Often referred to as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Oliver Sacks was born in London in 1933 and died at the age of 82 in NYC, August 30, 2015.
I had known about his reputation for being an extraordinary neurologist who had devoted his professional life to studying and treating patients suffering from all varieties of perceptual impairments including color blindness, encephalitis, deafness, autism, Tourette syndrome, Parkinson’s disease and migraine headaches.
I was familiar with some of the the many books he authored discussing case studies of patients suffering from those impairments, and I was familiar – as many movie goers no doubt are –with the film “AWAKENINGS” (taken from his book), starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams. As with much of his innovative work, he had studied the life stories of his patients. In AWAKENINGS, they were all victims of the 1920s encephalitis epidemic. He concluded that their rigidity was related to a form of Parkinson’s disease and treated them with the drug used for Parkinson’s patients, L-Dopa. The film was as dramatic, controversial and memorable as were Sacks’ findings.
Upon hearing of his death, however, I felt the desire to read more about his life. I then learned that he had personal demons that undoubtedly influenced his need to study and better understand the mystery of the mind. His approach was always holistic and scientific, resulting in new insights and discoveries, often challenging the status quo in the medical community.
To better appreciate the man, I looked at the world into which he was born: the London of 1933, to Jewish parents who were both physicians. The youngest of four children, he and his brother were sent to a boarding school in the Midlands to escape the Blitz. Without his parents ever knowing, each of them suffered cruel punishments by a sadistic headmaster who also had them fed meager rations of food. His brother was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and Oliver suffered from migraines and prosopagnosia (face blindness). Clearly, if he hadn’t been a brilliant child, his interests in the sciences and in all aspects of the human mind would not have led him to spend his life studying every aspect of the brain and understanding, as well, the role that nutrition plays in the development of the brain and the body. However, he was brilliant, and I have to assume that his passion was fueled by his early traumatic experiences.
As a migraine sufferer myself, I found his book “MIGRAINE” to be of personal interest and found the writing to be profoundly engaging. In The New York Review of Books W.H Auden wrote of it: “I am sure that any layman who is at all interested in the relation between the body and mind will find the book as fascinating as I have.” Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote: “Oliver Sacks’ commentary is so erudite, so gracefully written, that even those people fortunate enough never to have had a migraine in their lives should find it equally compelling.”
Of course, not every physician has to suffer from a disease to be compassionate with patients whose suffering is similar to his own, but with Oliver Sacks who described his severe shyness as “a disease and a lifetime impediment,” along with his struggle with prosopagnosia and migraine headaches, he did much more than simply offer compassion to the patients in his practice.
Throughout his career he recognized that whether patients struggled to cope with autism, Tourette syndrome or the multitude of neurological conditions he treated, he concluded that what they shared in common was an appreciation for the therapeutic effect of music –“its strange and surprising power over the human mind” is what fascinated him most. Fittingly, The Institute for Music and Neurological Function honors his support of music therapy and the effect of music on the brain
My reason for entitling this blog, A Mind Examined and an Examining Mind is that Sacks allowed his own brain to be studied to prove that the brain responds differently to music that one prefers to music that does not resonate with one’s sensibilities. As impressive was his firm and proven belief that “music can animate people with Parkinson’s disease who cannot otherwise move, give words to stroke patients who can’t otherwise speak and calm and organize people whose memories are ravaged by Alzheimer’s or amnesia.” This remains a contribution not only to science but to millions of people whose lives have been stolen from them.
I would feel remiss as a psychotherapist and as an author who has devoted many years to de-stigmatizing mental illness, if I did not also mention the non-profit organization –The Oliver Sacks Foundation—which is devoted to preserving/publishing his life’s work, “making them available for scholarly use, working to reduce the stigma of mental and neurological illness and supporting a humane approach to neurology and psychology.” As was his great gift, the organization is also “devoted to increasing understanding of the human brain and mind through the power of narrative non-fiction and case histories.” Anyone who feels so inclined and is able to do so will no doubt feel rewarded by supporting the work of this extraordinary foundation.
To further honor Sacks’ life, I’d like to share a part of a most remarkable letter that he wrote at the time when he knew death was imminent:
“I cannot pretend that I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Surely, the privilege is ours, as well.