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“Amnesiac cellist astounds doctors with musical memory”

“German musician who lost nearly all memory after contracting herpes encephalitis can learn new pieces of music.”
Well, not exactly, if you read the article, but it’s a noteworthy finding, all the same.
This is a report about research by Carsten Finke, a neurologist at Charité university hospital in Berlin, presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Washington DC on Sunday  (13 Nov 2011). The original press release (which gives the person’s age as 68, not 71: but that might be the difference between his age when the study was done, and his age now, when it’s reported) is at:–Final%20Draft.pdf (along with news releases about other papers at the conference).

Extracts from  these sources:

The Guardian article: A professional cellist who lost nearly all of his memory after a virus destroyed parts of his brain has astonished doctors with his remarkable recall of music. The 71-year-old, known only as PM, had played with a major German orchestra before contracting the infection that devastated his brain’s memory centres in 2005. The illness left the musician with such profound amnesia he could remember almost nothing of his past and was unable to plan for the future. The only people he recognised were his brother and a care worker.

From the abstract in the press release: General episodic and semantic memory seemed to be almost absent. For example, P.M. was unable to name any German river, federal state or historic event. In addition his ability to recall professional knowledge or events was severely compromised. He was unable to name composers, famous cello players or personal professional events

From The Guardian again: PM was struck down by a rare herpes encephalitis infection that leaves many patients with brain damage even if they receive urgent treatment.  In PM’s case, the virus wiped out large parts of the brain’s medial temporal lobes, which are important for remembering events and facts.

From the Neuroscience press release: However, when tested on basic musical skills, researchers found the cellist was able to identify the intervals, scales, rhythms, and metrics of various musical pieces

Isn’t that a bit like being able to read, and being able to distinguish between grammatical and ungrammatical sentences, and rhyming and non-rhyming, scanning and non-scanning poetry? Would it be surprising if those skills (which are pretty fancy, really, but most literate people have them) were maintained?

Guardian: In one [test], the doctors took well-known pieces of music composed before the cellist fell ill, such as Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and paired them with similar sounding pieces composed after 2005. When PM was asked to say which he knew better, he named the older scores 93% of the time. In a later test [in which he was played pieces composed post-2005, so not part of his earlier experience], PM recognised 77% of pieces he had been played earlier in the day, suggesting he had some capacity to learn new music.

What would be really interesting would be ‘learn and play’, or just ‘learn and sing’. PM reportedly still plays cello at home, but isn’t willing to play in front of doctors. For someone musically skilled, playing a melody is much the same as recalling it – if you can remember it, you can play it. Even for non-musical people like me, I’d have to be able to sing some version of the tune to be able to say I recalled it. Recognising it as something familiar is much easier, and there’s lots of psych research to support that. But, in this case, both would be aspects of (rather vague) episodic memory – ‘I’ve heard that somewhere before’, and also semantic memory (I think the distinction between the two isn’t very clearcut here). So if PM can do the episodic/semantic recognition task, but not an equivalent active recall task (we don’t know: it’s not reported here, but maybe if it’s not reported, he couldn’t do it – just as Christina said) then that’s evidence of neurally different recognition and recall systems? I’m not well up on this stuff, and maybe there’s already evidence like this (and I’m not wholly convinced about all these separate neural modules), but I thought that was an interesting point.
And, also – can he remember the cello parts he used to play?* Is that a different kind of semantic memory from remembering the names of German rivers? Maybe so. The Guardian article mentions Clive Wearing, another musician with very dense anterograde amnesia, and a lot of retrograde amnesia, after an infection, rather like PM. Wearing does a very convincing job of conducting a choir singing complex music (on a BBC documentary, hosted by Jonathon Miller), but as soon as they get to the end of the piece, he can’t remember where he is, why he’s there, or who the members of the choir (which he’d worked with before his illness) are. It would be fascinating to know what PM’s skills are.

Here’s a video clip of Wearing doing that kind of thing (not the one I’ve seen before, and his performance here is nothing like as impressive as on that one – but the other was some years before, and I think he’s out of practice now). This also has some useful commentary from his wife Deborah – about the experience he finds himself in, as well as the musical skills. There’s lots more on YouTube about Wearing’s case, though I couldn’t find the exact clip I wanted.

But…  “Neighbours said the man still played the cello in his apartment, but he refused to play in front of doctors, perhaps because he felt he was no longer any good, Finke said.” Not surprising, and it might be better to leave the poor old guy alone:
“Good afternoon, Herr M. You won’t remember us, but we’ve come round again to probe the depths of this dreadful [and to you inexplicable, because you can’t remember the illness or the explanations] calamity that has overtaken you, and robbed you of most of your skills and dignity. Now, if you’ll just sit there and do whatever we ask, even though you don’t know us or why we’re here, everything will be fine.” – though if it can be presented to PM as “let’s listen to some music and then chat about it” I guess that’s OK. (Though someone on the Guardian comments board claimed that making a musician listen to the Four Seasons is cruel and unusual treatment in itself).


Guardian: Doctors now hope that PM’s ability to learn music can be used to improve his rehabilitation. One idea is to use musical notes to signify people and various tasks, such as taking medicine or calling someone.

If they really mean ‘musical notes’ that suggests a misunderstanding of what music and musical memory is all about.

*Though maybe professional musicians don’t remember so much. What you need to do is forget last week’s work and pick up and deal with this week’s work amazingly fast. There may also be an effect of habitually reading what you’re playing. I had been learning tunes and songs for 40+ years by ear (and usually learning the words by listening to performance, rather than by reading them) before I joined a choir and had to start reading music. Working by ear like that, I could learn and remember lots of songs without too much trouble – sometimes for many years without singing them. Working with the choir, where, although I can’t read music properly, I follow the music and use it as a prompt for what I’m singing, I’ve found I can’t remember my parts from one term to the next: once we’ve done the concert, they vanish (well, there are some relearning savings, as Ebbinghaus found for nonsense syllables). Plato famously felt that the spread of literacy would damage people’s memory abilities – maybe musical literacy does the same.


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