Apr 13, 2009

An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks

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.

Notable passages:
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.

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.
Other opinions:
books i done read
Dog Ear Diary
Upsidedown Bee

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. I've always been curious about Oliver Sacks' books _ this sounds fascinating. Thanks :)

  2. I became interested in neuroscience after my father was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor over five years ago. (Amazingly, he is still alive.) I was given a copy of The Spiritual Brain to read a couple years in, and it's a fascinating read. Hugely controversial, too, because the authors argue that the mind isn't the same thing as the brain. Still interesting, though.

  3. Boy, does that sound fascinating. Thanks for the review!

  4. Hooray, Sacks! I haven't read this one yet. I'll get to it though. I love scientist-writers who can make science interesting and understandable to people who wouldn't otherwise be engaged. Also, I think that first quote at the top of your excellent review is wonderful.

  5. (to clarify: I don't mean that you might not have been engaged prior to this book, specifically -- I meant general "other people"!)

    I must strive for further clarity in my own writing.

  6. Rich really enjoys his books. I know he has this one, but I'm not sure if he's read it yet. I was actually hoping to read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat sometime this year, but I think I might read this one instead! (Though actually, they sound quite similar...but having read neither I could be wrong.) What a wonderful review, Nymeth! Thank you!

  7. The Hippie chapter was one of the saddest things I think I've ever read. Half the point of DOING things is so that you can remember them!

    Glad you liked.

  8. I read this at least a decade ago and I still remember the stories. His other books are worth reading as well. One lovely man indeed, that Oliver Sacks.

  9. Somehow, I'm going to incorporate this into my schoolwork so I don't feel guilty for reading it.

  10. This is a good book, one I read quite a while ago. I like Oliver Sacks! You may know that Temple Grandin is also an author-- her book "Animals in Translation" is very interesting.

  11. This is awesome! I definitely need to read this one. It reminds me of another one that's one my wishlist called "head cases: true stories of Brain Injury and it's aftermath". I can't wait to read this now. I love this subject. In fact, if I ever went back for a PhD it would be for Neuro-Psychology...I find it fascinating!

  12. Interesting... I know my wish list is bursting but one more book won't hurt it...

  13. I already have this book on my TBR pile! It must have been in your email? I can't remember... Anyway, I will get to it sometime in this century, I am sure!

  14. I've always wanted to read Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" but I think this may have jumped ahead of it. I'd never even heard of this before.

  15. This sounds wonderful! I've long been wanting to read Sacks but don't get around to it. Eventually, I will.

  16. just a quick note to let you know I will come back and read this later - did you see my offer to send you The Man Who Mistook His Wife? It's my next book, ok? :)

  17. This sounds very interesting. I know it's something I wouldn't normally pick up but your review of it has absolutely won me over. I just added it to my TBR list.

  18. This sounds like an interesting book. The one about the blind man Virgil, I think that was made into a movie at one point. Either that or its just a coincidence, because the film is about a blind man named Virgil who regains his sight after an operation.
    Great review like always!

  19. I have been meaning to read some Oliver Sacks for ages and still not gotten around to it to my shame. I have The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which comes highly recommended. I studied psychology at A Level and did one year of it as a degree before realising I wanted more science so switched to Biochemistry and Neurobiology so I really do need to read him...

  20. This sounds like an interesting book, Nymeth! I don't think I've read anything like this but I'm always open when new-to-me authors are concerned. :)

  21. Your post moved me...I ache for people who suffer from such things but also rejoice for the surgeon who can do his surgeries without the tourette's interfering. This book truly sounds amazing and I'm glad that you noted he also delivers on the HUMAN side of things. I don't want to read just about science and how the brain works but also about the emotions and trials and tribulations of that person. Sounds fascinating and I'm really really interested in reading this!!

  22. It is amazing what we take for granted in our minds. I find this subject fascinating.

  23. I've been meaning to get The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat from the library... this one sounds interesting too - it's great when authors can make science interesting and 'understandable'.

  24. Maree, I think you'd enjoy this :)

    Loren Eaton: Eek! I'm so glad he's still among us. Brain tumours seriously terrify me. As for that book, to be honest I tend to shy away from books like that. Not because of my religious beliefs (or lack thereof), but because the hypotheses they put forth just don't seem testable, you know? I mean, of course that people are going to draw conclusions about life/death/the spirit from neuroscience, but I'd rather just read the facts and do that on my own. I know that there are books that argue for both cases, but those don't interest me as much as books that tell me what we know about the brain so far without an agenda.

    Bermudaonion, you're welcome!

    Kirrstin: I love them too! And I know you didn't mean me, but I'd worry about being misunderstood too (I do all the time, lol), so I understand why you clarified :P

    Debi: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat sounds awesome too. From what I hear, they're similar except that while this one has detailed essays about seven people, that one tells a lot more stories but in less detail.

    Raych: I knooow. I knew there was no way he'd remember the concert the next day, but I was still hoping against hope. And it was so sad when Sacks asked him and he didn't remember a thing.

    Lightheaded: He really seems to be! I definitely plan to read more.

    Lena: lol! I like the way you think.

    Valerie: I'm very curious about her books now!

    Chris: Yep, you do...this is the exact kind of stuff that interests you! That other book you mentioned sounds awesome too.

