Transcript of Interview with Oliver Sacks,† 3/11/2002
Through his sensitive portraits of people with Tourette Syndrome, Autism, Korsakov's Syndrome, and other disorders, Neuro-psychologist and author Oliver Sacks has revealed the awesome power of the mind and body to transcend brain dysfunction. †
Oliver Sacks' commitment to understanding more than the biophysical aspects of neurology has introduced a spiritual dimension to the field of neurology. Dr Sacks is perhaps best known for his 1985 collection of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat. And for the Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie, Awakenings, with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
Dr Sayer: Some things could reach him; the mention of his name, notes of a particular piece of music, or the touch of another human being. But these awakenings were rare and transient, lasting only a moment or two. The rest of the time, he was as you see him here in a metaphorical, if not physiological equivalent of sleep, or even death. This was his condition in a remote bay of this hospital and the quality of his life for the last 30 years.
Leonard: Now my name is Leonard. It has been explained to me that I have been away for quite some time. Iím back.
Rachael Kohn: Thatís from the film, Awakenings, based on the book by neuro-psychologist, Oliver Sacks. Heís my guest on The Spirit of Things New Believers Series, here on Radio National. Iím Rachael Kohn.
Awakenings documented the unusual medical case of Leonard and fellow patients who had been in a kind of neurological trance but were snapped out of it by the drug L Dopa. Oliver Sacks was a key player in that late 1970s experiment, which would have poignant, if not tragic consequences.
It was one of the early wake-up calls in his career, which made him see patients in a new way, as unique individuals. It would be a motif in all his work, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, showing us that life is more than just being normal.
Oliver Sacks is not a Ďbelieverí in a conventional sense. But if a personís work shows something of a religious value, it can be said of his lifeís work, which has consistently portrayed the human spirit transcending its bodily limitations, against all odds.
And yet despite Sacksí enormous success, his has not been an easy road to hoe. Science has often been too clinical and materialist to admit the importance of music, art, and religious faith, subjects that regularly appear in his case studies. He joins me in the studio.
Oliver Sacks, welcome to The Spirit of Things.
Oliver Sacks: Nice to be here.
Rachael Kohn: Oliver, youíre written that science takes no account of the soul, no account of what determines and constitutes personal being. Now a lot of people wouldnít think science needed to do that, but as a neurologist, when did this start to become an issue for you, a kind of limitation?
Oliver Sacks: Well I donít know when or where I wrote that, but I no longer believe it, and if it was a problem for me, Iím not sure that itís a problem now. Where did I write it?
Rachael Kohn: I think you wrote it in A Leg to Stand On. Now what has happened to science since the time you thought that?
Oliver Sacks: Well I think science, neuroscience has become very interested in the nature of sensibility and imagination and consciousness, and personal identity and individuality. I donít know that itís too good at understanding any of these, but itís certainly having a go.
Rachael Kohn: Do you think youíve been at the forefront of opening the doors to this area?
Oliver Sacks: Well I donít know that Iíve opened any doors but I may have indicated how crucial I think the enterprise is by always writing about individuals, and their uniqueness, and saying that we really need to have a science of the unique, although that seems almost a contradiction in terms.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, science always wants to come up with general laws. You certainly have expended our understanding of what it means to be a human being living a meaningful life, and you do so in an unusual way, and thatís by documenting people who have neurological deficiencies. Now instead of focusing on the cure, you seem to have focused on how people live with those deficiencies.
Oliver Sacks: Well I would certainly not deny them a cure or medical help to the extent that this exists, but Iím also very curious as to how they live and how they feel with whatever has happened to them and the ways in which they can adapt and maybe recreate a life.
Rachael Kohn: Was it a slow building interest in this adaptability?
Oliver Sacks: I think it was. Perhaps I started with a sort of a purely, or perhaps narrowly medical perspective and was really then forced by my patients.
I remember now right back in 1966 at which time I was working in a migraine clinic, seeing a patient who had migraines every Sunday. You know, one sometimes speaks of sabbatical migraines. It had never been diagnosed and I gave him some medication and the first Sunday it seemed to work like a charm, the second Sunday it also worked, but he said he was bored. He said usually Sunday had been occupied with migraine, and now he didnít know what to do and he thought something would happen. And the Sunday after that he had an attack of asthma, and then I said, Well donít worry, weíll get rid of the asthma. And he said, No. He said, Do you think I need to be ill on Sundays? And so he was then speaking about the economy of a life and some psychological or whatever need. I was very struck by that, and I said, Well, letís think about this. So I think probably this was the beginning of an expansion of orientation.
