In my last post, an appreciation of neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, I described him as an "anti-theorist," who emphasizes the irreducible individuality of each of his patients. But Sacks has presented more conventional, specific theories about the brain and mind.
In his 2007 book Musicophilia, for example, he floats a theory that builds upon the work of other scientists, notably psychologist Merlin Donald and biologist Francis Crick. In his 1991 book Origins of the Modern Mind, Donald proposes that human culture—language, the arts, religion, science—can be traced back to our primate compulsion toward imitation, mimicry, mimesis. Donald calls rhythm “the quintessential mimetic skill,” noting that “once a rhythm is established, it may be played out with any motor modality, including the hands, feet, mouth, or the whole body.”
In Musicophila, Sacks offers abundant examples of what Donald calls the “integrative-mimetic” power of rhythm, especially as embodied in music. A Grateful Dead concert restores some semblance of a self to “The Last Hippy,” a profoundly brain-damaged patient named Greg. Although not a Deadhead himself, Sacks finds himself swaying and singing along with others at the concert. Music also binds together the pieces of minds rent apart by Alzheimer’s, and integrates mind and body in people suffering from Parkinson’s.
Referring to a theory championed by Crick and Christof Koch, Sacks adds that ordinary, healthy minds may depend crucially on rhythm. He explains:
Neuroscientists sometimes speak of "the binding problem," the process by which different perceptions or aspects of perception are bound together and unified. What enables us, for example, to bind together the sight, sound, smell and emotions aroused by the sight of a jaguar? Such binding in the nervous system is accomplished by rapid, synchronized firing of nerve cells in different parts of the brain. Just as rapid neuronal oscillations bind together different functional parts within the brain and nervous system, so rhythm binds together the individual nervous systems of a human community.
Impressed by the scope and ambition of this passage, I wrote “Wow!” in the margin beside it. When I interviewed Sacks in 2008 at my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, he modestly downplayed this rhythm proposal, and he objected when I described it as a "theory of everything." But if string theory qualifies as a theory of everything, surely Sacks’s vision of a world bound together by rhythm—rocking, rolling, thrumming to a common beat at all scales, from the neural to the communal--qualifies as well.