Wednesday, March 09, 2005


The life and times of Oliver Sacks, a "clash of sober form and exuberant imagination":

"I was sent in to places where it was felt I couldn't do much harm. One of them was a migraine clinic." His first book, Migraine (1970), from which he had suffered as a child, gave clear signs of his later method, though it was addressed as much to sufferers as to onlookers. It was full of quirky case histories — one patient who could only avert an attack with violent sexual intercourse; another, who arranged his entire life around the regular eruptions of the disease. In all this, his interest was not in what the illness did to the patients, but in what it came to mean to them. The kind of cure he was looking for, one felt, was not one where the symptoms merely disappeared, but where they were incorporated into the life, and almost enriched it.

Is Sacks a real scientist?

For most of the 20th century, it seemed science, with its impersonal descriptions of the world, and consciousness, which we experience in the first person, must be mutually exclusive terms. Science dealt in facts, and the way things are: consciousness only told us about the way things seemed to be. Even in psychology, the study of conscious experience was largely taboo. Sacks's books were one of the first and most important public demonstrations that there might be such a thing as a science of consciousness. It's a subject that suits his dualities perfectly: "I regard everything I write as being at the intersection of the first and third person, biography and autobiography, as it were."

Somehow, his stories and his style have captured the popular imagination.

Many films have been based on his case studies. I first became aware of Oliver Sacks when I heard Michael Nyman's opera based on his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (also made into a play):

What primarily interested me was that Sacks does not describe Dr. P's neurological problem, but rather takes the reader through his own step by step discovery of the patient's condition: narrative as process, demanding a parallel musical process. The text contains very little direct portrayal of Dr. P's daily experience of visual agnosia but instead reveals his affliction through a series of diagnostic tests conducted in two sessions — the first in Dr. Sacks' consulting room, the second at the home of Dr. and Mrs. P. Each test presents a new piece of diagnostic evidence and, in the opera, would be treated as an individual narrative event: each of these self-contained musical events would then be linked together into a large-scale sequential narrative — a number opera with a difference.

One television series walked the public through the very private worlds constructed via odd neurological conditions.

A recent story about a blind painter brought to mind Oliver Sacks' accounts of blind people having their sight restored and the cognitive overload that resulted. The story about Virgil originally appeared in The New Yorker and was later incorporated into An Anthropologist on Mars (PDF here).

Sacks' books have been attacked
...for confusing the boundaries between literature and science. The complaint took various forms, but it all came down to the same thing: these were wonderful stories, but where were the facts? Ray Dolan, a neuroscientist in London, puts this most sharply: "Whether Dr Sacks has provided any scientific insights into the neurological conditions he has written about in his numerous books is open to question. I have always felt uncomfortable about this side of this work and especially the tendency for Dr Sacks to be an ever present dramatis persona."

It strikes me as an outdated, but undervalued, method for doing science, or undertaking any investigation. It still has its uses.

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