Rachael Kohn: Well the title of one of your books, An Anthropologist on Mars, I think is an apt description of you, although itís said by an artistic person about herself, that people that you have close encounters with often seem like aliens to the rest of us. They can have the most bizarre perceptual problems and behavioural problems, and yet you get inside their lives and discover not just the disorders, but a kind of re-ordering.
Oliver Sacks: Yes, perhaps so. I think for me the overwhelming experience was working with deaf people, with people born deaf, and I had originally thought of deafness purely as an impairment and an impoverishment, and here were people who had created a language of their own, and a community and a culture and a centre of their own, who lived their lives from a different centre, and who indeed made a point actually of using the word deaf in two ways.
I donít know if this is done in Australia, Ďdeafí with a small Ďdí meant hearing impaired, a medical condition. ĎDeafí with a big ĎDí meant part of a linguistic minority, part of an ethnic community, being a different people. They object to being pathologised, as they call it, to being too medicalised, and I think this was very important for me, and forced me to have a double perspective in other ways.
I remember also the first time I met someone, she was a woman in San Francisco who was totally colour blind; she had no cones in her eye. We would have said she lives in a very impoverished, black and white world. She insisted that her visual world was as rich as mine. She thought she saw texture and contour and brightness and depth and movement more attentively than I did, indeed she thought I might be distracted by colour. And she portrayed herself then as a different sensibility.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, well you also document the case of a painter who had become colour blind, and that was a very different situation of someone being absolutely devastated by it, but then later comes to value his new kind of acuity.
Oliver Sacks: Oh absolutely. No, devastated at first, this man was an artist, colour had been a major sort of organising and aesthetic principle in his life, and he felt suicidal when he lost it as a result of a sudden brain injury. But then, things changed. He didnít recover any colour but the world he was in started to acquire beauty and significance and he started painting again.
At one exhibit of his paintings, a critic said that the old man had entered a new black and white phase and was doing some of his most remarkable paintings. They didnít know that this phase had gone with a neurological injury, but the point was that he had finally moved into a sort of new identity, and then when we had a notion that it might be possible for him to recover colour, he said No, he didnít want it now. He said his world was reconstructed, reorganised. I found myself thinking of a great black and white photographer like Ansel Adams who didnít want to work in colour, and actually on the few occasions when Ansel Adams did work in colour, he was not up to his usual standard.
Rachael Kohn: Well speaking of painters, one of the cases that comes to mind which really raised all sorts of perplexing issues was Stephen, the artistic artist, who was brilliant, and who would normally have ended up in the back rooms of a hospital, had not an individual taken a great deal of interest in him and become his patron, and his friend. Now that makes me think that people with these neurological deficiencies or disorders, can achieve great things if they are given space, if they are recognised for their gifts rather than for their deficits.
Oliver Sacks: Well certainly sometimes, and I think with something like an autistic savant like Stephen, this is certainly so. I think people with Tourette Syndrome often have unusual wit and velocity of thought and brilliance of association.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, youíve even used someone who was a surgeon and a pilot, which is extraordinary, you thought that his Tourette Syndrome might have made him a better pilot.
Oliver Sacks: Well I donít know that I thought that, but he was certainly...
Rachael Kohn: He checked the instruments quite often. Over and over again.
Oliver Sacks: Yes, youíre right, thatís the case. I certainly know a lot of jazz performers who have Tourette's and I think there their speed and the tendency to impulse an improvisation can certainly be used creatively, although Tourette's is not all fun, it can really tear one apart and make life very, very difficult. But it can gift one as well which makes it sort of complex.
Iíve just been writing a case history recently, itís going to be published next month, of a woman musician, a pianist, who has developed a visual amnesia, an inability to recognise things visually, like the man who mistook his wife for a hat. But one of the things with her is that partly sheís been able to code and classify everything round her by colour and shape and logic and juxtaposition, even though she canít recognise it. But her musical powers have also increased. Sheís now able to listen to a Haydn quartet one evening, rearrange it in her mind for piano and play it the next day. She says she was never able to do that before.
So I think people strive for the richest identity whatever happens to them.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, and a rich life, as much as they can anyway.
