Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, physician, professor, author and humanist. Born in London to a family of physicians and scientists, Sacks would eventually follow in his parent’s footsteps but first he moved to America where much of his life’s work and contributions occurred.
As he wrote in his memoir On the Move, he doubted pursuing a medical career after completing his training, so his life’s work in neurology didn’t come until after he accomplished a few “selfish” obsessions, like his adoration for motorbikes. He took off to motorcycle across North America and other regions. Afterwards he found himself in California where weight-lifting became his newest mania. He even broke records.
It was fun until he realized, “Is this all? Is this all there is to life?”
Sacks wrote some 10 books on patient case studies. His work has inspired films, playwrights, animations, opera and music.
Many of Sacks’ patients had devastating and irreversible neurological conditions. His work in humanizing medical textbook conditions spanned from Parkinson’s, Autism, hallucinations, depression, Phantom Limb Syndrome, Tourette syndrome, Schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s.
He investigated the world of music and its impact on the brain and explored deaf people and sign language culture. He believed the brain was the most fascinating thing on the planet and dedicated his life to understanding the brain’s peculiar and complex pathways.
Sacks openly spoke on being secretly gay during Alan Turin years, a drug addiction that almost killed him, three decades of celibacy and life as a patient as he chronicled his own progression.
For someone so attuned with interpersonal relationships, Sacks self-imposed decades of celibacy due to guilt over his sexuality. It wasn't until 2015 when he faced terminal cancer that he came out. He broke his decades long celibacy at 75 when he began a relationship. He experienced six years of deep love with his partner until his passing.
Oliver Sacks believed understanding people could elevate medical science. He spoke intimately of specific case studies in order to instill a deeper understanding from the mainstream world. In many of his writings as he shares patients' stories, I sense a mirror into his own experience of living with a condition.
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Sacks’ first book was Awakenings. He only wrote this case study book because his patients asked him to tell their story. Like many with diseases and constant conditions, the person simply wants to be seen and understood.
Awakenings was eventually made into an award-winning film which led us through Sacks’ discovery of a drug that benefited Encephalitis Lethargica. Encephalitis was an epidemic from 1917-1928. It was also known as Sleeping Sickness. This disease attacks the brain, leaving the person in a catatonic state, unable to speak or move. During this period Encephalitis spread throughout the world, touching some 5 million people. Some died, most never returned to their pre-existing state.
In Awakenings Sacks’ patients were awakened after decades of catatonia due to his care. But these patients were also forced to learn how to live in this new life. The way I see it, it’s as if this disease was a form of time travel.
How do you return to the familiar now disguised as the unfamiliar?
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks chronicles a condition called Visual Agnosia, a condition where the person, or rather their brain, fails to recognize objects.
Another specific case study Sacks spoke on was Charles Bonnett Syndrome, a condition where visually impaired people experience lucid hallucinations. The mainstream medical world often disregards or masks what they do not know so they naturally disregarded this group which led to the fear of being called “mental” and therefore patients’ mistrust led to lack of disclosing such pertinent hallucinations. But Sacks assured these patients they weren’t insane and educated their phsyicians on this fact. There was a perfectly natural reason why hallucinations occur.
Sacks said we see with our brain which we know as imagination. This is “normal”, we have lived with it our whole life and we understand it intimately. But he speaks of hallucinations which mimics perceptions not of our creation, nor control, and that they come in visual or vocal/musical form.
These manifestations the mainstream fear and judge actually heighten our awareness of a bigger picture. For example, hallucinations helps the scientific world explain how the mind works.
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