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Oliver Sacks


A Life

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence.
Sacks completed this autobiography shortly before his death, so we get a pretty complete account of his varied life spent mainly in the USA. As his title suggests, he travelled a great amount and not only in the geographical sense; he inhabited a surprising range of personalities. Quite early in his life he became addicted to motor cycles, the more powerful the better, and used them to make long journeys, sometimes riding all night before returning to work in the morning. For a number of years he was also an enthusiastic weight lifter and body builder; one of the chapters is called 'Muscle Beach'. And he experimented with drugs, especially amphetamines, on a large scale, to the point where he nearly died and was only saved by undertaking analysis.

All this is described vividly and frankly, and so is his life as a gay man. He realised his sexual orientation quite early on and found no problem with it, although his mother did. After middle age he became celibate for a long time until, late in his life, he formed a new and fulfilling relationship with a younger man.

Given all this, it would perhaps not have been expected that Sacks would become known as a sage, but that is how many people think of him now, thanks to the remarkable series of books that he wrote about his patients. Here he describes how he came to write them and what they meant to him. Although he was a scientist his approach to those he cared for and wrote about was always personal and compassionate. As his friend Gerald Edelman remarked, he was no theoretician. Sacks agreed, saying "I am a field worker and you need the sort of field work I do for the sort of theory making you do."

I think this is an illuminating comment. As I remarked in my review of Hallucinations, Sacks provided astonishing case histories but I sometimes wished that he had gone further into some of the deep questions that his descriptions raised. I was therefore particularly interested in his penultimate chapter in the present book, 'A Vision of the Mind', where he discusses ideas concerning the nature of consciousness and its relation to the brain. He is influenced here by his friendship with some of the foremost theoreticians in this field, including the aforementioned Edelman and Francis Crick.

Crick was particularly interested in Sacks's description of migraines in which patients (including Sacks himself) sometimes experienced movement as a "cinematographic sequence" of stills.

I found myself thinking of time—time and perception, time and consciousness, time and memory, time and music, time and movement. I had returned, in particular,to the question of whether the apparently continuous passage of time and movement given to us by our eyes was an illusion—whether in fact our visual experience consisted of a series of timeless "moments" which were then welded together by some higher mechanism in the brain.

Crick evidently had similar thoughts. In the last letter he wrote to Sacks, about Sacks's article 'The River of Consciousness', he suggested that "a better title would have been 'Is Consciousness a River?' since the main thrust of the piece is that it may well not be." Sacks agreed with this.

As Sacks remarks, Crick had begun his scientific career in physics and took up biology only later. This makes his interest in the nature of time all the more intriguing. Sacks's view, quoted above, sounds remarkably like what the physicist Julian Barbour writes in The End of Time.

I regard instants of time as real things, identifying them with possible instantaneous arrangements of all the things in the universe. They are configurations of the universe. In themselves, these configurations are perfectly static and timeless. But how and why can something static and timeless be experienced as intensely dynamic and temporal?
Barbour suggests that what we see as motion, in a leaping cat or a diving kingfisher, is really a series of still photographs, which are somehow brought together by the brain to produce an illusion of movement. A similar view emerges in Max Tegmark's book, Our Mathematical Universe.


%T On the Move
%S A Life
%A Sacks, Oliver
%I Picador
%C London
%D 2015
%G ISBN 978-1-4472-6404-0
%P 397pp
%K biography
%O hardback, illustrated

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