I’m late to discovering the writing of Dr. Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist who practiced medicine in New York City until his death in 2015. In fact, I became aware of his career only shortly before his death, when an autobiographical essay about his own cancer and mortality was published in The New York Times. Since that time, I’ve stumbled across his works only by chance, without having previously appreciated his legacy in both medicine and scientific storytelling.
My first unwitting exposure to Sacks’ career was the 1990 film, “Awakenings,” directed by Penny Marshall and starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. The movie was based on one of Sacks’ early books by the same title about a fascinating “frozen” neurological state in some of his own patients, which helped us understand some of the important effects of the chemical dopamine on the human brain. Since the 1970s, Sacks has written over a dozen books about the human brain, the practice of medicine, and Sacks’ own philosophies of life. Writing was clearly as important a passion to him as his career in medicine.
This fall, Sacks’ final book, The River of Consciousness, was published posthumously. Most of his other books examined a particular topic in medicine or psychology, using interesting case studies to tell stories of the human condition. His final work is instead a collection of essays on various topics related to science, medicine, and philosophy, which he had assembled for publication only weeks before his death. (A memoir, On the Move, was published shortly before his death in 2015.) Having not read any of Sacks’ prior books, I was intrigued to start with his final thoughts on career, life, and humanity. (I actually own a copy of Sacks’ book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain that I picked up a couple of years ago. I’ve been meaning to read it, and I even sat in on a local science book discussion event about the book anyway. Someday…)
The essays in River of Consciousness are wide-ranging across different aspects of science, medicine, psychology, and philosophy. From Darwin to Freud, and plants to worms, to considering quirks of human perception and memory and neurological complexity, we are treated to a thoughtful examination of the connections scientists have built over the years among diverse pursuits. We also learn of Sacks’ own influences and his perspectives on the creative process, the pitfalls of being human, and the fits and starts of scientific discovery over the generations. Overall, I was left with a sense of satisfaction in having taking a few moments here and there to read one man’s ideas about brains, life, and the philosophy of science. I’ve always enjoyed reading brief essays on different topics that make you think a little and pause to admire the writing itself. Sometimes reading something short that provides little appetizers of food for thought hits the spot (and takes less time during a busy week than working through a full book).
A few other connections struck me as I was reading, as I was discovering Oliver Sacks for essentially the first time. First, he is indeed an eloquent writer, with a gift for creating thoughtful prose and grand connections on a wide range of topics. The inclusion of footnotes and compelling references lend support to his arguments and provide sometimes surprising context beyond his own opinion. From what I’ve read and heard from others, Sacks is generally lauded for his ability to tell a good story. By grounding his narrative in case studies, his own life, and other anecdotal elements, he hooks you into wanting to learn more. As he adds a richness with story and words, the science and the humanity in which it applies are interwoven. He was even awarded a “scientist as poet” award (the Lewis Thomas Prize) by Rockefeller University in 2002 for his inspiring writing.
A movement for more communication of science outside the formal confines of the discipline itself is gaining interest and support among scientists, educators, and communication experts. (See my earlier blog post for more background on how I’ve stumbled into learning about “scicomm.”) Compelling narrative based on storytelling, with a minimum of jargon, and a clear message about the insights, excitement, and context for one’s work are key themes that come up again and again. From scholarly articles on the subject (for example, Michael Dalhstrom’s 2014 article, “Using narratives and storytelling to communicate science with nonexpert audiences“) to self-help books aimed at helping scientists become more comfortable with telling their science stories to others (such as Randy Olson’s Houston, We Have a Narrative), the theme of stories in science is gaining fresh and growing audiences.
By all accounts, Dr. Sacks’ “science stories” about brains and the human condition strike many of the right chords with readers. These last essays have a particular formality and urgency to them that is perhaps particular to the context in which they were written. I found some of them contained more jargon than I was familiar with, and Sacks seemed to relish in finding sometimes obscure vocabulary words to make his point eloquently. And yet, the flow of the ideas carries through as a clear epilogue on a lifetime of interdisciplinary consideration of complex scientific topics.
The first essay in the book tackles the legacy of Charles Darwin. He is famous for developing the theory of biological evolution by natural selection, but Sacks focuses instead mostly on Darwin’s interests in botany. Later essays highlight the rich descriptive histories in many areas of science and human cognition, and what we still can learn and be inspired by. I personally enjoy many topics beyond science, from music performance to an appreciation of history, architecture, and more. Much is made these days in educational circles about the balance between teaching and learning science and technology vs. the arts or humanities. If often seems as if battle lines are drawn among the two camps, with an implication that one must choose one or the other. I teach at a university that embraces the contributions of many disciplines–including but not exclusively science–toward building a better understanding of the world around us and our place in it. Many articles have been written recently promoting how giving people opportunities to learn about different aspects of human society (such as one might find in a traditional liberal arts education) still provides bright futures for students and is actually good for the bottom lines of businesses. Sacks’ final essays presume readers have the curiosity (and a little context) to explore science, history, the creative process, and more. Science doesn’t exist in a vacuum; we are richer for the knowledge we construct when we apply it to our complete worlds and consider the contributions of people with backgrounds that differ from our own.
As I finished reading the last essay in the book, which addresses “lost” findings in science and the creative spaces that move discovery forward in fits and spurts, I was struck by one more likely unintentional theme in Sacks’ book. In his philosophical look back at inquiry, investigation, and inspiration through time, few women seem to have made the history books, at least in Western culture. Indeed, a perusal of the index of the book revealed a mere handful of women included in the essays (and many of these were historians writing about male scientists or physicians). This insight created a rather melancholy moment of awareness for me. As I consider this final book by a remarkable neurologist and author, I commend him for a life well-lived, and I enjoyed reading his insightful reflections. However, in another generation, when today’s scientists look back on their lives and tell us the stories of advances in science and the state of our perspective on what it means to be human, it will be exciting to see how we’ve advanced to a more inclusive and global perspective on our world. With advances in technology and education, more and more people–innovators and creators of all stripes–will have the tools to tell their stories, and it will be fun to listen. What will we learn?
Cover image: Fabrica, by Andreas Vesalius (1543), a drawing of the underside of the human brain. Dr. Sacks commented on the value of the careful descriptions of early work in the sciences. The beautiful art of scientific illustration also helped us better understand the workings of the world around us. [Public domain image]