The modern caveman

One of the first cases discussed in “Musicophilia” — Oliver Sacks’s tome on the interaction of music with the brain — is a fellow who was hit by lightning while standing in a phone booth. In the months after the incident, he started to “hear” original classical music playing in his head. Though he’d never been musical before, he became obsessed with this music, taught himself how play the piano and eventually performed it in concerts.

As Sacks notes, Mozart had a similarly fluid relationship with music — the music just played in his head, already composed, and he just had to write it down. Mozart, of course, was not hit by lightning. He was, however, forced by his father to endlessly practice music, starting in early childhood, when the brain is most receptive to learning. So this opens up an interesting question: did getting hit by lightning affect the same neurological changes as practicing music over and over for thousands of hours?

It’s probably too complex question to answer with yes or no, but I suspect the answer is basically yes. This opens up an interesting idea: that we can “create” geniuses by altering the physiological structure of the brain (through chemicals, electric stimulation, intense psychotherapy etc.) I suspect, as time goes on, similar feats will be possible with other parts of the body. As we master steroids and muscular development, it will be very easy for a 98 pound weakling to turn into Charles Atlas.

This leads to a disconcerting thought. In the future, perhaps everyone will be capable of acts that can currently only be performed by an elite few in our society. And citizens of the future will look back at the people of our day in the same way we look back at brutish Neanderthals. Teachers may even stand before the students and say things like, “To see a perfect historical example of the blathering idiots that populated our past, you need look no further than [your name here.] This drooling moron could barely comprehend the simplest calculus theorems, had no chance of lifting the thousand pound weights we now use for light exercise, and could not compose even the simplest poly-harmonic sonata.”

To which the children would probably reply, “Wow, [your name here] sound like a real douchebag!”

And the teacher will say, “Yes, [your name here] was a real douchebag. Now, come children — let’s run a 30 second mile while devising variations on a theme written by Ornette Coleman!”

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