Headphones attached to an iPod are placed on his ears—an iPod, Sacks says, “containing, we know, his favorite music.” As the music plays, Henry’s eyes, previously listless, grow large. His body begins to move. He quietly sings along.
And when the headphones are removed, he talks and talks and talks. The music appears to have awakened him from a deep sleep. Henry is made new.
Nearly three years and 1.4 million views later, we discover that Henry’s story is part of a larger project. “Music can conjure up memories from the past, transport us to another place and make us feel incredible joy or profound sadness. A new documentary called Alive Inside takes a look at how music is changing the lives of some older Americans.” This was the pitch for the June 30, 2014, show Katie Couric aired to promote “a joyous cinematic exploration of music’s capacity to reawaken our souls and uncover the deepest parts of our humanity.”
Alive Inside won the Audience Award at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, and based on its trailer, it’s easy to imagine how viewers watch the transformations on screen and leave feeling elated that an iPod can miraculously help Alzheimer’s and dementia patients recover their lost selves. And it will soon be coming to a city near you.
I teach a course on music, neuroscience, and ethics, and Henry featured prominently in one of our class discussions last year. Most of my students see nothing but the upside when they witness Henry’s change from catatonia to euphoria. And testimonials about the impact of personalized playlists provide further support to the notion that well-chosen music can profoundly affect a patient’s life in exclusively positive ways.
So at the risk of being a skunk at the garden party, let me raise some concerns about these therapeutic interventions, lest we all become irrationally exuberant about the power of music in the lives of those we love.
Go back to the original video. At 3'45", Henry talks about what music means to him and identifies Cab Calloway—a performer not known for religious music—as one of his favorite artists. At 4'30", he sings his favorite Cab Calloway song: I’ll Be Home for Christmas.
But I’ve not been able to turn up a recording of Calloway singing this song. In looking at two different books about the songwriter and bandleader, I found no mention of the 1943 song that Bing Crosby made famous. Out of more than 300 different versions compiled by a website devoted to cover songs, Cab Calloway is not mentioned. Calloway did perform on A Jazzy Christmas at the Cotton Club, but unless his Harlem Hospitality incorporates the tune, the song isn’t represented on that album by Calloway.
Perhaps Henry saw Calloway perform the song live at a significant moment in Henry’s life. Or perhaps Henry, pressed by the interviewer to come up with an answer about his favorite Cab Calloway song, manufactured and mimicked a non-existent performance. It is a fact that Henry named a favorite song. But the truth—both of what his favorite song really is and of the existence of the song he named—appears to lie elsewhere.