some of the articles on music and the mentally challenged that he’s read since originally composing his article on Martin A. There have been other cases of mentally challenged people with a world-class ear for classical music. In many of these cases, music (and musical history) serves as a way for patients to make sense of the world, providing a sense of “order and coherence.”
Sacks doubles down on his original thesis by drawing additional evidence from other case studies: for the mentally disabled, art in general, and music in particular, can be a powerful coping mechanism that allows the subjects to preserve a sense of order and meaning.
The phrase “idiot savant” is often used to describe people who have mental problems combined with profound mental gifts. However, one problem with this term as it’s typically used is that it belittles the patient’s gifts, treating them as a mere “knack” or “talent of a mechanical sort, with no real intelligence or understanding.” It’s plain to Sacks that Martin A. had a profound, sophisticated understanding of Bach’s music, not just a photographic memory for the notes. Perhaps this is true of all “idiot savants”—their intelligence in a specific realm, such as music, is just as valid as their intellectual deficits in other areas.
Sacks ends by making a plea for respect for the mentally disabled—too often, their prodigious gifts are written off as mere curiosities, with no underlying depth of understanding beneath them. On the contrary, Sacks argues, there’s no reason—other than prejudice, of course—to say that Martin A.’s knowledge of Bach is less sophisticated than that of any other musician or music-lover.