Music and the soul

Alive Inside movie poster from the Sundance Film Festival

Alive Inside movie poster from the Sundance Film Festival

I am not a musician. I do not play an instrument, nor do I sing (not well, at least), and I do not understand how music is constructed. I do, however, like music and firmly believe that if we ever discover proof of a human soul, it will translate itself to us in the form of music.

I have, of course, no evidence to support this belief, although a recent experience at the Nashville Film Festival suggested I may be on the right track. The event was the showing of a documentary called Alive Inside: A story of memory and music.

The film, directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett, follows the story of social worker Dan Cohen who has spent the last several years bringing iPods to nursing homes across the United States. Cohen has found that even with the most neurologically shut down senior (e.g., clients with Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia), revive when they music from their youth.

Director Michael Rossato-Bennett (l) and social worker Dan Cohen (r)

Director Michael Rossato-Bennett (l) and social worker Dan Cohen (r)

Slowly, as the story plays out, we are introduced to human husks that reside in these homes and palliative care centres. People who had once been husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, but who have been reduced to masses of barely interactive biological matter by their medical conditions.

And yet, when the headphones are placed over their ears and music pours down thin white wires into ear buds, those husks are infused with life. Like a balloon that only shows its true form upon inflation, the inert bodies and death masks take the form and substance of the human beings they once were.

Henry comes alive again as the music reaches inside

Henry comes alive again as the music reaches inside

Eyes glow with life, spines regain flexibility, paralysis becomes movement, and disengaged spirits connect with the world. If only for a few hours, the catatonic fog lifts and a human is reborn.

The science—discussed in part with Dr. Oliver Sacks—suggests that the familiar, beloved music of the individual’s past activates that part of his or her brain as yet left untouched by disease, effectively relinking the connections between their worlds within and without. That may be true, scientifically.

What was certain to me was that the music either reignited the spark that makes us human or provided the fuel that converted a seriously diminished spark into a sputtering flame. The results were miraculous.

Even in cases where disease hadn’t erased the person’s individuality but dampened it with manic-depression or multiple sclerosis, the music seemed to quieten the internal maelstrom enough for the person to re-emerge. The woman immobile without her walker, shoved it aside to dance to Spanish guitar.

The story of Alive Inside had a personal connection for me as I immediately thought back to my now-deceased grandmother Dorothy who fortunately had maintained her mental faculties except at the very end. Her apartment, as I remember it, was constantly filled with music, her CD player rarely turned off. New CDs coming into her home every Christmas, every birthday. Elvis, Michael Buble, The Mills Brothers, Motown and light opera. She was at her most contented when listening to music.

The caregiver...

The caregiver…

...becomes the care-receiver.

…becomes the care-receiver.

But the world was completely different when she was in the hospital—a life of cardiac issues catching up with her eventually. In the anemic, lifeless wards where wonderful warriors did their best to stave off the inevitable, I could see Dorothy’s spirit wane with each passing day. Even if I didn’t always think she was physically ready, my happiest days were knowing she was going home.

When something upsets the norm, ceases to function correctly or goes completely dormant, it is easy to set it aside and forget about it. When that something is a loved one, setting them aside is never easy but it is often easier than coping with the problem. And once set aside, forgetting becomes that much easier.

Seeing that a person is still inside that morbid husk of a human, however, changes everything. Knowing that we have committed a living, breathing, connectable loved one to solitary exile becomes less palatable, less conscionable.

Music isn’t the solution. It doesn’t reverse what has happened to the person biomedically. Within minutes or hours of the music ceasing, the individual typically deflates to his or her former shell.

But we who have witnessed the transformation, we have been permanently changed because we can never see that human shell the same way ever again.

We know that shell is not lifeless, and once we know that, there is no going back.

If you get the opportunity to see Alive Inside, please do. And be sure to bring plenty of facial tissues.

Buffalo

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When I was a kid, there was a TV station in Buffalo that would start its evening news with a public service announcement:

“It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”

I always thought it a little odd. Were Buffalo parents really that bad that they had no idea where their kids were at 11 pm?

I imagined some fat, hairy father in a sleeveless undershirt, chugging a beer and waiting for the news.

“It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”

“Why? What’s the little bugger done now?”

Or a dowdy housewife, cleaning up the dinner dishes, suddenly thinking to herself:

“Oh shit! I left Billy on the mechanical horse at Wegman’s!”

“It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”

All these parents sitting home watching TV while thousands of kids run loose on the streets of Buffalo—taunting the homeless, looting Toys’R’Us.

“Oh my god! They’ve set fire to North Tonawanda!”

“It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”

They don’t start the news with that anymore. Do you think some guy at the TV station came into work one night and said: “Screw ‘em. They’re your kids. If you don’t care where they are, why should I?”

Of course, I guess the final joke is on us what with Alzheimers and all that.

“It’s 11 o’clock. Do you know where your father has wandered off to?”