Music, Empathy and Oliver Sacks

How would you spend your last few months alive?

By Boreta of The Glitch Mob

“One does not need to have any formal knowledge of music — nor, indeed, to be particularly ‘musical’ — to enjoy music and to respond to it at the deepest levels. Music is part of being human, and there is no human culture in which it is not highly developed and esteemed.” ~Oliver Sacks

Dr. Oliver Sacks is a hero of mine.

He’s a man of deep empathy, musical passion, and scientific exploration.

His particularly potent mix of wisdom with gentle kindness and humility are qualities that I deeply admire and strive for.

He is also a neurologist and storyteller who has spent a large portion of his illustrious career studying the influence of music on the brain and writing beautifully about it.

Sacks’ book Musicophilia permanently changed the way I perceive music. Getting a glimpse into the life of a doctor who cures people with music illuminates just how deeply it is embedded in our consciousness. I have always instinctively felt, through my own love affair with consuming, producing and performing music, that it has transformative powers. After reading this book, it became clear to me that this is not conjecture. Music can drastically improve and change lives.

My notes on Musicophilia

Music has illuminated a trail out of the darkest moments of my life. It has airlifted me from despair and placed me in gentle acceptance. It has been a companion when I felt alone, and it has been a trusted confidante when others were not. It has helped me find my bearings when lost, like a trusty tour guide. Music has, unexpectedly, given my life a deeper sense, meaning and belonging. Whether by listening to, making, talking about, sharing, or performing music, I am eternally grateful for the profound impact this mysterious concoction of organized sound has had on my life. As Nietzsche said, “without music, life would be a mistake.”


“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears — it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more — it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.” ~Oliver Sacks

Back to the Moment

I think about death a lot. I had a brush with death at a very young age, when my father was killed by a drunk driver. This was, of course, a difficult time for my family and I, and has undoubtedly left some scars. But like most challenges in life, there are some useful lessons buried in there. Over time I have come to think that something good that can come out of contemplating your mortality — the sense that everything can be instantly taken away is one of many routes back to the present moment.

Sam Harris sums this up beautifully in a book that recently, and profoundly, impacted me, entitled Waking Up:

“Most of us spend our time seeking happiness and security without acknowledging the underlying purpose of our search. Each of us is looking for a path back to the present: We are trying to find good enough reasons to be satisfied now.
Acknowledging that this is the structure of the game we are playing allows us to play it differently. How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives.”

Psyched Out

Oliver Sacks in 1990 at the premiere party for “Awakenings”

Another tool that I have encountered that helps me understand the complexity of existence is psychedelics. I’ve had a wide range of experiences that have profoundly and permanently colored the lens through which I see life. Some of these experiences were unbridled bliss: the feeling of being completely engulfed in pure, distilled love for someone; witnessing how music is an infinitely more rich language for emotional communication; having my soul torn to shreds and reconstructed by a painfully gorgeous song; or the simple sensation of taking a deep breath that seemed to last for hours.

Some of these experiences were not easy. In fact, some have been utterly terrifying. This is yet another way that Dr. Sacks has thoughtfully brought a potentially self-indulgent pastime back down to earth — by connecting the dots back to helping others. I acutely relate to what he describes about his own experience with psychedelics, much more eloquently than myself, in his book Hallucinations.

I have felt, temporarily, and on multiple occasions, what it’s like to completely lose all bearings on reality. And these difficult trips have turned into some of the most valuable experiences of my life, for too many reasons to list here. One benefit of tinkering with my own sanity: it has allowed me to empathize with people who suffer from mental illness. Experiencing the fragile nature of consciousness has proven to be a perspective shift that I would not trade for anything. In this way, Sacks’ storytelling has helped me contextualize my own experiences, and for that I am grateful.


Grace and Gratitude

Sacks’ recent piece in the New York Times — about his terminal cancer and limited time left on earth — exemplifies a beautiful, graceful approach to death. I have read it daily since it came out.

It touched on something I think about a lot, memento mori: the theory that being in close proximity to death makes one evaluate what is truly important. This thought experiment sifts through life and uncovers little nuggets of gold.

How would you spend your last few months alive?

How can this idea benefit your everyday life?

Why don’t you live like this now?

Oliver Sacks in 1993 at BethAbraham Hospital in New York

I am deeply touched with the selfless way that Sacks is giving one final gift to humankind: being open and thoughtful as the end of life draws near.

“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can… I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming… Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure… I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude.”

Thank you, Dr. Sacks, for this dose of humility, gratitude, and perspective. You have profoundly changed the way that I experience the world. You have showed me that life is best spent when in awe, when feeling empathy, and while listening to music.

How fitting that a human being who has spent so much of his life opening minds would spend his last days opening hearts and lifting spirits.


If you enjoyed reading this, please login and click “Recommend” below.
This will help to share the story with others.

Justin Boreta is 1/3 of The Glitch Mob
Follow him on Twitter
@boreta and @theglitchmob

Follow Cuepoint: Twitter | Facebook