Oliver Sacks has left the world. The British-born neurologist-cum-writer who called New York City his home for the past half century died yesterday at his Greenwich Village apartment at the age of 82.
Sacks practiced and revived an almost extinct form of medicine that consisted of literary case studies focusing on the singular neurological patient hidden underneath the dry diagnostic labels of autism, ocular cancer, amnesia, Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, achromatism, blindness and so on. Sacks excelled at bringing the individual to life, describing with a riot of coruscated imagery and an exuberance of words what it was to be so afflicted and how it affected the patient’s life.
Through his many books, and the movies and documentaries they inspired, Sacks brought the mind–brain connection to the reading public. He educating those who would never think of opening a neuroscience treatise describing how the aftermath of a stroke, virus infection or other physical pathology leaves telltale signs and causes specific symptoms and deficits in the mental life of the brain. In his writings Sacks documented the inability to perceive a familiar face (such as the signature case of face blindness in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the loss of color vision despite the eyes being physically intact or that strange malady known as the “sleepy sickness,” encephalitis lethargica, that struck the world during World War I and was the theme of his landmark work, Awakenings. These books brought him fame, a dedicated readership and helped to displace Freudian narratives that dominate public discourse in favor of neuroscientific ones.
The emphasis of modern medicine on molecular mechanisms, pharmacological interventions, magnetic scanners and other complex instruments is a great and powerful machine; yet it is also an impersonal one, both in its practice once the patient passes through the maw of the hospital and in its view of patients as statistical entities, with a precise numerical code for his or her medical condition and a “metadata” field to account for any peculiarities. Neuroscience’s take on the nervous system is an even more abstract one, treating members of the same species as statistical variants on a common theme, experiments that flatten individual subjects into averages.
Sacks begged to differ—he brought out the unique, the idiosyncratic in each one of his patients. He was dispassionate enough to apply the same artistic temperament to himself, as in his account of his ocular melanoma, a condition that would finally kill him. Surgical removal of the tumor with focused radiation saved most of his retina but left an empty region, void of visual processing, termed a scotoma, in his right eye. One chapter of The Mind’s Eye (2010) detailed his changed visual experience—how the nothingness that is the scotoma filled in when looking at a blue sky or at a patterned brick wall. Like a child playing with a new toy, Sacks experimented with his gaze to discover the limits of this fill-in phenomenon. When he closed his left eye Sacks “amputated” his leg by moving his gaze until it was contained within the scotoma. Yet when he wiggled his leg the sensory-motor feedback from what he couldn’t see rendered it visible in a ghostly sort of way. Conversely, a flock of birds that entered his scotoma abruptly disappeared, only to emerge intact on the other side. He meditated on his loss of the sense of depth and other changes to his sight.
Although Sacks aspired to be a scientist early on in his career, he wisely followed a different calling—that of physician. He cared about particulars, leaving to others inductive inferences from the particular to the general. Yet he loved chemistry and biology and kept close company with many of its practitioners, through visits and hand-written correspondence—no e-mailing for Sacks.
It was through his friendship with Francis Crick that I first met Sacks. Subsequently, I would visit him in his warm and book-cluttered apartment in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District whenever I could. We would swap old and new scientific discoveries. I vividly remember debating with him on Charles Darwin’s view on the mental life of the lowly earthworm. We would trade gifts. He would leave me with his latest book or article or crampons he thought I was more likely to use or would bequeath me colorful knitted socks. He was an imp who retained a childlike wonder about the world and all of its inhabitants, whether ferns, squirrel monkeys or people. And he never lost the sense of the sheer miracle of existence. He reminded me of a big, lovable teddy bear, and I often felt the urge to simply hug him.
Sacks epitomized the ancient dictum, ars moriendi ars vivendi est—that is to say, the art of dying is the art of living. I did talk to him about his cancer and he was unafraid, calmly speaking about how much time was left to him. (He expressed the same sentiments in a widely circulated New York Times editorial.)
Let me end with a quote that epitomized the Oliver Sacks I knew and admired. It is from a wise man who lived a long time ago, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “Pass then through this little space of time conformably to nature and end thy journey in content, just as an olive falls off when it is ripe, blessing nature who produced it, and thanking the tree on which it grew.”
Oliver Sacks—I salute your memory. I am glad that we shared a few precious moments of eternity.
Christof Koch writes the “Consciousness Redux” column for Scientific American MIND and is president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science.