Tuesday, July 9, 2013

In praise of Oliver Sacks

     The world is filled with fascinating things.
     But since most of us are busy shuffling a rut from home to office and back, filling our hours with the quotidian crap we must endure to pay our bills and keep our children from becoming methamphetamine addicts, we usually don’t have the time or energy to sniff out fascination for ourselves.
     Thus it helps—a lot— to have a guide, someone whose job it is to find marvels and tell us about them.
     For the past 40 years, amazement-hungry readers have had no better friend than Oliver Sacks, the British-born neuroscientist who has turned his tireless curiosity with everything from the mind to music to metal to ferns into a dozen books that challenge, frighten, entertain and enlighten.
     Sacks, whose 80th birthday is today, provided you are reading this on Tuesday, July 9,  was well into his career as a doctor when he realized—during an amphetamine binge, he recently admitted—that he could carry on the tradition of the erudite Victorian medical writers he so admired, presenting his case studies, not to a narrow audience of fellow physicians, but to the general public.
     And so he did, starting with his first book, Migraine, published in 1970, which set a pattern for combining the personal (Sacks suffers from intense migraine headaches) with the scientific.
     It was his second book, Awakenings, that brought him wider public notice in 1973. Awakenings is about a group of patients Sacks treated at the Bronx's Beth Abraham Hospital in the late 1960s who had been stricken during an epidemic of encephalitis lethargica— sleeping sickness—in the 1920s and remained in near-comas for almost half a century. They were brought back to consciousness, awakened as it were, by doses of L-DOPA, a chemical normally produced in the brain which had just become available artificially. It return them to awareness for increasingly shorter windows of lucidity, and made for a deeply weird and scary book, the frozen post-encephalitics, their heads tilted back in mute screams, as unsettling an image as anything found in Stephen King. Only they were real.
     If you are looking for a place in Sacks’ canon to start, I’d say begin with his fourth book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a catalogue of bizarre and, to most readers, heretofore unimagined neurological woes—strange voids and ticks, people who lose the sense of their own bodies and are, for instance, unable to recognize their own legs, and so keep trying to push them out of bed, believing someone has tucked a corpse limb under the covers. A patient who lost his sense of leftness, and could only clean the right side of the plate. The man who saw his wife and thought “a hat,” then tried to snatch her up and put her on this head.
     These case histories cut to the cold reality of the biological nature of our minds, and had Sacks done nothing else, he would have added greatly to the public understanding of the weird electro-chemical glop brewing between our ears. But Sacks then wandered the world, like the explorer/scientists of old he so admired, to places like the atoll of Pingelap, a speck in the Pacific, to study a population where one in three people have the colorblindness gene, an adventure documented in his book, The Island of the Colorblind.
     While science is his goal, there is always a humanity, a sweetness to Sacks—he notes being met at Pingelap by children waving banana leaves. In addition to all the fantastic facts he marshals, he proves the most delightful companion and guide, the caring, competent, deeply knowledgeable doctor we yearn for all our lives and seldom find. His only pure memoir, Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood presents that rarest of literary accomplishments—an interesting story of a happy childhood (mostly, except when he is sent to a Dickensian boarding school during the Blitz) in his case spent among eccentric scientific relatives in London and parents who were both doctors happy to call the boy in to help with an operation. Here is a lad who, turning 11, tells people he is now sodium—the atomic number of sodium being 11.
     Sacks grew into a strange guy—painfully shy and solitary, celibate for decades, living alone on City Island, a dot in Long Island Sound. His writing is not perfect–he sometimes forgets that his readers do not share his deep range of medical knowledge, and can toss off a sentence like this one, in Musicophilia: "The tumor, her doctors felt, was malignant (though it was probably an oligodendroglioma, of relatively low malignancy) and needed to be removed.” That sends the diligent reader scrambling to the dictionary to piece together whatever "an oligodendroglioma" might be (a tumor in certain cells of the nervous system, as best I can figure out).
     Most authors start to coast as they age, taking refuge in the safe and the familiar, becoming parodies of themselves. But as Sacks has gotten older, he has gotten better, more personal, more candid. Fearless even, writing about his own oddities, his own neurological conditions, why he has great difficulty recognizing faces and navigating his own neighborhood. He also details his own youthful experiments with drugs, going back to 1953 when he and a fellow Oxford biology student wrote to Sandoz Pharmaceuticals in Switzerland and ordered 50 micrograms of then perfectly legal LSD, which the company dutifully mailed to the students. This dabbling grew into heavy drug use, which he describes in his most recent book, Hallucinations, writing in frightening detail about both the downside, but also the value of his experiences, a balance refreshing in our straight-laced, Just-Say-No era.
     This isn’t the venue to give Sacks full justice—he is a man of many parts. But it’s a beginning, and given that I constantly encounter— to my amazement—people who have never heard of Sacks, never mind read him, I thought that his 80th birthday is an appropriate moment to wish him well and, more importantly, to tip readers off to the treat awaiting them. Start with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat—trust me, you won't regret it.