Oliver Sacks: As much as possible.
Rachael Kohn: Some of the deficits are quite spooky though; I think of Jimmy, the fellow who lot memory of about 40 years of his life and he functioned with a very, very short memory of just a few seconds. He caused you to raise the question in your mind whether he had a soul, whether he was a lost soul. But then you saw him in the chapel, taking holy communion and there was a different Jimmy altogether.
Oliver Sacks: Well that was the case for Jimmy, and I was quite convinced there, but I asked the same question of another patient who I also describe in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and there the Little Sisters of the Poor, whom I work with, were not so certain, and I think sometimes people with massive frontal lobe damage and not just an amnesia, while they may retain their intelligence and their fluency and in some sense their style, may give one the feeling of being emptied emotionally and morally and being a sort of automaton, a sort of simulacrum or cartoon of the original person, and then indeed one has to wonder whether some very deep part of the personality of identity hasnít been erased. Itís a thought which makes me uncomfortable, and I may avoid it some extent, speaking of such patients, but this can occur.
Rachael Kohn: Well I wonder whether the religious life, or at least some of the trappings of the religious life, can draw one back into a soulful existence.
Oliver Sacks: Well I think this can certainly be so, and I think this can also happen with music, and I think actually of one patient of mine who did have severe frontal lobe damage and did often seem sort of indifferent and selfish and impulsive and insensitive and yet he loved to sing, he was a real Irish tenor, and when he sang, he would sing with full appropriateness and sensibility, and it was as if heíd recovered the ability to feel appropriately in the song, as if the song sort of could substitute to some extent for his frontal lobes.
And Iíve sometimes felt the same with some autistic people, including Stephen, whom you mentioned. Stephen is also very musical and Iíve seen him sing. I remember when I heard him sing, I wrote in my notebook ĎAUTISM DISAPPEARS!í And yet I wasnít quite sure, I didnít know whether this was some extraordinary sort of imitation of a notion and style, or whether it was the real thing.
Itís similar sometimes when Stephen draws. I once showed him a Matisse painting and he was able to do a series of remarkable, I want to say impersonations of it, but a series of other Matisse-like paintings at intervals of two hours. And obviously in some sense he had extracted, as it were, the Matisse-hood, certain structural elements of Matisseís style, but does that mean that he can really feel like a Matisse, or is this a sort of impersonation.
The question of Stephenís artistic talents often reminded me of Martin, a retarded musical and mnemonic savant whom I saw in the 1980s. Martin loved operas - his father had been a famous opera singer - and he could retain them after a single hearing. (ĎI know more than 2,000 operasí, he once told me.) But his greatest passion was for Bach, and I thought it curious that this simple man should have such a passion. Bach seemed so intellectual and Martin was a retardate. What I did not realise - until I started bringing in cassettes of the cantatas, of the Goldberg Variations and once of the Magnificat - was that, whatever his general intellectual limitations, Martin had a musical intelligence fully up to appreciating all the structural rules and complexities of Bach, all the intricacies of contrapuntal and fugal writing. He had the musical intelligence of a professional musician.
This is from a footnote in my book An
Anthropologist on Mars.
Rachael Kohn: Music is so often part of the religious life, and I want to ask you a little bit about yourself. You described yourself in Uncle Tungsten as a child enthralled by the candles at home on a Shabbat evening when your mother was lighting them. Oliver, was there much Jewish tradition in your home?
Oliver Sacks: Yes, there was a lot of Jewish tradition. My parents were orthodox in practice, they kept kashrut. My mother would light the candles on Friday evenings, we would go to the synagogue on Shabbat, and the festivals. My father was quite a Hebrew scholar and he liked to conduct a shiure.
Rachael Kohn: A study group.
Oliver Sacks: A study group. And 50, 60 years later Iím still nostalgic for these things, and I actually dislike hearing a seder service read in English or whatever. Even if I canít translate the Hebrew, the Hebrew itself is so familiar, this is where Iím sort of like the Catholics who want the service in Latin. But I donít know what my parents actually believed, if anything.
Belief was never discussed. Now you mentioned the candles. Yes, I loved them, there was a sort of holy romance about lighting the shabbos candles and there is a myth, if you want, or a tradition of the shabbos bride coming in, of shabbos as a sort of mantle and I felt this mantle, I imagined that it was affecting the whole universe, that the peace of God descended on far-off star systems and things and that was my sort of childish view.
