The River of Consciousness (Oliver Sacks)
Picador, New York, 2017
ISBN: 978 1 4472 6364 7
Two weeks before his death, Oliver Sacks outlined the contents ofThe River of Consciousness, the last book he would oversee. In this book, his final, Sacks takes on evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and calls upon his great scientific and creative heroes — above all, Darwin, Freud, and William James. For Sacks, these thinkers were constant companions from an early age; the questions they explored — the meaning of evolution, the roots of creativity, and the nature of consciousness — lie at the heart of science and of this book. Sacks was born in London in 1933 and was educated at Queen’s College, Oxford, Mount Zion Hospital and at UCLA before moving to New York, which led to his book Awakenings. Dr Oliver Sacks spent almost fifty years working as a neurologist and wrote many publications, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia, Hallucinations, and his memoir,On the Move, which was published shortly before his death in August 2015.
In his last year he put the finishing touches to a memoir (On the Move), and completed some final magazine essays (previously published in the New York Review of Books) collected soon after his death and now presented in The River of Consciousness. There are ten essays in total which dwell on his scientific heroes: Darwin, William James and Freud. Darwin was obviously a big influence on Sacks and The Meaning of Flowers, the opening essay, reveals his attentiveness to the examination of evolutionary theory, but also to his appreciation of Darwin’s methods. Throughout this book we get to see the botanist, the historian of science, the marine biologist and, of course, the neurologist. Sacks wished to dedicate The Rivers of Consciousness to his editor, mentor and friend for more than thirty years, Robert Silvers, who first published many the pieces gathered here in NY Review of Books.
In ‘Speed’ Sacks admits he was fascinated by speed and the vast range of speeds in the world around him. He notes (on plants) that he would go out into the garden to find the hollyhocks a little higher and the roses even more entwined around their trellis than the day before but as patient as he was he could never catch the plants moving. These experiences turned Sacks to photography which allowed him to alter the rate of motion and adjust it to a human perceptual rate otherwise beyond the power of the eye to register. He would put the photographs into a flick-book to catch plant growth into a few moments. It was when he was a student at Oxford that he read William James’s Principles of Psychology and the chapter ‘The Perception of Time’ which he found wonderful. Sacks alluded to time and age and remembers when he was young that the days seemed long and then appear to be so much shorter in old age. In an experiment on time he points out that young people are more accurate at estimating a span of three minutes by counting internally than elderly subjects. Why, he suggests, is not entirely clear.
Sacks refers to his second book Awakenings and the different and varied tempos of patient’s movement. This was turned into a film in 1990 (starring Robin Williams) highlighting his extraordinary work in the Sixties with a group of catatonic patients he finds languishing in a Bronx hospital. Speculating that their rigidity may be akin to an extreme form of Parkinsonism, he sought permission from sceptical superiors to treat them with L-dopa, a drug that was used to treat Parkinson's disease at the time. He concludes this chapter by remarking that even the fastest humans are restricted in speed by their basic neural developments, by cells with limited rates of firing and by limited speeds of conduction between different cells and cell groups.
In other chapters, including The Fallibility of Memory, Sacks tells of his own memory failings of two bomb incidents during WW2, the second of which he was not present for. Sacks recalls both with some clarity, but his brother later informs him ‘You never saw it. You weren’t there’. It transpires that their older brother was and let them know the details by letter. The most humorous of chapters is ‘Mishearings’ where he tells us about what he believes is being said to him as opposed to what is actually being said. It is not really a funny situation but as told by Sacks it becomes so. In ‘Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science’, Sacks outlines how urgent is the need for reconciliation between psychiatry and neurology, divided now he believed for nearly a century. A “scotoma” is a blind spot in the vision, an area of darkness conjured by irregularities in brain or retinal function.
The extensiveness of his interests encourages his readers to expand their own horizons. He said ‘I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life. This knowledge roots me, allows me to feel at home in the natural world, to feel that I have my own sense of cultural meaning, whatever my role in the cultural, human world’. You cannot argue with that.
You can watch videos of Sacks discussing the areas of neurology he addresses in his many works of non-fiction.