    Alice: lol, exactly :P

  25. Kailana: I think I went on about it quite a bit on twitter :P

    J.S. Peyton: That one sounds really good too.

    Claire, I hope you enjoy it when you do!

    Care: I had completely missed that!! You are so sweet :D

    Nely: I'm happy to hear that!

    Naida: I looked it up and you're right, a movie was made based on that story. Now I'm curious to see it.

    Rhinoa: That was one of my problems with psychology...not enough science and too much speculation sometimes. But as much as I like science, I don't think I could work on it, so I went for something completely different instead :P

    Melody: Oliver Sacks is definitely worth trying! I hope you enjoy it.

    Staci: He does an excellent job highlighting both the good and the bad, the losses and the gains. And it's a very human book while being informative and rigorous all the same. Gotta love that!

    Eca: Judging by this, I think I do too! (PS: You look like Kirsten Dunst a bit in your new profile pic! This is a compliment, btw, because I think she's gorgeous :D )

    Scrap Girl: It's amazing indeed!

    Joanna: It is! This has to be one of the best popular science books I've read. He makes it all so accessible, and yet you never feel he's dumbing things down.

  26. Nymeth,

    Yeah, I wasn't sure TSB would be your cup o' tea. Still, I thought they were pretty fair-minded, and the sections on obsessive-compulsive disorder and philosophies of mind / brain interaction were fascinating. Worth a look if you're ever desperately bored.

  27. I want to say that I've heard of this one, maybe, but it sounds absolutely fascinating. Good that Sacks provides a humanistic side to the essays--I can see them turning into something dry even if interesting. I'm putting this on my wishlist--sounds like it raises great questions about science, health, and humanity.

  28. I really do enjoy his books. Sacks seems like such a great individual- intensely interested not only in his patients, and how to help them, but why they are thus afflicted, which he finds fascinating in itself- the intricate workings of the brain- and thus makes them fascinating to the reader, as well. Excellent review, Nymeth!

  29. Loren Eaton: Well, you succeeded in making me a wee bit curious :P

    Trish: Yes, I can see how this could have been dry, but it so wasn't! Jeane put it perfectly in her comment, actually - Sacks' interest and enthusiasm infuses the reader completely.

    Jeane: You really put it perfectly. That's so true.

  30. Sacks is mentioned in every one of my "brain" books! I love essays, love neurological stuff, want to read something by Sacks and, therefore must add this one to my list! Thanks, Nymeth.

  31. This sounds like a great book. I've read two of his books and enjoyed both of them a lot. I'm going to read Musicophilia for Annie's challenge. I also appreciate how he treats his patients like human beings. He has a great people skills.
    I didn't know the Grateful Dead was his favorite band. Now I like him even more. If you feel the in the mood for another good brain book, V. S. Ramachandran has written several.

  32. Rich just told me that he realized as soon as he hit the publish button that he'd said something stupid...he realized that the Dead were probably Greg's favorite band not Oliver Sacks'. In fact, I think Rich's exact words were, "I can't believe that the first time I commented on her blog, I had to go make an ass of myself. But I figured I'd just slink away in shame instead of explaining." I told him that I make an ass of myself all the time, and you still like me, so I was sure you wouldn't hold it against him. ;)

  33. Oliver Sacks' books have been on my list for years, and it really is time for me to get to them. This one sounds intriguing! Maybe once I'm finished with grad school (just a few weeks to go!) I'll be able to appreciate nonfiction free reading a bit more. :-)

  34. I heart Oliver Sacks. Maybe it is because I studied psychology in college, but I find his writing fascinating. I read a few of the essays from this book, but I need to really find this book so I can finish them. I find it fascinating what our brain is capable of!

    I have also frequently thought that the absolute worse injury I could have is to lose my memory. How horrible to lose your sense of self!

  35. I heart Oliver Sachs too, and I think this one also goes on the TBR! I'm really interested in people who paint their altered realities; people with mental disorders, or color-blind, or paint their dreams, or whatever. I think those visions are completely fascinating.

  36. This sounds like a really unique and fascinating collection of essays, Nymeth. You've definitely got me curious about it.

  37. Jenclair, you'll enjoy this for sure :)

    Rich: Musicophilia sounds excellent too. And he really does seem to have great people skills. The Dead are indeed Greg's favourite band and not Sacks', but that's totally MY fault for using the pronoun ambiguously, so please don't feel bad! Also, thanks so much for the recommendation!

    Debi: lol! He did not make an ass of himself. It's MY fault for writing unclear sentences. You also DON'T make an ass of yourself, but I definitely DO like you :D

    Darla: Good luck for your final weeks!

    Kim: It is fascinating! And yeah, it's almost impossibly to separate our identity from our memories, so if that goes, basically *we* go. It's terrifying.

    Miss D: I know! He describes how the painter who became colour blind began to paint differently and even includes some examples of his art. It's fascinating stuff.

    Literary Feline: I hope you do pick it up sometime! It's worth reading :)

  38. I love Oliver Sacks. The only book I have read from him is The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, but I agree that his ability to sympathize with his subjects is amazing.

  39. Zibilee, I'm really looking forward to reading that one :)

  40. Working in biology, I've heard quite a lot about Oliver Sacks's books, but never read one... it sounds like I need to! I've also got a copy of The Man Who Tasted Shapes (not by Sacks, but very similar) laying around to re-read - the brain's so fascinating!


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