Remembering Oliver Sacks
To celebrate the life and work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, the man who inspired many of us to study the brain, some of the members of NeuWriteSD have chosen a favorite piece or two to share and speak about.
Though I’ve been reading his words for over a decade now, Oliver Sacks’ final piece for the New York Times, Sabbath, is the one that hit me the hardest. I’ve shed many tears over the pieces written after his final cancer diagnosis, but this one feels most personal. It somehow escaped my notice until very recently that Oliver Sacks was Jewish, as I am, so to read about how he lost his faith and then somehow regained a piece of it struck me deeply. As the High Holidays approach and I take time to reflect on the past year and the coming one, at the front of my mind will be what Oliver Sacks taught me- both about science and about my faith.
Growing up, my exposure to science began with Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil Degrasse Tyson as I learned basic principles of physics. At that time, I considered science a cool hobby or the class where we got to build things and test ideas with our hands. Science was fun, but not a career goal for me. I wanted to become a writer, a journalist, a novelist, and world traveler. Later during college as I took more neuroscience and psychology courses, Oliver Sacks opened up the world of science writing to me.
The ability to tell compelling and evocative stories while educating the public on neurological disorders is an incredible gift that I hope to learn from Oliver Sacks. His variety of books, New Yorker articles, and NPR appearances have inspired me to find creative ways to engage public thought on neuroscience through storytelling. Some of my favorite stories come from Oliver Sacks’ own life, when he describes in detail his own journeys through strange obstacles, such as face blindness. Oliver Sacks is so open in telling his own difficulties and how he overcomes them, and he also admits how his situation could be much worse. His stories often have some elements of optimism and honesty that I admire.
On RadioLab, Oliver Sacks reflected upon his career on his 80th birthday, and he begins with a story about why he left research to go into medicine. He continues with discussions of great discoveries and breakthroughs with patients. Oliver Sacks is not merely a narrator of these stories but an active character who does a wonderful job of guiding the audience through his questioning and investigative process. He can make reading primary literature sound like an adventure, like finding lost clues on the way to discovering cures. I want to be that caring and methodical investigator, and at the same time I want to be that provocative storyteller. Oliver Sacks has taught me that I can do both, and I hope to carry on his memory through my science and through my writing.
– Melissa Galinato
As a graduate student in the sciences, I’ll be the first to tell you that grad school is hard. Sometimes I get so focused on a particular dataset, analysis, or paper that I find myself losing sight of the bigger picture. Why do I study human behavior, anyway?
Oliver Sacks, for me, was one of those rare people who found a way to keep the bigger picture in mind. When I was a teaching assistant for an introductory course in psychology at MIT, his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was required reading for the students. As they learned some of what we know about how the mind works–and also about how it can fail–the students also got a glimpse of what it means to be human, thanks to the writing of Oliver Sacks. The excerpt below is one of my favorites and describes individuals who have receptive aphasia–that is, individuals who have lost some of their ability to understand language. In this excerpt, Sacks describes how there is so much richness to human communication (including nonverbal information) that it can sometimes be very difficult to see that this ability has been impaired in patients with aphasia–demonstrating how complex the nature of human interactions can be.
“To demonstrate their aphasia, one had to go to extraordinary lengths, as a neurologist, to speak and behave un-naturally, to remove all the extraverbal cues–tone of voice, intonation, suggestive emphasis or inflection, as well as all visual cues (one’s expressions, one’s gestures, one’s entire, largely unconscious, personal repertoire and posture): one had to remove all of this (which might involve total concealment of one’s person, and total depersonalization of one’s voice, even to using a computerized voice synthesizer) in order to reduce speech to pure words… With the most sensitive patients, it was only with such a grossly artificial, mechanical speech–somewhat like that of the computers in Star Trek–that one could be wholly sure of their aphasia.” (Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, pp. 80-81)
In an age of big, open data, where platforms are moving to the cloud to manage data transfer and computational resources, we need Oliver Sacks more than ever. People are reduced to numbers, either distilled to examples of big group trends, or as inputs to large equations to re-compute you from everybody else. The numbers are wonderful; big group trends help us figure out the big themes in how the brain works, and these large equations will bring us personalized medicine sooner than you may think.
But we are behind the numbers–individuals, you and me. Oliver Sacks was the master at telling fascinating stories about interesting people–whether they were his patients or in many cases himself. Trained as a computer scientist who ventured into neuroscience out of personal interest, I was already far removed from meeting experimental subjects, let alone neurological patients. It took only a single read of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” to feel inspired by the individuals–individual stories, individual people, individual achievements–to think beyond the trustworthy data, and move science not by tiny incremental steps, but with big ideas.
So thank you to Oliver Sacks, for encouraging me to think of science as more than reproducibility and incremental advances, but also as big ideas that can move whole fields, creative expression and thought. And thank you to the others I’ve met along the way: JW, one of Gazzaniga’s early split brain cases, “HM” and Clive Wearing, who gave great insight into the formations of new memories, Ian Waterman who overcame a total loss of proprioception to relearn how to walk, gesture, and shop, and Jill Bolte Taylor, a neuroscientist who suffered a stroke to her left hemisphere and lived to articulate it, and more. These experiences, these studies, these people may not be reproducible in the strict sense, but they are interesting, they are inspiring, and an important part of science.
– Ben Cipollini
Like many other budding neuroscientists, my early forays into understanding the brain were narrated by Oliver Sacks. His remarkable ability to weave tales of neurological wonder, even in fundamental sensory systems, has had an indelible impact on my career choices and passion for my field. Still, the aspect of his legacy that has resonated most strongly with me is the fact that he was, until his recent autobiography, a closeted gay man. Oliver Sacks was a brilliant, talented intellect who wrote about the depth of human emotion and yet was never fully embraced for his own. Perhaps his late coming out indicates that the tides are changing, but there is still much work to be done. Even in relatively liberal fields, LGBT individuals in science struggle for openness and acceptance, and many of them fear judgment from those who can directly impact their career. My hope is that forthcoming scientists and writers will find solace in an environment that celebrates their individuality, just as Oliver Sacks celebrated those of his patients.
– Ashley Juavinett
I was first introduced to Oliver Sacks by my father, back when I was convinced that I didn’t like science. My father used to read to me every night before we went to bed; usually it was Harry Potter, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, and other works of fiction. Oliver Sacks’ Uncle Tungsten – a memoir of his childhood centered around his first scientific love, chemistry – was a bit of a black sheep in our reading list, but likely a very intentional one on my father’s part. Although I don’t remember many of the details of the book, the main thought that I remember leaving with was “wow, this guy really loves science.”
Oliver Sacks’ incredible passion for science, mixed with an equally strong love of writing and a humanistic approach to his portrayal of his patients, is incredibly contagious. In addition to kindling a love of the human brain in many young neuroscientists, perhaps his greatest accomplishment in my mind has been disseminating his fervor for science throughout the general public. Many of his readers (myself included) catch the science bug, but even those who don’t are shown that science isn’t just about the things that are locked in a lab. It’s about people: what makes them unique, what drives their passions, what makes them do what they do, and why they sometimes do strange things, like mistake one’s wife for a hat.
Oliver Sacks’ merging of his passions for science and writing and his commitment to sharing them with the world is something that resonates strongly with us here at NeuWrite. He has been an incredible inspiration, and thankfully, his spirit lives on through his books so that he may continue to inspire future generations of science-lovers.
– Megan Kirchgessner