Oliver Sacks is 82 years old, and near death. He announced in February of this year that the ocular cancer for which he was treated nine years ago has metastasized to his liver. This hasn’t slowed him down! His Facebook page is active, with five posts in the past week, including a supportive message to Jimmie Carter, ten years older than Sacks and similarly stricken with metastatic cancer.
When you read Sacks, you encounter dozen of long names for complex neurological disorders, like achromatopsia and postencephalitic syndrome, but most of us would probably “diagnose” him as suffering from “attention deficit disorder”. He was beyond scatterbrained, and unfortunately lost or destroyed as much written work as he eventually published. He was unable to work in neurological research because he was absent minded and “too dangerous” in the laboratory. With the help of extremely dedicated assistants and editors, he published a dozen books and innumerable articles. I can’t figure out what “genre” he should be assigned to, aside from “non-fiction”. (One critic actually accused him of making up the case histories he recounts.)
Sacks approached each of his patients as the bearer of a unique story, and tried to read the whole life, not just to identify the disease that caused the person to seek medical care. His writings consist mostly of case histories. This has left him somewhat at odds with the academic medical establishment.
Sacks was a non-linear thinker. His mind ran off in so many directions that he would continually add footnotes to his drafts, until the footnotes exceeded the volume of the book.
Sacks was related to or acquainted with an astonishing number of public figures, especially scientists, like Francis Crick (of double helix fame) and Stephen Jay Gould, and poet W H Auden. In many cases, they exchanged manuscripts and ideas extensively.
The best part of this book is the next-to-last chapter, entitled “A New Vision of the Mind”. Sacks is wildly excited about the prospect that modern neurophysiology will, in the next few decades, generate a comprehensive scientific understanding of conscious. CONSCIOUSNESS! It’s like saying that science is ready to explain God. When Sacks began his studies in neurology, the brain was deeply mysterious and “mind” could not be “studied” at all. Suitable tools were not available. Now, fifty+ plus years later, the brain can be imaged in incredible detail. Sacks believes that the theory known as “neural Darwinism” will yield a revolutionary change in our understanding of what it means to be “aware”. Relevant authors and books are cited. This chapter is a great springboard for anyone who wants to understand contemporary neuroscience.
Oliver Sacks is an unusual intellectual and I wholeheartedly recommend his books, especially if you occasionally wonder if your mind is playing tricks on you.