Oliver Sacks: The mind’s most faithful explorer

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It was no surprise, by the end, that was as good at walking his readers through the mysteries of dying as he had been at analysing the many astonishments of living.

He died at 82 this week of cancer, after a lifetime of inquiry into the oddities and miracles of the human brain. The neurologist left behind an extraordinary body of work, 13 that were exploration literature as much as they were classics of science writing: compassionate, startling in their discoveries, filled with the curiosity that was his hallmark, and strikingly humane. The most popular of these were Awakenings (1973), The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1985) and Hallucinations (2012).

The most personal were Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001), his Oaxaca Journal (2002), and his memoir, On The Move, published just before his death, where he wrote of his love for biking and weightlifting, his early explorations into travel, sex and hallucinatory drugs, his homosexuality and his decades of celibacy, and of the science and scientists who had filled him with inspiration.

Sacks’ great insight, mapped in Awakenings, was propelled by his use of empathy as a diagnostic tool. Few other neurologists of the 1970s would have been able to look at patients who’d been in coma for years, and see the individual humans suspended, conscious and lucid, in that long sleep, but Sacks could – and his experiments with L-Dopa brought them back to life, with unexpected repercussions.

In a 1985 interview, Sacks said: “Illness and deep illness may force one to think, even if one hasn’t been a thinking person before. And perhaps force one to think in the terms in which all people think of, which are terms of metaphor, of the imagination, of myth.”

Lawrence Weschler, who had collected notes for a biography of Sacks that was never written in the end, tells the story of the neurologist at a medical convention on Tourette’s syndrome. “Ninety-two specialists gave papers on EKG readings, electrical conductivity of the brain – all kinds of technical subjects,” Weschler writes. “Sacks, the 93rd, got up and said, ‘It’s strange. I’ve been sitting here all weekend and heard not one sentence on what it might be like to be a Touretter.’”

In his notebooks – Sacks, like many great writers, was an obsessive collector of case studies, a squirreler of notes, a keeper of journals – the broad frame of his obsessions comes into view. He saw patients as people first, but he was fascinated by the strange and sometimes beautiful way in which neurological dysfunctions could create a menagerie of odd conditions. He had lifelong prosopagnosia, a rare condition marked by extreme difficulty in recognising faces – most sufferers with this condition learn to compensate, becoming experts at recognising voices, character, ways of dressing, and, as Sacks remarked, it made those who had it both friendly and reticent.

Among the case studies he collected were: blind people with “tongue vision”; a grandmother who overcomes aphasia (a language disorder caused by brain damage); colour-blind islanders whose worlds were richly patterned with light and shadow; an autistic professor who has trouble comprehending humans but has an instinctive closeness with his animals; and his own experience after a mountaineering accident where he grappled with the sense that his leg was no longer part of his body.

This was rich material, but what made his writing unforgettable went deeper. It was Sacks’ gift that he understood intuitively that even rare conditions were still part of being human, that what people saw as neurological dysfunction could breed richness and adaptability. As a writer, he followed in the footsteps of the great 19th century neurologists and psychiatrists, writing what the anthropologist Clifford Geertz called “thick description” – not lumping patients together but looking carefully at their individuality.

Daniel J Levitin, fellow neurologist and author, wrote in tribute: “Oliver taught all of us about the power and joy that come from being curious. Oliver was curious about a great many things: absolute pitch, insects, hallucinations, mind-altering experiences, perceptual disorders, and theatre are just a few.”

This compassion and curiosity was even more remarkable because of Sacks’ childhood. In 1999, he wrote an essay for The New Yorker, “Brilliant Light”, that started with love – the love of metals, his fascination with gold, copper, bronze, zinc, his curiosity with their structure. Growing up in London, he badgered his parents with questions about electricity, colour, science and, always, he returned to metals – why were they so shiny, so hard, so heavy?

In 1939, worried for their children’s safety in war-time, his parents sent Oliver and his brother off to a school in the Midlands. Greystone was a horrible school, punitive in the “beatings, the starvings, the tormentings” handed out by the principal and his staff.

Sacks and his brother never complained. In a response that probably formed his future life, he found refuge in his own mind, turning first to numbers, and then to botany, and then to the elements. “Brilliant Light” is a long essay, but only six paragraphs are given over to the misery he suffered at school; the remainder is about excitement, discovery, the slow, dizzy, irrevocable process of falling in love with science.

At the end of his life, that love shone through the series of absolutely remarkable essays Sacks wrote in The New York Times on dying, transience, and the great good fortune of having been “a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet”.

In February, he wrote of learning that his luck had run out: “Now I am face to face with dying.” He was curious about this part of life, acknowledging that he was not without fear, but more eager to express his gratitude. “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written.” In July, he wrote in “My Periodic Table” of surrounding himself, so close to death, with metals and minerals, as he had done as a boy, “little emblems of eternity”.

And on August 14, he wrote the last of his columns, “Sabbath”, reflecting on his faith (and lack of it), his mother’s cruelty when she learned he was and how those scars finally healed, late in his life, and he wrote of the peace of the traditional Jewish Sabbath. His thoughts were not on the spiritual or the supernatural, but on what it meant to live a good and worthwhile life, and to finally come to a day of rest.

(Published in the Business Standard, September 5, 2015)






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