                             Human brains stored at the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, 1540 S. Ashland Ave.


  1. Add me to the list of those who've never read Oliver Sacks, though I've certainly heard of him, mainly because of the movie "Enlightenment". After reading your blog post I regret not having taken the time years earlier to learn more about this incredible humanitarian, but now is as good a time as ever to begin. Thanks for the recommendation.

  2. I've been meaning to read that book for YEARS. Thanks for the gentle reminder, Neal. He is most definitely a man to be celebrated.

  3. I have read " A Hat", but never knew all this about THE man. Makes me want to read more about it.

  4. Anyone reading the Steinberg Blog is bright and probably has a truckload of intellectual curiosity. Thus it is a safe assumption that they are lifetime learners.

    Half of one’s lifetime learning should be as a dilettante. Thus reading popularized stuff like Sacks is great. One needs the breadth of knowledge.

    But the other half of lifetime learning should be a challenge and a struggle to learn a few subjects deeply. That is to learn them on the level of graduate students.

    For example undertake a five year project to read:

    1) Shakespeare and much of the secondary literature thereon;

    2) Epic poetry – the Iliad, the Odyssey, Beowulf, Grendel, and the secondary literature thereon.

    3) Feynman’s undergrad textbook LECTURES ON PHYSICS.

    I am presently studying the technical mathematical and economic literature on the Wall Street Debacle of 2007 -- 2008 along with popularized material by Taleb, Mandelbrot, Posner, etc.

    BTW: The metaphors used in the physical and social sciences at the university level are simpler mathematical concepts – not physical objects. Thus abstract concepts are described in terms of less abstract concepts. Some of these LESS abstract concepts are first derivative, second derivative, integration, the Euler Number, the natural logarithm, a normal (Gaussian) distribution, variance, standard deviation, ordinary differential equations, and partial differential equations. This language is merely second nature to foreign students studying at major U.S. universities.

  5. Being a diligent reader of YOUR work.... I've scrambled not to the dictionary, but to Google. Turns out, in September I'll be Cadmium. I too, never heard of Sacks. Fortunately, I'll be able to squeeze him in between my busy schedule and reading your fascinating work, Neil. Now, where's my hat?! HONEY??!!!

  6. Sacks just wrote a lovely NYT piece about turning 80:


  7. Great hat cover shot on this page BTW (Optimo Hats I presume).

  8. Yes indeed, the downtown location.

  9. Oh wonderful, Neil! Into the first part of "Hallucinations." I've read most of Sacks' works. Interestingly, a new fellow that I'm working with had told me she had worked insane >100 hour weeks and I did ask her if she had any hallucinations! This book will bring comfort to those who experience non-psychotic "misperceptions" and make the whole subject easier to discuss. Apparently, they are much more common than one would think. Thanks so much.

  10. I have only seen the film version of "Awakenings," but I think I would start with "Migraine," for I have been plague by migraines for most of my 49 years.

  11. Thanks for reposting this. On your recommendation I did read "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat". It was superb. I especially was moved by the essay "The Lost Mariner". I can't imagine living with the emptiness of Korsakoff's syndrome -- Here is the Wikipedia summary of this essay:

    "The Lost Mariner", about Jimmie G., who has lost the ability to form new memories due to Korsakoff's syndrome. He can remember nothing of his life since the end of World War II, including events that happened only a few minutes ago. He believes it is still 1945 (the segment covers his life in the 70s and early 80s), and seems to behave as a normal, intelligent young man aside from his inability to remember most of his past and the events of his day-to-day life. He struggles to find meaning, satisfaction, and happiness in the midst of constantly forgetting what he is doing from one moment to the next."


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