By Dr. Jim Ferguson

I don’t believe people go to a concert as an intellectual exercise.  We go to experience the joy of live music.  There’s something about a live performance that may be akin to home cooking.  Both are extemporaneous and a bit unpredictable.  My wife, Becky, is a wonderful cook.  However, we still laugh at a “French-y” dish she once made using a sweet sauterne instead of a dry table wine.  It was a memorable disaster.

I’ve often marveled at our ability to “pop in” a CD and experience an almost perfect recording of La Boheme, Alison Kraus or Marvin Gaye.  I’m a big fan of opera, but aside from specific arias, I won’t listen to an opera on the radio or on a CD.  I need a live performance with operatic staging, acting and drama added to music and vocals to produce a live performance that is at times magical.

Unlike some of my friends, I’m not a fan of the 70s pop group, ABBA.  You may know something of their music from the 2008 movie “Momma Mia!”  Nonetheless, I recently went with them to an ABBA concert and stumbled across this week’s essay.  The Swedish performers were dressed and sang just like the original group members who were also from Sweden, and brought to mind the finest quality of Elvis and Beatles impersonators.  But, what struck me was not their heavy Swedish accent when interacting with the audience; it was the absence of accent in the songs they performed.  As I sat there and listened, the internist in me asked, “Why?”

We live in a world of sight and sound, registered and conveyed to the brain by a sophisticated sensory neural net.  The brain sits inside our skull, as in a cave, and is aware of the outside world as it interprets the sensory impulses presented.  In ancient times being alive was associated with breathing and later a beating heart.  Now we know that our humanity resides in the brain and in our collected thoughts.  Obviously, a diseased brain changes everything.

We recognize that strokes damage the brain and occur when blood flow to the brain is interrupted.  This most commonly occurs when a clot forms over a ruptured cholesterol (fat) laden plaque.  Strokes can also occur when clots pass to the brain (embolize) from a fibrillating heart or if a blood vessel ruptures.  The same pathophysiology (disease process) of clotting can occur in the heart circulation and produce a heart attack.  When blood flow is only temporally disrupted in the brain circulation a “TIA” or transient ischemic attack occurs and is often a warning sign of vascular disease.  If unrecognized or untreated, a permanent interruption of circulation can occur and produce a stroke.  When an area of the brain is deprived of oxygen and nutrients long enough death of brain cells results in a stroke.

Although the brain functions as a whole, diverse areas control various body parts and functions.  Broca’s area controls speech and is commonly affected in stroke syndromes.  In a right handed individual the speech center is always found in the left side of the brain above and in front of the ear.  Interestingly, in left handed people the speech center is in the right hemisphere of the brain only one third of the time.

Coordination and connection between the two halves of the brain is extensive across a neural trunk deep in the brain called the corpus callosum.  You may have heard about a surgical procedure called a “lobotomy” that severs the corpus callosum and the connection between the two lobes of the brain producing a more docile patient.  This was the fictitious operation done on Jack Nicholson in the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  The same operation was ordered by Joseph Kennedy on his “mildly retarded” daughter in 1941.

I asked several of my musically trained friends about my linguistic observations from the ABBA concert.  They were all well aware that speech is different when sung.  The thought is that words are sung phonetically and allows the performer to overcome language and dialects.  Furthermore, singers learn rhythm and patterns of songs and can mimic the original performers even if sung in a foreign language.  Interestingly, someone who stutters, like the country crooner Mel Tillis, doesn’t stutter when they sing.  Music therapy has even been used to help stroke patients with their speech and communication problems by emphasizing rhythm and melody and using words that are sung.  I once had a patient who could not speak after a stroke, but could communicate by singing.

We tend to think of people as left brain and analytical or right brain and artistic.  This is a gross oversimplification because we need and use both sides of the brain.  This is certainly true in music where the left brain is emphasized in reading music and the right brain in learning tunes that we’ve heard.  I don’t read music, but I sing beautifully in the shower!  Maybe I’m right brain dominant after all and the Mr. Spock in me is my logical shadow.  No, I believe my writing – and my bathroom singing – has developed as a genetically recessive artistic trait that I never knew I possessed.

In a previous essay I described the Myers-Brigg’s typology which demonstrates a person’s dominant traits and their shadow talents.  Maybe my latent writing talent was a shadow trait brought to light by The Focus. Thank you, Knox Focus!