Saturday night, a friend and I attended the Music & the Brain event at the Abyssinian Baptist Church. The gospel choir sang several numbers that got your hands clapping and head bobbing. The minister of the church gave a short introduction, followed by Brian Greene (of Elegant Universe fame, and the organizer of the World Science Festival, of which this was a part). Greene was the first to say that though now he is a Jewish physicist, he hopes to be reincarnated as a Baptist minister.
Several first graders from the Thurgood Marshall Academy gave short presentations about important African-American scientists and doctors and the prejudice they had faced or overcome in order to do their work, and then there was a libation ceremony, pouring libation to the ancestors. A member of the church explained the ritual and invited us to respond ASHAY (sp?) as the libation was poured, and then to call out the names of ancestors who have been important in shaping who we are. People started calling out names. Quietly, because I felt both drawn to and shy about this ritual, I said my grandmother’s name. She went to Wellesley College and would have been proud to see how far her grandchildren – but perhaps especially her granddaughters – have come in our lives. She would be voting for Hillary Clinton, for sure.
Then Oliver Sacks spoke. He writes incredible books about neurology, for those who don’t know, and has a new book called Musicophilia which I very much want to read but haven’t bought or borrowed yet. First he said that he, too, wouldn’t mind being a Baptist minister. Then he talked briefly about different ailments and how music can help people – from freeing people with Parkinson’s disease to move and communicate, to helping Alzheimers’ patients, and others with memory loss, to unlock memories. He talked about singing Happy Birthday during his first meeting with patients with aphasia – loss of language – and how they can often sing along with it, even those who have not spoken in several years. Music can be used, though it takes a long time, to encourage neuroplasticity in patients like this, so that other parts of their brains take over the lost functions. There are musicians who have lost their memories of everything but music, those who move with a jagged gait but can play sonatas on the piano.
The evening was a strange and fascinating mix of religion, science, art, bringing together people with diverse interests and making connections between us. Most of the audience had probably never been to the church before. Many of those who were from the church primarily to hear the choir might have been introduced to Oliver Sacks for the first time. I learned about the pouring of libation and a bit of the history of Gospel music.
Lingering question: there was a guy in the audience, near the front, whom I could see clearly from my seat in the balcony (the church was packed to overflowing; we sat in the windowsill). He was probably in his thirties, longish, wavy red hair, thick black glasses, reddish beard. I am so certain that he’s someone I’ve heard of, perhaps an author whose books or articles I’ve read, perhaps an up & coming young scientist whom I’ve seen featured in some article or another. But I can’t for the life of me figure out who he is. My friend agreed that he looked familiar… anyone?