Oliver Sacks: Changing the Way we Think about Our Brain can Change the World.

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

Artwork by Tammy T. Stone

 

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.” ~ Oliver Sacks

 

Recently, I was thinking about what the world would be like—or rather, how our perception of it would change—if we were suddenly told that Earth was now called Jupiter, and Jupiter was now called Earth.

How would we think about this other Earth, which we have never seen with our own eyes? How would we re-conceive the new Jupiter, a place now simultaneously “ours,” and yet filled with our imaginings of a place far, far away?

It was reported recently that acclaimed physician, author and professor of Neurology Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and as I heard the news, I realized how “Sacksian” my line of questioning above is—how much his ideas, gleaned through readings of his books, have influenced my way of being in the world.

Oliver Sacks has accomplished what very few others have: in addition to his tireless work in the field of neurology, he has managed, through his gifts as a writer and storyteller, to make the brain a fascinating and accessible subject for the layperson (or the “ordinary curious,” as I like to think of us!) I can never put his books down once I start reading them; they are like being led into a vast, incredibly deep and riveting ocean by a gentle, inquisitive and assured guide.

It would be impossible to underestimate how far-reaching the study of the brain is for anybody with a natural curiosity about the world, philosophy, metaphysics, psychology, and virtually every area under the sun. The brain is our incredibly nuanced and mysterious gateway, so we need to know: how does the “normal” brain function?

And, as Sacks has been investigating for decades, what do some of the “abnormal brain conditions” illuminate about the nature of human perception and experience?

What might life look and be like for someone who’s been blind from birth, and has suddenly gained access to sight? (Spoiler: not easy). Sack’s explorations of a rare case of this were turned into the film At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer.

Among some other well-known research topics by Sacks are: encephalitis lethargica, which has people unable to move, sometimes for decades, explored in his book “Awakenings” and the film of the same name, starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams; colorblindness; aphasia (the inability to form speech), Tourette’s syndrome; hallucinations; synesthesia, in which the “wires cross” and a person might “see sounds” or “hear colours,” and Korsakov’s syndrome, in which people suffer from memory loss (so that, for example, a 60-year-old might still believe she/he were a 30 year-old).

Many of us will never directly experience any or most of these conditions, but we may well approximate subtle variations of some of them. For example, maybe we haven’t lost our memories of the last twenty years of our lives, but we’ve certainly lost many memories, struggle to remember things, and wonder how much of what we remember is fiction.

We may have “normal” brains, but how is it that we live in a colour world, but can “understand” or process black-and-white films with such ease? It’s really amazing, how much of a “whole” world we can create with some of the “pieces” missing.

This question, as a film student, brought me to one of my favorite filmmakers, Sergei Eisenstein, who didn’t have synesthesia, but longed to create a synesthetic world on film, where the magical experiences of sight and sound would become all intertwined into a harmonic whole in the viewer’s mind—a sensory world that would cut straight to the emotions.

Most of Eisenstein’s films, because of the era, were made in black-and-white, but he was obsessed by the possibilities colour cinema would open up; reading his dreams about making colour films, you’d think he was talking about voyaging into the entire universe and all its galaxies—such were the horizons one “small switch” in perception could open up. He was an artist and visionary, working with his tool of cinema to grasp at the very limits of what humans, as thinking, perceiving and emoting beings, can do.

For him, film was the grand stage mediating between subject and object, observer and observed, experiencing and experienced. For Oliver Sacks, this grand stage, affording so many possibilities for knowledge and growth, is the human brain.

Using actual case studies, Sacks has fashioned anecdotal scenarios out of the most seemingly bizarre outreaches of brain function, and also out of his impassioned beliefs in the power of music to dig right into our souls, and has allowed us entry into a spellbinding kaleidoscope of human existence. People like the man engaged with in “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” who does just that, are an invitation to consider the very broad arenas of human subjectivity, identity, and how we relate to the world through thing like our senses, cognitive abilities, and memory.

It’s a dizzying, tantalizing world Sacks has brought to life for us. Here are just a few of his words and observations. Much more can be found in his collection of books!

On Music, Art and Healing

“It really is a very odd business that all of us, to varying degrees, have music in our heads.”

“There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself. Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised, should not complain if the balance sometimes shifts too far and our musical sensitivity becomes a vulnerability.”

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears – it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

“Certainly it’s not just a visual experience – it’s an emotional one. In an informal way I have often seen quite demented patients recognize and respond vividly to paintings and delight in painting at a time when they are scarcely responsive to words and disoriented and out of it. I think that recognition of visual art can be very deep.”

On Perception

“Perception is never purely in the present—it has to draw on experience of the past; (…). We all have detailed memories of how things have previously looked and sounded, and these memories are recalled and admixed with every new perception.”

On Hallucinations

“With any hallucinations, if you can do functional brain imagery while they’re going on, you will find that the parts of the brain usually involved in seeing or hearing—in perception—have become super active by themselves. And this is an autonomous activity; this does not happen with imagination.

“This usually occurs at the moment when my head hits the pillow at night; my eyes close and…I see imagery. I do not mean pictures; more usually they are patterns or textures, such as repeated shapes, or shadows of shapes, or an item from an image, such as grass from a landscape or wood grain, wavelets or raindrops…transformed in the most extraordinary ways at a great speed. Shapes are replicated, multiplied, reversed in negative, etc. Color is added, tinted, subtracted. Textures are the most fascinating; grass becomes fur becomes hair follicles becomes waving, dancing lines of light, and a hundred other variations and all the subtle gradients between them that my words are too coarse to describe.”

On Nature

“My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”

On Speaking

“We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.”

On Language

“Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”

On the Brain and Imagination

“…when the brain is released from the constraints of reality, it can generate any sound, image, or smell in its repertoire, sometimes in complex and “impossible” combinations.”

On the Survival Instinct

“But it must be said from the outset that a disease is never a mere loss or excess—that there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be: and to study or influence these means, no less than the primary insult to the nervous system, is an essential part of our role as physicians.”

On Bliss

“There are moments, and it is only a matter of five or six seconds, when you feel the presence of the eternal harmony…a terrible thing is the frightful clearness with which it manifests itself and the rapture with which it fills you. If this state were to last more than five seconds, the soul could not endure it and would have to disappear. During these five seconds I live a whole human existence, and for that I would give my whole life and not think that I was paying too dearly…”

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