But then this sort of disappeared, or was shattered rudely and suddenly I think when I was six years old, by being evacuated, separated in an arbitrary and unintelligible way as I imagined it from my parents. I donít think I understood that they had been put under great pressure, like other parents, by the government to get their children to safety. I felt that a betrayal had occurred, there was a breach of trust and I think this caused me also to no longer trust God, and I devised a sort of satirical experiment which seemed to disprove the existence of God. Basically I became a little six-year-old Jewish atheist.
Rachael Kohn: But you did follow in the footsteps of your parents who were doctors, both of them.
Oliver Sacks: Ultimately yes, although I resisted doing that for many years, because I wanted to do other things, and in particular as I talk about, an Uncle Tungsten. My great passion was chemistry which I adored and which consumed me between the ages of 10 and 14, and I wanted to become a chemist.
My mother came from a huge family, she was the 16th of 18 and seven of her brothers were in the physical sciences and the physical sciences first attracted me much more, they were much less threatening than the human things.
Rachael Kohn: Thereís a name that reappears in almost all your books: the Russian doctor, A.R. Luria who I might add also has the same name as one of the greatest Jewish mystics.
Oliver Sacks: Isaac Luria
Rachael Kohn: Indeed. You quote him saying ĎA man does not consist of memory alone, he has feeling, will, sensibility, moral being, it is here you may touch him and see a profound change.í And you add to this also the dimension of the aesthetic being. Has this been a watchword for your work?
Oliver Sacks: Well I think so. And Luria himself was really the founder of what is now called neuro-psychology, and he delineated hundreds of different systems in brain which are involved in perception and judgement and language and thinking, and all their interactions. He wrote a great book, an astounding book called Higher Cortical Functions which is sort of the bible of neuro-psychology. But he was also a man who loved literature, who loved the theatre, who had an intense sense of the uniqueness of his patients and at least then, and of course he was writing in the 1970s, of the incapacity of a general science like neuro-psychology, to come to grips with uniqueness. As a young man, Luria had been very interested in psychoanalysis, and had actually written to Freud when he was 18 years gold.
Rachael Kohn: Precocious.
Oliver Sacks: Yes. But then perhaps partly because of political pressures, or whatever sort of, this wasnít followed, although I think that Luria had some interest in psychoanalysis all his life. I remember once describing to him, I once sent him a tape of a patient I was seeing with Tourette Syndrome, who would make various tics and then make a peculiar, complex noise. It was only when I recorded this noise and used tape-stretching that it became apparent that the noise was in fact a word, that it was the word ĎVerbotení, but uttered with such speed as to sort of crash the syllables together, and that it was uttered in his fatherís voice. And then it turned out that the patientís father would shout ĎVerboten!í when he did various tics, and Luria talked about the intrajection of the fatherís voice as a tic. I mean this is an absolutely sort of Freudian way of putting things, and it has to do with the uniqueness, because here is a historical event, the father saying ĎVerbotení and the son incorporating this.
Rachael Kohn: Well was the uniqueness also apparent to you when you yourself had been afflicted with a sense that your leg which you had injured was sort of dead, it wasnít there, and you were having difficulty getting up and walking, and it was music and your love of music, it was actually Mendelssohn, that made you get up and move for the first time. You said ĎAll of me, body and soul, became music in that moment.í What was happening to you?
Oliver Sacks: Well the relative, the subjective absence or extinction of the leg after an injury I think went with its sort of deletion in body image. This sort of thing has been well described now after trauma, and when this happened, I couldnít, as it were, claim the leg as my own, it had an alien quality. Incidentally this is very difficult to imagine, which is one of the reasons why in the afterword of the book, I suggest that A Leg to Stand On actually be read under spinal anaesthesia.
You know, if you have spinal anaesthesia you donít just get paralysed from the waist down, you actually feel you terminate here, in the middle, and that thereís a sort of unaccountable pair of hips and legs somehow attached to you. Anyhow that was the feeling I had with the leg, and with this I had also lost as one does, the idea of movement, of standing, of walking and in a sort of magical way, I mean first there had to be a certain amount of nerve recovery, but when that had happened, then music seemed to be crucial in allowing me to walk.
