Friday, August 9, 2013

The 'Medical Lit' Hit List & Oliver Sacks

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
De Quincey inspired Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique
Take a pinch of Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821) and a tab of Aldous Huxley’s LSD, mix in a rich broth of Oxford education, strain through thirty years of clinical experience in the Bronx, spice with a Columbia University professorship in neurology, and sift in a continuous stream of ever evolving brain science…and you have something approaching Oliver Sacks.
The New York Times calls Sacks “the poet laureate of medicine.” You may recognize this teller of clinical tales from his essays since 1992 in the New Yorker, under “The Neurologist’s Notebooks” heading. These shorter studies often end up anchoring a train of revelations in Sacks’ sensational books, such as The Mind's Eye (2010), which reel out the improbable alterations in life caused by various levels of brain damage or crisis.
The Bronx Brit Bard of the Brain
His first exploration, Migraine (1970), attempted to explain the debilitating, mysterious triggers for brain pain, and eventually led Sacks into neurological forays into color blindness, music, the ability of the blind to ‘see’, delusions, and memory loss. You might be familiar with the movie Awakenings, with Robin Williams and Robert de Niro, about a forsaken group of catatonic sleeping sickness patients who miraculously came to themselves, albeit briefly, after an unorthodox medical regimen. Based on Sacks’ book about his experiments with L-DOPA in a Bronx ward, the real life outcome was almost as dramatic as the fictionalization.
In 1993, Sacks introduced a severely autistic woman who nevertheless earned a Ph.D in animal sciences, and then revolutionized the mechanics of cattle handling and slaughtering (see Temple Grandin’s books or the eponymous movie, starring Claire Danes).
More recently, Sacks shared stories about Clive Wearing, a man whose memory only lasts a few seconds, or the surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome, or the doctor struck by lightning who suddenly became an obsessive pianist, or the woman called “Stereo Sue” who only realized in her 50s that she had seen her entire life out of one eye when she had a perfectly good second eye. Just as Stereo Sue had to learn to see in 3-D, Sacks recently had to navigate a newly flattened world in his 70s, with the loss of vision in one eye due to an inoperable tumor.
In 2012, Sacks published an expanded version of his fascinating New Yorker piece, “Altered States,” about his own weird odysseys with LSD, hardcore sleep aids, mescaline, speed, morphine, and a belladonna-like drug, starting in the 60s. The result is Hallucinations (2012), which not only reveals Sacks’ somewhat scary psychedelic trips, but also attempts to dissect the varieties of hallucinogenic experience, such as the auras preceding epileptic fits or migraines, the phenomenon of sightless people ‘seeing’ patterns or figures or obstructions, or the experience of feeling sure that something is there when in fact, it is not—like a ghost, or a presence. He relates his rather famous anecdotes about a heady philosophical exchange with a spider, and the day that he had a long conversation with two old friends in his kitchen, took orders, and made them a meal, only to find out that they had never been in his apartment at all, but in fact, were miles and miles away.
Ultimately, for Sacks, it is always about finding out how our glorious thinking organ works by investigating how it doesn’t. He humanizes the science of neurology and makes it highly readable. The thread running through each of a dozen analytical narratives reveals his fascination as well as his compassion as a healer helping patients grapple with sudden, severe changes in the universe of their everyday life.
If you want a more scientific approach, though, check out Dr. David Eagleman’s Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (2012) for contrast, which investigates our wondrous beans from a more technical purview. One of his lab experiments involves dropping a witting subject from 150 feet, to figure out where the brain goes when our lives ‘flash before our eyes.’ You see the, um, subtle contrast in this methodology, I’m sure. (He hasn’t lost anyone yet.) Yikes. Interesting, but yikes.

Art and architectural historian Karen Mulder has not been dropped from 150 feet in a harness...she has been dropped from 200 feet. If you find this of any interest, be sure to check out Daedalus' forum on the brain.


  1. Having read only "Musicophilia", I simply must read his new one. Kudos to Sacks for his, uhhhh, "sacrifices" with psychedelics!! I'd much rather read about them:)

  2. I just found out that "Hallucinations" discusses Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which is the name applied to the visions my mother has since she lost sight of most of the real world. The mind will fill in what it misses with patterns, or faces from memory...which can get creepy when most of those faces belong to people who have died.
    The mind abhors a vacuum, too.
    I hope Oliver Sacks can give me new info on how to deal with this.

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