I am sometimes moved to wonder whether it might not be necessary to redefine the very concepts of “health” and “disease”, to see these in terms of the ability of the organism to create a new organization and order, one that fits its special, altered disposition and needs, rather than in the terms of a rigidly defined “norm”.An Anthropologist on Mars is a collection of seven essays by neurologist Oliver Sacks about individuals with several brain disorders: “The Case of the Colorblind Painter” is about a painter who, after a car accident (possibly preceded and/or caused by a stroke), develops cerebral achromatopsia – he loses the ability to perceive, remember or even imagine colours. “The Last Hippie” is about Greg, a man who, after a massive brain tumour, is no longer able to form new memories, and so becomes perpetually stuck in the late 1960s. “A Surgeon's Life” is about a surgeon with Tourette's syndrome, whose tics disappear while he’s operating.
“To See and Not to See” is the story of Virgil, a man blind from early childhood who, in his fifties, regains partial sight after a surgery. But Virgil finds sight disorienting, disturbing, and even frightening. “The Landscape of His Dreams” focuses on Franco Magnani, an Italian painter who suffers from temporal lobe epilepsy. His seizures cause him to have almost hallucinatory visions of Pontino, the Tuscan village where he grew up, and he devotes his art to trying to recapture it. “Prodigies” is about Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic boy who’s also a very talented artist. Finally, in “An Anthropologist on Mars” Sacks writes about Temple Gradin, also autistic and a successful professor, author, and humane livestock facilities designer. She finds human interaction impossible to make sense of, but deeply empathizes with animals.
An Anthropologist on Mars is an amazing book in so many different ways. I loved Oliver Sacks’ writing: it’s clear, concise, emphatic and sometimes humorous. I loved that he doesn’t spare us any of the science. The essays have a personal feel, but they also include detailed explanations about how each disorder affects the brain, about its history, about other well-known cases. And these explanations are clear enough that they’re easy to make sense of even for someone with a limited background in science (such as myself). Furthermore, most of the scientific details are in the footnotes – I loved reading them, but if someone happens to be more interested in the personal story, they can easily skip them and not miss anything.
But as much as I loved the science, I probably loved the human side of these essays even more. Oliver Sacks doesn’t write about “cases”: he writes about people. And these are people he deeply respects, so you never feel that he’s treating them like specimens. As distressing as some of these neurological disorders can be, he never forgets that those who have them are still human. I love the fact that he believes that rather than seeing these people as “broken”, we should perhaps see them as having a brain organization that deviates from the norm but is adaptative in its own unique way.
But this isn’t to say that he romanticizes any of the seven people he writes about. Far from it: he acknowledges and addresses all the problems and pain and distress that these disorders cause. But it’s important to keep in mind that a lot of the time, these problems come from the behaviour others expect individuals to have rather than from anything the individuals themselves lack.
(Also, he gets extra cool points for all the literature references: H. G. Wells; “The Country of the Blind”, Proust, Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, G. K. Chesterton, etc.)
My favourite essay was “The Last Hippie”, about the man unable to form new memories. That wasn’t the only consequence of his brain tumour, but I won’t tell you everything. This essay really got to me because I have a thing about memory: of all the strange things that can happen to our terrifyingly frail brains, memory loss is what frightens me the most. Towards the end of the essay, Oliver Sacks describes how he took Greg to see The Grateful Dead, his favourite band, live at Central Park. The next morning, Greg had retained no memory of their outing, but when he listened to some of the band’s new songs, he was able to recognize them.
An Anthropologist on Mars is a fascinating and very readable book. If you’re at all interested in neuroscience, in the brain, or just in what makes people who they are, then by all means read it. Now I need to get my hands on each and every one of Sacks’ other books.
We long for a holiday from our frontal lobes, a Dyonisiac fiesta of sense and impulse. That this is a need of our constrained, civilized, hyperfrontal nature has been recognized in every time and culture. All of us need to take a little holiday from out frontal lobes—the tragedy is when, through grave illness or injury, there is no return from the holiday, as with Phineas Gage, or with Greg.Other opinions:
Mourning requires that one hold the sense of loss in one’s mind, and it was far from clear to me that Greg could do this. One might indeed tell him that his father had died, again and again. And every time it would come as something shocking and new and cause immeasurable distress. But then, in a few minutes, he would forget and be cheerful again, and was so prevented from going through the work of grief, the mourning.
We achieve perceptual constancy—the correlation of all the different appearances, the transforms of objects—very early in the first months of life. It constitutes a huge learning task, but is achieved so smoothly, so unconsciously, that its enormous complexity is scarcely realized (thought it is an achievement that even the largest supercomputers cannot begin to match). But for Virgil, with half a century of forgetting whatever visual anagrams he had constructed, the learning, or relearning, of these transforms requited hours of conscious and systematic exploration each day.
And yet it would be reductive, absurd, to suppose that temporal lobe epilepsy, seizure of “reminiscence”, even if they do constitute the final trigger of Franco’s vision, could be the only determinants of his reminiscence and art. The character of the man—his attachment to his mother, his tendency towards idealization and nostalgia; the actual history of his life, including the sudden loss of his childhood paradise and of his father; and, not least, the desire to be known, to achieve, to represent a whole culture—all this, surely, is equally important.
Stephen’s voice, his gestures, mimicked to perfection those of a well-meaning but condescending teacher, specifically (I felt with some discomfort) mine when I had tested him in London. He had not forgotten this. It was a lesson to me, to all of us, never to underestimate him. Stephen delighted in reversing roles, just as in his cartoon of himself fanning me.
books i done read
Dog Ear Diary
(Let me know if I missed yours.)