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Remembering Oliver Sacks

man-who-mistook-his-wife-for-a-hat-book-coverI first discovered Oliver Sacks in college when a science professor assigned the book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The title comes from a case of a man who did just that – when looking for his hat, he looked at his wife’s head, perceived it somehow as his hat, and put his hands on her head to try to grab it and put it on. This, like so many other stories recounted by Sacks, seems implausible, but if the truth is stranger than fiction, we may also venture to say that the truth of neuroscience is stranger than any other truth we are accustomed to. Oliver Sacks was a British neurologist, practicing in the U.S. for most of his career who wrote prolifically about his patients.

Sacks became well-known for his book Awakenings, which was made into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. It was about patients with encephalitis lethargica, better known as sleeping sickness, with whom the Doctor worked at the Beth Abraham Hospital in New York. The patients were unable to move on their own for decades until receiving life-changing treatments with the new drug L-DOPA.

Dr. Sacks went on to write books consisting of case studies and vignettes. The aforementioned Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat covers a wide variety of aphasias, amnesias and other disorders. One patient remains essentially “stuck” in 1945, unable to form new memories. He recalls his past in great detail but cannot remember things that just happened or grasp newer developments such as the moon landing or his own gray hair and aging face. The popular movie Memento featured a fictional character with anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new short term memories, but this disorder can truly exist in real life and Sacks wrote of patients with the condition.

The Mind’s Eye offers another collection of case histories including a the story of a musician who loses the ability to read music, followed by the ability to read anything at all, though she can still write perfectly fine and play music by heart. In his books Sacks writes of various patients who have lost the ability to recognize faces, even of their loved ones, and reveals that he himself suffers from some level of prosopagnosia, or face blindness. Some people can only recognize others by memorizing a particular distinctive feature such as a birthmark to look for, or by hearing a person speak or watching them move.

In An Anthropologist on Mars, Sacks provides seven case studies of patients, including one featuring fellow author Temple Grandin. Grandin, who is autistic, has managed to navigate life among the neurotypical. Although she has an impaired ability to recognize social cues, Grandin maintains a deep understanding of animal behavior and has a successful career working with animals and improving their welfare in the ranching and farming industries.

His book Musicophilia specifically addresses music and its relationship with the brain. This could be tragic such as a phenomena of a particular song triggering a seizure, or sometimes beneficial or life enhancing. Sacks describes patients with disorders such as Tourette’s Syndrome and Parkinson’s Disease using music to overcome struggles they face or mitigate their symptoms. He explores how the emotional side of music can help trigger memory and being back some normalcy for people with Dementia.

Rather than gawking at or exploiting patients, Sacks treats them with empathy and fascination, using their stories as windows into a world of adaptability and resilience. Moreover, he does not leave himself unexamined – Sacks wrote prolifically about himself in autobiographies and memoirs including Uncle Tungsten and On the Move. A quick read, Gratitude, serves as a small collection of farewell essays at the end of his life. The world certainly owes Oliver Sacks a debt of gratitude for his lifetime of riveting stories which make science accessible to the layperson and cause us to think deeper about what it means to be human.

Lydia Sampson is the Assistant Director at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, MA. Look for her article in the September 10, 2020 issue of the Transcript and Bulletin.

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