Sacks was a gifted and generous writer, too, and shared what he knew in a wealth of highly-accessible books and articles, mostly in the form of extraordinary case studies—dispatches from the far-flung fringes of consciousness (including his own, such as his memorable memoir to weekend drug-taking during the 1960s).
He wrote of bizarre cases of brain damage; savants, amnesiacs, colourblind artists; a surgeon with Tourette’s, a man who developed a passion for music after being struck by lightning, and—the title of his bestselling book--The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Many neurologists lack Sacks’ sense of wonder. They are fixated on the machinery of the brain; Sacks was interested in the ghost in the machine, too. In his lifetime there has been an avalanche of new neuropsychological knowledge born of extraordinary advances in functional neuroimaging techniques. Brain scans are fascinating, but perhaps tell us little of human souls. They are the flickering shadows on the walls of Plato’s Cave.
An atheist by disposition, Sacks nevertheless had many encounters through his work with something larger, with the numinous. He was perhaps a kindred spirit to Albert Einstein, who described himself as both an atheist and a devoutly religious man.
Also evident in Sacks’ writing is his humanity; a deep compassion for his patients and an appreciation for the courage and dignity they brought to their peculiar, individual challenges. And for the never-ending creativity, resourcefulness and power of human brains, minds and spirits. Writing in The New York Times on the first day of 2011, Sacks said: “I have seen hundreds of patients with various deficits — strokes, Parkinson’s and even dementia — learn to do things in new ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, to work around those deficits. That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? The experiences of many people suggest that it can.”
In fact, deficits in one area can stimulate extraordinary growth in another. Sacks wrote in An Anthropologist on Mars that illnesses and disorders “can play a paradoxical role in bringing out latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen or even be imaginable in their absence.”
There are many examples of this notion that you need grit in the oyster to make a pearl, that roses grow out of the dirt, that some disadvantage can create unexpected advantage. In the book David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcolm Gladwell speaks of “desirable difficulties," citing one study that claims a third of entrepreneurs have dyslexia. “We see so many entrepreneurs who have dyslexia," he writes. “When you talk to them, they will tell you that they succeeded not in spite of their disability, but because of it. For them, they view their disability as desirable.”
Many great pioneers, creators and agents of social change have personal histories of hardship and trauma. Life’s hurdles can trip us up. But they can also make us extremely good at jumping.
Sacks' personal hurdle was his sexuality. Tragically, he felt he had to keep the fact that he was gay hidden from view. For more than half his adult life he was celibate, and alone, only finding a partner and falling in love at the age of 77. Perhaps such a famine in his personal life was not entirely unrelated to the extraordinary feast of his work and other interests.
Dr. Sacks is perhaps best known for his work with patients who had spent decades frozen in a catatonic state caused by encephalitic lethargica. He describes entering a ward of such patients in 1966: “I suppose the first impression was that I had entered a museum or waxwork gallery,” Sacks told NPR in 1985 (it’s worth listening to the interview to get a measure of his eloquence). “They were motionless figures who were transfixed in strange postures — sometimes rather dramatic postures, sometimes not — with an absolute absence of motion, without any hint of motion.”
Sacks was able to defrost these utterly frozen patients, to bring them back to life, sometimes quite suddenly, by administering the-then brand new Parkinson’s drug Levadopa or synthetic dopamine. Like Sleeping Beauty, these patients woke up. Their experiences became the basis for Sacks’ 1973 book Awakenings, which was adapted into a film starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro, and the Harold Pinter play A Kind of Alaska.
“It seemed to be the dawn of a new day, the birth of a new life,” said Sacks of the resurrections he performed. “There was great joy and a sort of lyrical delight in the world which had been given back. I remember one patient stroking leaves and looking at the night lights of New York on the horizon and everything was a source of delight and gratitude. This was the quality at first. But then, there were problems....”
The problems, Sacks goes on to explain, were ones of excess, going from one extreme to another. “The patients had had not enough life, not enough movement, not enough emotion, not enough dopamine, and now they started to have too much, and things started to run away.”
Most patients crashed and burned, but eventually climbed down from their manic, frenzied highs to reach some kind of balance, a middle way, a peace. They became philosophical about their lives.
“I think illness and deep illness may force one to think, even if one hasn't been a thinking person before,” continued Sacks. “Many of the patients seemed to be poetic, to have become poetic. Auden has a phrase about being ‘wounded into art’ and I sometimes felt that was the case with many of the patients.”
They came to accept that they had been asleep through much of their lives, and were grateful at last for the opportunity to live.
How many of us on this earth, too, have spent lengthy spells of our lives “asleep” in various ways? Who is too busy, afraid, angry, defended, depressed, anxious, stressed, numbed, stuck or otherwise diminished to see and to feel and to be? To be fully alive?
Two weeks before he died, Sacks wrote a final essay in The New York Times entitled “Sabbath.” It concludes: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
Before we too find ourselves on our deathbed, before it’s all too late, we could all use some awakening. There is still time to engage and be moved and grateful for the wonders and experiences of the world. To live perhaps a bit more like Sacks, who described himself in February as a man of “extreme immoderation in all my passions.”
We should all be stroking leaves.