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Wednesday 27 January 2010

The Man Who Peers Into Your Brain!

Oliver Sacks seems to know everything; honestly, he’d make you sick with envy and a feeling of terrible inadequacy! But then, at least he’s qualified enough to explain the inner workings of the mind in such a way that you’d feel understood and fascinated, both at the same time. Sacks the author is also a physician and professor of Neurology & Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center. The first time he and I crossed paths was when I discovered Martin (my erstwhile other half) reading Awakenings, a mind-blowing account of Sacks’ work with survivors of the 1918 sleeping-sickness epidemic when hundreds slipped into a bizarre paralysis, only occasionally able to move or communication, institutionalised for life. When Sacks went to work with these patients in the 60s, L-DOPA was having dramatic results on these lifeless souls who started to move, and talk after nearly 50 years of rigid silence and in this book he brings these forgotten people alive. Amazing!

A Leg to Stand On recounts Sacks’ experience as a patient when he was hospitalised after a climbing accident in which he badly damaged his leg. He describes what it’s like to be the one in the bed instead of the one looking down from a great height; the loss of personal control, the one in pyjamas being told what to do by the one in a business suit, an insight that many a doc could do with experiencing in my opinion! He also talked about the body’s rejection of a limb that has become obsolete - however briefly - and how he woke himself up trying to kick his leg out of bed on more than one occasion. Weird, but definitely fascinating.

In An Anthropologist on Mars and also in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks uses case studies to illustrate the myriad ways in which neurological conditions have affected how his patients relate to the world around them. His writing is scientific but also compassionate and he brings the lives of some astounding human beings to life under his sharply honed pen: the colour-blind painter who had to learn to live in a black and white but mostly grey world; the surgeon who is beleaguered by obsessive tics – except, that is, when he is in the operating theatre. I want to end every sentence with an exclamation mark to demonstrate my sense of awe at how these unusual and wonderful people cope with life and I swear I will never again complain about anything.

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain was made into a television documentary that I recorded and watched over and over, each time being freshly amazed at how music seems to reach the parts of the brain that nothing else can. A surgeon who after a car accident decides to take up the piano obsessively, writing compositions, giving recitals and excelling at this totally new gift that seems to have come from out of the blue. The drummer whose sense of rhythm beats the demons out of his head and calms his world down. The young man with sight loss, who can hardly carry even the most basic conversation, locked in his autistic world and yet is unbelievable on a piano.

With Seeing Voices we are guided into a silent world where he explores, with passion and insight, the world of the deaf. Migraine is yet another revelatory exploration in which he discusses the similarities between the visual hallucinations and/or auras preceding a migraine and those that are induced by hallucinogenic drugs or deliria.

The man is a wonder (and I am his biggest fan) and yet when he wrote, Uncle Tungsten, a memoir about growing up in a London Jewish family, the child of two doctors, I was left with a feeling of absence, as if he had not been there at all. He was sent to a brutal boarding school during the war where he was most unhappy so perhaps that coloured his reflections and his memories. That, and a brother who was mentally ill, sent him on a career path that would take him to the USA where, through his writing, he would eventually open a window on the hitherto secret world of the neurologist.



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February 01, 2010 1:08 AM  
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February 06, 2010 1:29 PM  

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