Over the last couple of days you may have seen the internet lighting up with appreciations for the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks. He died on Sunday at age 82, leaving behind a lifetime of illuminating writing that helped us to understand our own brains as beautiful, imperfect machines. Here are a few of our favourite books and stories.
Sacks was many things but he was above all prolific. He was writing until the very end, publishing a story about the importance of the Sabbath in The New York Times August 14. While he was a student of medicine, he heartily embraced new technology and had a lighthearted tone that oscillated between witty and outright hilarious. Any topic he tackled seemed to sparkle in his hands and leave the reader enlightened.
This essay in the New Yorker might be the way that you were introduced to Sacks — or at least the idea of face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, an affliction where you can not remember faces (among other things). What’s fascinating here is to watch as Sacks’ slowly confronts his own undiagnosed brain disorder. The doctor becomes the patient.
Sacks is at his best in this beautiful book describing the most bizarre and outlandish brain disorders to affect humans. While it might be easy to make a book like this feel like some kind of freak show at the circus, in fact, Sacks celebrates these patients like superheroes. To give you an idea of the wide-ranging wonder found in what could be a cold, clinical topic, this book was eventually turned into an opera.
In 2012, Sacks wrote an Atlantic essay on how the brain constructs epiphanies; how we trick ourselves into thinking we’ve had a “religious experience”. It will change the way you think about epiphanies. Perhaps it will lead you to have a religious experience about religious experiences.
In his own practice, Sacks helped dozens of encephalitis patients who contracted sleeping-sickness around the second world war. In 1969, Sacks began treating them with a controversial new drug named L-DOPA, which quickly woke them from their trance-like states. The book is excellent but I’d offer this suggestion as a way to remember two great men we’ve lost: watch the film starring Robin Williams, which is very good as well.
Sacks had a wild streak, and he had a pretty serious drug habit in the 1960s. Sacks looks back on his amphetamine kick in this 2012 New Yorker essay. He’s not really regretful about his fixation on mood-altering substances (nothing is more boring than a repentant drug-user memoir). Instead, he writes about the joy he felt seeing the colour indigo with the help of psychedelics. [Thanks Kate Knibbs for contributing this entry.]
This anthology is kind of like neurology-focused episodes of House: seven cases of humans whose brain disorders (usually chronically misdiagnosed) ended up giving them seemingly magical powers. This book also introduced to the world an autistic woman named Temple Grandin, an animal scientist who would go on to become one of the most influential thinkers in the behaviour and treatment of livestock.
Finally — and this is kind of a bonus — Sacks was perhaps his most eloquent on what could often be a frivolous medium. Just going through his Twitter account I’ve found so many poetic musings on everyday life and generous links to other people’s stories and videos. His final tweet could not have been a better finale for a life well-lived.
Top image via @OliverSacks