Obituary: Neurologist investigated our brain’s strange waysThe strange case of Dr Oliver Sacks
Dr Oliver Sacks, who died Sunday morning, aged 82, held a unique place in both the worlds of science and popular culture – his exploration as a neurologist of the quirks of the human brain, and his ability to share his knowledge in an engaging way with a broad audience outside the medical fraternity brought him fame rarely afforded to scientists.
Across his 13 books – and of course the 1990 film adaptation of Awakenings, starring Robin Williams as the doctor himself – Dr Sacks imparted his findings and encounters with his case studies through accessible, often moving prose, all of which touched on things to which we can all relate.
Here are some of his best words, from his “neurological novels” as he called them, from interviews and from his recently released autobiography, On The Move: A Life.
On religion: “My religion is nature. That’s what arouses those feelings of wonder and mysticism and gratitude in me.”
On sex: “… sex is one of those areas—like religion and politics—where otherwise decent and rational people may have intense, irrational feelings.”
On his brief period of body-building, when he became known at Venice’s Muscle Beach as “Dr Squat”, after setting the California state record in 1961: “I sometimes wonder why I pushed myself so relentlessly in weight lifting. My motive, I think, was not an uncommon one; I was not the ninety-eight-pound weakling of bodybuilding advertisements, but I was timid, diffident, insecure, submissive. I became strong — very strong — with all my weight lifting but found that this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same.”
On music: “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.”
“Now that we can listen to anything we like on our iPods, we have less motivation to go to concerts or churches or synagogues, less occasion to sing together. This is unfortunate, because music-making engages much more of our brains than simply listening. Partly for this reason, to celebrate my 75th birthday last year, I started taking piano lessons (after a gap of more than sixty years). I still have my iPod (it contains the complete works of Bach), but I also need to make music every day.”
On his four-year addiction to amphetamines: “I do not know how much a propensity to addiction is “hardwired” or how much it depends on circumstances or state of mind. All I know is that I was hooked after that night with an amphetamine-soaked joint and was to remain hooked for the next four years. In the thrall of amphetamines, sleep was impossible, food was neglected, and everything was subordinated to the stimulation of the pleasure centers in my brain.”
On being gay, a fact about himself he revealed publicly in February this year: “My analyst tells me he’s never encountered anyone less affected by gay liberation. I remain locked in my cell despite the dancing at the prison gates.”
On life: “People will make a life in their own terms, whether they are deaf or colourblind or autistic or whatever. And their world will be quite as rich and interesting and full as our world.”
Some of his most moving words came just a few months ago, when he revealed in a New York Times article that he had terminal cancer, and only months to live, saying he felt “intensely alive”. “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”.
Farewell Dr Sacks. “When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”