Madness and Music

Daniel Levitin
Daniel Levitin (Andrea Bruce/the Washington Post)
Sunday, September 16, 2007

MADHOUSE A Tragic Tale of Megalomania and Modern MedicineBy Andrew Scull Yale Univ. 360 pp. $18

"The lunatics' loss of civilized standards of conduct and of contact with our common(sense) reality," writes Andrew Scull in Madhouse, "becomes the occasion for seeing them as less than fully human." How else to explain the "stories of patients being beaten, kicked, and dragged screaming into the operating room, of trolleys filled with body parts and not a few corpses streaming in the opposite direction" at the Trenton State Hospital in the early part of the 20th-century? The presiding psychiatrist, Henry Cotton, believed that infection caused madness. He removed teeth -- "all too frequently decayed and in close proximity to the brain" -- tonsils, stomachs, colons and any other organ until patients were cured, or dead. While his colleagues and members of the psychiatric establishment believed that his method "constituted an epoch-making breakthrough in the therapeutics of mental disorder," writes Scull, "his most drastic interventions killed almost a third of those he treated."

A MIND APART Travels in a Neurodiverse WorldBy Susanne Antonetta Tarcher/Penguin. 239 pp. $14.95

"It would be strange," writes Susanne Antonetta in A Mind Apart, "if something like the human leg -- if it were born sometimes two, sometimes eight, sometimes clawed, sometimes toed -- showed the same variation as consciousness." As Antonetta, a poet with manic-depressive disorder, explores in this book, minds are formed in many ways, some of which have been deemed illnesses -- autism, attention deficit disorder and so forth. While not rejecting the drugs "that tether me to your world," she argues that "the word cure is the wrong word, and that we must begin to respect the mental processes of the individual, think in terms of helping to get the gifts to emerge while the challenges become as manageable as they can." But A Mind Apart isn't a polemic, it's a "bipolar book . . . alinear, associational," in which Antonetta wonders how anyone could "resist the lusciousness of others' minds, moving around us, with us, all the time, like a gallery of veiled art?"

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC The Science of a Human ObsessionBy Daniel J. Levitin Plume. 322 pp. $15

When Daniel Levitin was in college, he turned the volume of his stereo up so high that his speakers caught on fire. Later, he became a record producer and sound engineer for the likes of Jonathan Richman and Blue Oyster Cult (no word on whether he called for "more cowbell"). Later still, he became a neuroscientist. In This Is Your Brain on Music, Levitin reveals, in language aimed at readers who are neither musicians nor scientists, what researchers know so far about how our brains respond to music. He points out that "no known human culture now or anytime in the recorded past lacked music," which indicates that it is somehow evolutionarily necessary. "Music listening, performance, and composition engage nearly every area of the brain that we have so far identified, and involve nearly every neural subsystem." So why does the music of our youth sound so much better than the dreck kids listen to today? Because at times of self-discovery, as just about everyone's teen years are, songs resonate emotionally and so, explains Levitin, "our amygdala and neurotransmitters act in concert to 'tag' the memories as something important." We can't forget it.


? Richard Powers's National Book Award-winning novel, The Echo Maker (Picador, $15), is "a kind of neuro-cosmological adventure . . . an exhilarating narrative feat," according to Sebastian Faulks.

? In Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guant?namo, Bagram, and Kandahar (New Press, $18.95), Moazzam Begg "has launched a devastating public-relations attack against American policies," wrote Jane Mayer, "one that is all the more effective because it is restrained, fair-minded and highly readable."

? In his review of Anne Tyler's novel Digging to America (Ballantine, $14.95), Ron Charles lauds her "success at portraying culture clash and the complex longings and resentments of those new to America."

Rachel Hartigan Shea is a senior editor at Book World. She can be reached at

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