Tag Archives: Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks (1933 – 2015) Rest in Peace

Oliver Sacks died today. We are fortunate that we can look forward to the posthumous publication of works in progress or from his voluminous journals. I reviewed his recently published autobiography on August 24.

His obituary in the New York Times states “Dr. Sacks variously described his books and essays as case histories, pathographies, clinical tales or ‘neurological novels.’ ”

I like “pathographies”. If anyone deserves a neologism, it is Oliver Sacks. In fact, he can have a whole genre, ‘neurological novels’.

In Sacks’s memory, I plan to read Musicophila, in the expanded version published in 2008. And maybe increase my daily intake of Mozart.

In a recent New York Times article (August 14), Sacks described his state of mind as he faced death. “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

The only other author I have encountered with such skill at finding and telling stories is Robert Coles, who wrote The Call of Stories and The Spiritual Life of Children. I’m pleased to report that Coles is still alive, now aged 85.

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MY Life, MY Brain and how to spend 20 minutes of my precious time

I just spent several hours reading the most recent book by neurologist Oliver Sacks, and writing about it. (See preceding blog post.) Then I settled down to decide whether I should resume use of the website “Lumosity”, which claims to train my brain.

I signed on with Lumosity last March, encouraged by my personal physician, (yet another) new provider, in whom I had confided my concerns over absentmindedness. Hey, I’ve got sketchy genes – my mother was disabled by Alzhiemer’s when she was younger than I am now. So of course, when asked about general health concerns, I mentioned cognitive decline, aka dementia. I was advised to try an on line brain training program.

Lumosity presents me with five “games” each day, taking twenty minutes or less. The website tracks my performance, letting me know if I’ve accomplished a new personal best or “top five” performance. I can review my scores. Most games are offered at many levels – I move up automatically as my skills become sharper.

What did I accomplish in 4+ months? After initial fluctuations, I seemed to be on a steady, slow upward trajectory. My strengths are problem solving and verbal fluency; my weaknesses are attention and flexibility.

Lumosity claims to be “fun”. Nope. The only game I actually enjoy measures verbal fluency, and it comes up only once every week or so. A few games are so frustrating that I reject them. (I can request a substitute game at any time.) One involves remembering two steps backwards in a sequence. Another shows billiard balls bouncing off “bumpers”. I find it hard to predict or remember their movements.

Another game I find challenging involves figuring out a “rule” for acceptance or rejection of patterns. The number of characteristics (shape, color, number, etc.) increases over time, up to a current total of six. I can succeed if take notes. But I don’t know if that is “permitted”.

Did I get “smarter”? Very hard to say. I continue to feel that keeping organized is getting harder. But I also continue to work at a job that makes significant intellectual demands. I work daily with a database system I can only describe as hostile. I assemble and manipulate data. I answer random questions, almost all quantitative. It’s hard work. I worry about errors. I have to document my data management activities very carefully, or I won’t be able to resume where I left off.

After 4+ months of daily Lumosity exercise, I took a vacation, a series of road trips. I don’t own a laptop, and still habitually go “off-line” during vacations. (Yes, I know about smart phones and i-pads. I own a smart phone. Don’t nag.) I skipped my brain training for a month.

Back from vacation, I pondered resuming my daily Lumosity sessions. They are a minor chore, providing satisfaction similar to loading the dishwasher. (As in, at least I accomplished SOMETHING today…) But I can think of more satisfying ways to spend my time. If it’s my computer time we are discussing, I would rather write posts for my blog. (Hello, friends!)

But my doctor recommended continuing with Lumosity, at least for the remainder of my one year subscription. So today I started again, then checked my scores against past performance. Overall, I dropped about 1%. So, is Lumosity a good use of my time? Uncertain, but I plan to hang in (aiming for 5 days out of 7) until the next time I need to make a decision, which will be in March, when my pre-paid year expires.

Oliver Sacks, by the way, offered nothing AT ALL to help me make this decision.

Friends, if you have used an on-line brain training site, I would love to hear about your experience! And anything else you have to say on this subject. Stay sharp, now!

“On the Move: A Life” by Oliver Sacks

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.