Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Music of the Gods
This article is so dense with intriguing stuff that I hardly know where to start. Let's begin by ignoring the guy's extraordinary brilliance, with PhDs in stem cell biology and in music, before getting his MD. Ignore it, because it puts him so much in a class by himself that it must make the rest of us feel like tiny-brained sub-species. If he's superhuman, we'd be kidding ourselves to apply it to ourselves. So let's just consider the mind-music-medicine-surgery implications, starting with this:
“If I don’t play [the piano, if you didn't bother to read the article!] for a couple of days ... I cannot feel things as well in surgery. My hands are not as tender with the tissue. They are not as sensitive to the feedback that the tissue gives you.”
Fascinating. Is that an effect that translates to the rest of us? Or is it related to his special brain-wiring for music? If the latter, does music raise him above the level of other surgeons, or is it that it's necessary to keep him from falling below ours? Is it, in other words, a gift or a handicap? In my book, and here, as well as other places in this blog, I've likened surgery to music, and to ballet. At its best, it's apt: when the process of operating comes together in all its parts, with surgeon, assistant, scrub nurse, anesthesia in a kind of flow of understanding and anticipation, the result is symphonic and thrilling. Allowed to do so, freed from distractions and stops and starts arising from unfamiliar team-members, I can get into a rhythm of operating that seems to play like music, both carried along by it, and carrying it along. Does Dr. Conrad exemplify the phenomenon at its highest? Do musicians make better surgeons, do surgeons make better musicians? Without doubt (to my observation, anyway) there are some surgeons much more gifted in the art, in the technical process of surgery, in anticipating how a given situation will unfold. Do we have "musical wiring" (by which I mean something in common with musicians, as opposed to being necessarily gifted in music)? (And, yeah, I said "we," and I know it's braggadocio.)
The article also addresses the physiological responses to music, both in terms of its potential soothing and healing effects, as well as an implication that it might raise the performance of surgeons in the OR. I've written about music in the OR: contrary to the belief on which I was raised that it's a distraction, it's generally been found to be of psychological benefit, and I like it, mostly (sometimes, when fans became fecal, I'd ask that it be turned off while I concentrated intently). That some music might raise levels of growth hormone is quite amazing. The possible specificity of Mozart, even more so! Dr. Conrad's point about Mozart intentionally or subconsciously writing to ease his own maladies is provocative. I love the idea that he's trying to flesh it out: music vs no music; types of music compared to each other. (Maybe athletes can get their growth hormone through headphones. Headline: "Baseball Bans Beethoven!")
To me, music is among the highest of human endeavors: that we can create it, that it moves us. (My theory: there's a survival advantage from being able to distinguish among and to reproduce sounds of other animals.) Those that are truly gifted with it are sublimely lucky. For some, like my aunt, it's part of their metabolism. For the rest of us, most of us, there are pleasures to receive from those so gifted. And now, it seems, the benefit may be beyond the merely esoteric.