Noted neurologist Oliver Sacks has found common ground with the pastor of Harlem's famed Abyssinian Baptist Church: Both men believe in the healing power of music.
Sacks, the best-selling author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, will share the church stage Saturday with the famed gospel choir as part of the inaugural World Science Festival, a five-day celebration of science taking place in New York this week.
"It should be an exciting and unusual event," Sacks said in an interview this week. "I will talk about the therapeutic and beneficent power of music as a physician, and then their wonderful choir will perform. ... And the audience will make what they can of it."
Sacks' most recent book is Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, which examines the relationship between music and the brain, including its healing effect on people suffering from such diseases as Tourette's syndrome, Parkinson's, autism and Alzheimer's.
"Even with advanced dementia, when powers of memory and language are lost, people will respond to music," he said.
A Baptist church is an unusual venue for Sacks, a professor of clinical neurology and clinical psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center who was brought up Jewish but is not a religious believer.
But the central role of music in church makes Abyssinian a good place to discuss the myriad ways that music affects the human brain, said Sacks, who was played by Robin Williams in the movie version of "Awakenings."
Abyssinian's pastor, the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, said the choir is looking forward to performing with Sacks. He noted that music plays a central role in the healing power of prayer.
"What we have been studying ... is that when you pray, there's actually a physiological change in the body," he said. "Music is very much a part of this. There are certain notes that generate in the human body a kind of peacefulness."
Abyssinian was founded by Ethiopian sea traders in 1808 and is celebrating its bicentennial. It is a popular destination for European tourists who line up around the block in Harlem for Sunday services.
The event there is one of two Sacks is participating in during the World Science Festival. The other focuses on vision and the brain.
The festival was conceived by Columbia University physicist Brian Greene and his wife Tracy Day, a broadcast journalist.
"Our intent is to help shift the public perception of science, so that people realize that science is as important as art, literature, film, theater," Greene said.
Panelists include Nobel laureates as well as actors, dancers, philosophers and science journalists.
Greene said he hopes the festival, which received funding from several nonprofit foundations, will spread to other cities.
"There's a real capacity to have a national and even global celebration of science," he said.