Monday, August 31, 2015

Uncle Tungsten

To read Oliver Sacks' 2001 recollection of his childhood years, his great appreciation for how the mind works was inspired by a relative, who he called Uncle Tungsten, that introduced him to the wonderful world of chemistry.  Sacks, who recently died at the age of 82, never lost his passion for the periodic table, collecting an element for each year of his life.  Thallium proved not so easy to acquire at age 81, and needed special housing.  He worried how he was going to deal with Bismuth, but Plumbum, better known as Lead, is the final element in his periodic table.

It would be easy to say that Dr. Sacks died with a heavy heart, but as he wrote in an essay several months back when he was told his condition was terminal, he accepted his condition, especially since he felt he had been given nine extra years after he was first diagnosed with an ocular melanoma.  It's only fitting since many of the patients he shared with us through his fabulous books similarly had to learn to cope with their conditions and had learned to accept them.

His recent books have focused more on himself, notably The Mind's Eye, which starts with his own condition.  It grows into a wonderful study on how to come to terms with his condition, ambling in different directions as he writes the book in the form of journal entries, which was a departure from his previously tightly knitted sets of case studies.  The book sprang from an essay he wrote in 2003, first published in the New Yorker.

One of my favorite books was The Island of the Colorblind, where he studied an indigenous group of natives on an island near Guam, who had become selectively colorblind over succeeding generations because it allowed them to thrive in a dense jungle setting where a "normal" sighted person only saw a sea of green.  By being completely colorblind, these natives were better able to differentiate the shades of gray and better live in this environment.  It was only a select few who had this condition, descendants of the king.  Others focused their energies more on the shoreline, where color differentiation was more important.

His most famous book, Awakenings, was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.  Sacks wrote of his experience working with Williams in this lovely obituary last year.  Sacks noted that at times he felt uneasy with the uncanny way Williams was able to capture his mannerisms, and it was literally like seeing himself.  Robin Williams' daughter returned the gesture with this wonderful photograph of the two of them together.

Sacks' interests were broad and this was readily apparent in his essays and books.  In Migraine, he talks of the necessity to study the history of a condition, taking migraines all the way back to Roman times.  He had a special fondness for William James, the pioneering American psychoanalyst.  Sacks wondered if migraines and epilepsy could have been at the root of some of the fantastic visions and great insights that occurred over time, noting famous writers and artists who suffered from migraines.  As a self-help guide to the condition, it may not be the best book, as he comes to no pat conclusions on migraines, but he takes the reader on an intellectual and emotional journey filled with many rich insights.

I think what drew Sacks to James is that William James saw many of the psychological conditions making themselves manifest in the industrial age as a byproduct of the society we lived in.  James saw schizophrenia more as a social condition with many variants, not a clinical psychological disease that had to be treated ruthlessly, even to the point of lobotomies.  While Sacks had greater resources to pinpoint the cause of some of these clinical conditions, he also saw the social components, notably in migraines that have yet to be pinpointed.

Although Sacks released his final autobiography On the Move this past spring, I don't imagine this will be his final word.  One can only imagine the files and journals Sacks kept over the years and that some of these stories will find their way into print in the coming years.   In his own imitable way, he has been our Uncle Tungsten, allowing us to share in his unique neurological understanding of the world thanks to his wonderfully accessible pen.

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