I donít exactly know what happened, although it made me think immediately of some of my Parkinsonian patients who tend either to freeze or to make little stuttering steps, but who can dance beautifully. Or sometimes they canít speak, thereís a sort of stuttering. Parkinsonism is sometimes called a kinetic stutter. But music will allow them perhaps to sing. And Luria himself talked.† And whether it had to be the Mendelssohn I donít know, it so happened that a good friend of mine, Jonathan Miller, had brought me in this tape. Incidentally, Jonathan Miller sometimes call music Ďorange juice for the earí.
Rachael Kohn: Now what does he mean by that?
Oliver Sacks: Oh, that itís a sort of vitamin for the soul.
Rachael Kohn: Vitamin C, right.
Oliver Sacks: Yes, right. But anyhow I just had this one tape and I played it again and again, and I think it finally became a sort of hallucination or whatever, which could organise me. But certainly I encountered then with myself what Iíve seen in so many patients, the ability of music to organise movement and really to restore memory and identity in a way.
Rachael Kohn: Yes, I was thinking of the Hare Krishna patient who had a brain tumour and who was really not able to function unless he was singing a jingle or swaying, which of course made me think of the Hare Krishna swaying and dancing and singing and the extent to which music is so often part of prayer.
Oliver Sacks: Yes. Absolutely. And cantillation. And music is in every culture; it seems to be a quintessentially human thing like language and like gesture.
Rachael Kohn: Is this what the New Age has called the mind, body, spirit phenomenon, that they are linked? I mean you seem to be pointing to the importance of movement, that being can be caught up in movement.
Oliver Sacks: Yes, I do have a very strong feeling of flow and a physical and mental flow as going together. The Parkinsonian who was frozen in movement is sometimes frozen in thought, and at the other extreme, sort of the someone with Touretteís, whose movements are too impulsive and rushing, may have thinking of the same sort. For myself I confess I find it rather difficult to sit and think. I can think much better when Iím walking, or when Iím swimming, or even for that matter if Iím on a train, I need to have a feeling of flow.
Rachael Kohn: In fact I think when you did manage to walk after your injury, you had this exultation of having yourself back, you had your eye back.
Oliver Sacks: Well I certainly had the motor eye back which I had lost. Itís quite dangerous to be immobilised for too long. Hippocrates talked about this after hip injuries. In the old days before surgery, someone would have to be immobilised for three months and Hippocrates said that this would subdue the imagination and that the person may forget how to walk, which I think in a sense happened with me.
In this limbo, when I journeyed to despair and back - a journey of the
soul, for my medical circumstances were unchanged, arrested in the motionless
fixity of scotoma and in an agreement not uncordial between my
physicians and myself not to make any reference to 'deeper things' - in this
limbo, this dark night, I could not turn to science. Faced with the reality
which reason could not solve, I turned to art and religion for comfort. It was
these, and these only that could call through the night, could communicate,
could make sense, make more intelligible - and tolerable: 'We have art in order
that we may not perish from the truth' (Nietzsche).
Science and reason could not talk of 'nothingness', of 'hell', of 'limbo', or of spiritual 'night'. They had no place for 'absence, darkness, death', yet these were the overwhelming realities of this time. I turned to the Bible - especially the Psalms - because these continually spoke of such things, and of a return mysteriously to light and life once again. I turned to them as descriptions, as 'case histories' in a way, but also with hope, as a sort of prayer or invocation. And I turned to the mystics and the Metaphysical poets too, for they also offered both formulation and hope - poetic, aesthetic, metaphoric, symbolic, without the blunt, plain commitment that 'religion' involved.
That was from my book A Leg to Stand On.
Rachael Kohn: Oliver Sacks is my guest on The Spirit of Things. Heís a New Believer of a different kind, drawn to mysticism and the Bible, but not to belief in dogmas or religious institutions. Heís first and foremost a scientist, but he believes music, art and faith can carry the spirit beyond the bodyís apparent limitations.
Well the strange thing is that some of your work reveals that people can adapt and live useful and meaningful lives with perhaps a lot of movement and activity, but also a partial or unconventional self, and I think of Temple Grandin here, the woman with autism whoís also world renowned for her specialisation in cattle behaviour. She spoke of herself as having no emotional circuitry, as being partial and yet she was successful.
Oliver Sacks: Well Temple is a remarkable woman in so many ways and not least for having written the first account from the inside, of what the life of an autistic person might be like. Temple probably has that special form of autism sometimes called Aspergerís Syndrome in which there may be high intelligence and use of language, and at the same time a sort of blindness to what other people are feeling, and even to what theyíre feeling themselves.
