Saturday, April 05, 2008

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: Dr. Oliver Sacks

What’s the feeling you get reading Dr. Oliver Sacks? It’s not unlike sitting around the fireplace along with ten other kids, listening to stories from our favourite Grandpa Ollie. The only difference is that Grandpa is not telling us mythological stories, but stories from his own life as a neurologist, of the different interesting cases he has been involved in. And what is the essence of these cases?

We have five senses in which we glory and which we recognise and celebrate, senses that constitute the sensible world for us. But there are other senses – secret senses, sixth senses, if you will – equally vital, but unrecognised, and unlauded.

. . .

Yet their absence can be quite conspicuous. If there is defective (or distorted) sensation in our overlooked secret senses, what we then experience is profoundly strange, an almost incommunicable equivalent to being blind or being deaf. If proprioception is completely knocked out, the body becomes, so to speak, blind and deaf to itself – and (as the meaning of the Latin root propius hints) ceases to ‘own’ itself, to feel itself as itself.

And while one is able to imagine what a person without one of the core five senses could possibly feel and experience (Dr. Sacks himself dealt with one such in Seeing Voices where he dealt with the blind), people with a defective / distorted / missing sensation of the secret senses certainly seem to be beyond our regular imagination.

Dr. Sacks uses the same case history approach in The Man . . . as he used in his other books, including that marvel, An Anthropologist on Mars. The book is categorized into four sections – Losses focuses on people who have lost one of their secret senses; Excesses dwells on those who have a significantly overactive secret sense; Transports takes you into the lives of who have an altered views or perceptions, a different inner vision if you will; and The World of the Simple comprises four poignant tales of people who were children in many senses but amazingly adult in others.

Each story in the book is as riveting as the next, as insightful as the previous. Of course, different stories may resonate better with different people, depending on their dominant secret senses, I suppose. My personal favourite is the short piece titled The President’s Speech under Losses. (Just so we get our context right, remember this book was written in early 1985 and the author is based in the US.)

The President, the old Charmer, the Actor, with his practised rhetoric, his histrionisms, his emotional appeal, was giving a speech in the aphasia ward. And the response? Convulsive laughter. The explanation? Over to Dr. Sacks.

He [the aphasiac] cannot grasp your words, and so cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, that total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, all to easily . . .

As Nietzsche pithily writes, “One can lie with the mouth, but with the accompanying grimace one nevertheless tells the truth.”

Can aphasiacs be used as lie detectors then, I wonder.

And then there are those two stories towards the end of the book – one on the autistic twins who can calculate and remember virtually any number or date without being formally trained to be mathematicians, and the other on an autistic artist who does not see the world as a conceptual or abstract entity, rather as a concrete, particular, discrete agglomeration of things. They may, in a manner of speaking, miss the forest for the trees, but they really see the trees in great detail, more than any of us can even if we try to.

How would you characterise Dr. Sacks’ works, beyond the humdrum “non-fiction” and “science”? The closest I could come to is that his works are “the non-fiction equivalent of science fiction.” And here I refer to the definition of science fiction I used when I reviewed Arthur C. Clarke’s Of Time and Stars.

Take normal life and twist / invert / change one aspect of it, and that’s science fiction for you.

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