Interestingly, Temple is immensely sensitive to the feelings of animals, and of cattle, and I think when she wrote another book actually, she wanted to call it ĎA Cowís Eye Viewí, because she feels she can identify, empathise with the cows. But she is really very puzzled by human behaviours, and by the nature of complex emotions like jealousy and pride and embarrassment and shame, none of which she apparently has herself and which she has great difficulty in recognising in others.
Rachael Kohn: In fact didnít she proclaim to an audience that if she was given the chance to become normal, she would not.
Oliver Sacks: Yes and no. Well she is also very conscious of certain strengths. She has astonishing powers of concentration, sheís absolutely scrupulous, I think sheís incapable of deceit, as well as incapable of detecting other peopleís deceit. I mean she is a great innocent. But having been autistic all her life, and having made a life which is consonant with this, she doesnít try that hard to be Ďnormalí. She has learned certain conventions and will follow these, because she doesnít want to cause offence. But otherwise she has really shown great audacity and autonomy in her own life, and sometimes, I remember once at a lecture, she flicked her fingers and said, ĎIf I could be non-autistic I wouldnít, because being autistic is part of the way I am.í
Rachael Kohn: Well certainly your books point to the need for us to learn to adapt to the ingenious adaptations that have occurred in those other sub-cultures, if you will.
Oliver Sacks: And to respect otherness, and to realise there is no standard model, thereís no one way to be normal. In fact Iíve come to dislike the word Ďnormalí, which has enormous statistical quality of Ďthe normí. I think the notion of health is much, much broader and can include many sorts of health, and health is to do with the richness of identity and life.
Rachael Kohn: Yes. I would venture to guess that you would also think of religion as perhaps too confined, too predetermined, as it were.
Oliver Sacks: Well thereís religion and religion and religion, and in particular thereís I think in every religion, itís certainly true in Judaism and in Christianity, there are institutional forms of religion which are mediated by a church or temple, and by various traditions, and a sort of Gnostic tradition which wants some immediate personal contact with the deity. Iíve got very...
Rachael Kohn: Are you a closet Gnostic?
Oliver Sacks: No, I donít think, although I have to say actually, especially when I was writing A Leg to Stand On, I was reading a lot about Isaac Luria and Kabbalah and at one time I almost felt like organising the book in Kabbalistic terms, the disappearance of a leg would be the symptom, the sort of self-removal of God and the other things. And tikkun action would sort of finally pull things together.
Rachael Kohn: The healing action.
Oliver Sacks: The healing action. But no, I tend to call myself an old Jewish atheist.
Rachael Kohn: I see, so you moved away from the Kabbalistic interest?
Oliver Sacks: Yes, I mean it wasnít an involvement, I was intrigued by it, but I donít know that I felt touched by any religious system, really since early childhood. I want to echo the E.M. Forster essay which says ĎI do not believe in beliefí. Iím not a believer and Iím not a belonger, and I donít like ideologies and Iím terrified of the dangers of fanaticism, and I think the three monotheistic religions are all monstrously dangerous.
Rachael Kohn: In their extreme forms.
Oliver Sacks: In this regard. On the other hand, having said that, Iíve also seen a lot of the beauty of religions. I work in a Jewish hospital, I also work with the Little Sisters of the Poor in Catholic homes, and in both I have seen forms of caring and dedication, infinitely beyond the professional, and an almost superhuman tenderness and caring. Perhaps that can occur, Iím sure it does occur without any formal religion, but I think this sort of superhuman concern is the best side of religion.
I had some religious feeling, or a childish sort, in the years before
the war. When my mother lit the shabbos candles, I would feel almost
physically the Sabbath coming in, being welcomed, descending like a soft mantle
over the earth. I imagined too that this occurred all over the universe, the
Sabbath descending on far-off star systems and galaxies, enfolding them all in the
peace of God.
Prayer had been a part of life, first the Sh'mah ďHear O Israel...Ē, then the bedtime prayer I would say every night. My mother would wait until I had cleaned my teeth and put on my pyjamas and then she would come upstairs and sit on my bed while I recited in Hebrew, "Baruch atoh adonai... Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who makest the bands of sleep to fall upon mine eyes and slumber upon mine eyelids...Ē It was beautiful in English, more beautiful still in Hebrew. (Hebrew, I was told, was Godís actual language, though of course he understood every language and even oneís feelings when could not put them into words.) ďMay it be thy will, O Lord our God, and God of my Fathers, to suffer me to lie down in peace and to let me rise up again...Ē But by this point, the bands of sleep (whatever they were), would be pressing heavily upon my eyes and I rarely got any further. My mother would bend over and kiss me, and I would instantly fall asleep.
is from Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.
Rachael Kohn: The group of patients who are the most well-known are those immortalised in your book, and in the film, Awakenings. They were lifted out of a post-encephalitic stupor by the drug, L Dopa, but later they would be driven to another extreme of frenzy. In between, there was a kind of epiphany; were you a bit like the Sorcererís Apprentice?
Oliver Sacks: I found myself seen as imbued with a sort of fearful power sometimes I think by the patients.
Rachael Kohn: A wizard?
Oliver Sacks: Yes, on the one hand, with the ability to give them some wonderful sort of resurrecting† drug. The original Leonard L, when he heard about L Dopa and its ability to increase the brainís dopamine which was so defective, he said ĎDopamine is a resurrectamineí So thereís this resurrective power and then things went wrong, and at that point one of the patients said, ĎIt shouldnít be called L Dopa, it should be called Hell Dopaí. And I was actually frightened, quite frightened of this sort of power which seemed to be invested in me.
Rachael Kohn: Did you have great moral qualms afterward?
Oliver Sacks: When there was that wonderful first miracle awakening and delight in being alive and breathing and moving and laughing and singing on the ward, and then things went wrong, started to go wrong, and I didnít know what was happening. And I tried everything to bring things right and on the whole I failed. And that was a very, very difficult time.
I finally wrote a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association saying that all the patients who had done so well at first, had then got into trouble and that the trouble seemed to me deep and complex, and that I had tried every advised way of getting them out of trouble and Iíd failed, and I thought that our models of what was happening must be too simple. This letter aroused great anger at first among my colleagues, because of course it denied predictability and understanding, it denied control, I think it also made them feel sort of somehow remove the benevolence. But it was complex.
Rachael Kohn: Well I think we have a deep resistance to the idea that humans are reducible to chemicals which is why your work on the whole is so hopeful, because it points beyond that, to a kind of mystery of intuition. Sometimes you call it the mystery of doing. Is this the ghost in the machine that neuroscience canít really put a finger on?
Oliver Sacks: Well I donít believe in ghosts, and weíre not machines. And one obviously needs some thinking which is quite different from the dualism of ghost and machine. Interestingly, my good friend and colleague, Antonio Di Masio whoís written many books, has a new book coming out in which he speaks especially of Spinoza and Spinoza would always say the body is infinitely complex and delicate and subtle, and if we could understand how delicate and complex and subtle it is, then we would be able to understand the emotions and the identity and so thereís a sort of monism, a coalescence of body and mind in Spinoza, and this is I think what neuroscience and psychology, and neuropsychology and psychoanalysis and literature and art, all of them together I think are somehow moving towards.
Rachael Kohn: You think medicine is becoming more sensitive to the delicacy of the human being?
Oliver Sacks: Well obviously not. A lot of medicine is a sort of consumerism and so forth, but there are pioneers out there who are also striving to understand the nature of consciousness and individuality, and to use your favourite word, the soul.
Rachael Kohn: Oliver Sacks, I am sure you are one of them. Thank you so much for being on The Spirit of Things.
Oliver Sacks: Thank you very much.
Dr Sayer: Leonard. Leonard.
Leonard: Sit down, sit down.
Dr Sayer: Why? Whatís wrong?
Leonard: Weíve got to tell everybody, weíve got to remind them, weíve got to remind them how good it is.
Dr Sayer: How good what is, Leonard?
Leonard: This newspaper. Hang on, whatís it say? All bad. Itís all bad. People have forgotten what life is all about, theyíve forgotten what it is to be alive, they need to be reminded, they need to be reminded about what they have and what they can lose, and what I feel is the joy of life, the gift of life, the freedom of live, the wonderment of life.
Rachael Kohn: Robert de Niro playing Leonard, and Robin Williams playing Oliver Sacks who was named Dr Sayer in the film Awakenings. It was based on one of the many books in which Oliver Sacks awakened us to the extraordinary gift of life, and living it uniquely.