‘Awakenings’ Author, Neurologist Oliver Sacks Dies at 82

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mind explorer’ Oliver Sacks charted strangest territory of disorder.

Oliver Sacks was the neurologist and acclaimed author who explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.Prominent Jewish neurologist, professor and writer, Oliver Sacks, died in his home in New York at the age of 82 on Sunday, losing the battle against metastatic liver cancer, according to his longtime personal assistant, Kate Edgar.

Dr Oliver Sacks, who died Sunday morning, aged 82, held a unique place in both the worlds of science and popular culture – his exploration as a neurologist of the quirks of the human brain, and his ability to share his knowledge in an engaging way with a broad audience outside the medical fraternity brought him fame rarely afforded to scientists. Across his 13 books – and of course the 1990 film adaptation of Awakenings, starring Robin Williams as the doctor himself – Dr Sacks imparted his findings and encounters with his case studies through accessible, often moving prose, all of which touched on things to which we can all relate.

Sacks, a professor of neurology who taught for decades at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, Columbia University and New York University School of Medicine, was well-known for writing 13 books that helped explain the symptoms of his patients who suffered from conditions centered on the brain. More than a million copies of his books are in print in the United States, his work was adapted for film and stage, and he received about 10,000 letters a year. (“I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison,” he once said.) Sacks variously described his books and essays as case histories, pathographies, clinical tales or “neurological novels.” His subjects included Madeleine J., a blind woman who perceived her hands only as useless “lumps of dough”; Jimmie G., a submarine radio operator whose amnesia stranded him for more than three decades in 1945; and Dr. Sacks announced in an op-ed in The New York Times that he was suffering from the late stages of terminal cancer after a metastases from an ocular tumor had spread to his liver. “A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. Prodigiously successful, Dr Sacks was sometimes criticised for being perceived as exploiting his patients for personal gain; he always contended, however, that he meant only to show his subjects respect. Here are some of his best words, from his “neurological novels” as he called them, from interviews and from his recently released autobiography, On The Move: A Life. “I sometimes wonder why I pushed myself so relentlessly in weight lifting.

My motive, I think, was not an uncommon one; I was not the ninety-eight-pound weakling of bodybuilding advertisements, but I was timid, diffident, insecure, submissive. Sacks spent years compiling a series of fascinating case studies, including a man who really did mistake his wife’s face for his hat while visiting Sack’s office. I became strong — very strong — with all my weight lifting but found that this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same.” “Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. In February, Sacks wrote an op-ed piece for the Times in which he announced that he had a rare type of cancer that had metastasized in his liver and he had months to live. “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Sacks wrote. “This does not mean I am finished with life. He learned to observe his patients in extreme detail, calling on his professional training and uncanny perception to make meticulous analyses of motor strength, reflexes, sensation, and mental status; in doing so, he arrived at a diagnosis that might locate a lesion within the anatomy of the brain or spinal cord.

Sacks authored multiple best selling books, including Awakenings, a book based on his treatments on a group of patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica who had been unable to move on their own for years. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.” “Now that we can listen to anything we like on our iPods, we have less motivation to go to concerts or churches or synagogues, less occasion to sing together. And yet, because medical technology had only gone so far in those days, once this intellectual exercise was completed, there was often very little that could be done to ameliorate most neurological maladies. Many of the letter writers discussed their similar neurological brain diseases like face-blindness and musical hallucinations “which they had never before admitted to anyone or even, sometimes, to themselves,” Sacks said. The Oscar-nominated movie tells how dozens of men and women rendered virtually immobile for decades by a rare (and supposedly incurable) form of encephalitis, are given the experimental drug L-dopa.

It included ageing, amnesia, colour, deafness, dreams, ferns, Freud, hallucinations, neural Darwinism, phantom limbs, photography, pre-Columbian history, swimming and twins. “I am very tenacious, for better or worse,” he wrote in A Leg to Stand On. “If my attention is engaged, I cannot disengage it. His wife looked as if she was used to such things.” Also detailed in the book is the case of a woman who feels as if she has no connection to her own body – her hands are, to her “lumps of clay – as her condition, proprioception, worsens.” Dr Sacks is himself featured in the book: The essay “The Dog Beneath the Skin”, about a 22-year-old student who wakes up after a bit of a bender involving cocaine, amphetamines and angel dust and discovers that his sense of smell is heightened beyond reason.

In a video posted on his YouTube channel, Saks explained that “the act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other.” As a prolific writer who was able to make science accessible to masses of readers, Sacks was adept at using the range of human experience to try to explain how the brain worked. An extended version of an essay he had written two years earlier called “The leg”, Dr Sacks wrote of the strange experience he had while recovering from a serious leg injury he suffered from a fall in a remote part of Norway.

I still have my iPod (it contains the complete works of Bach), but I also need to make music every day.” “I do not know how much a propensity to addiction is “hardwired” or how much it depends on circumstances or state of mind. While recuperating from surgery to have his quadriceps muscle reattached, Dr Sacks discovered that his leg no longer felt as if it was part of his body, which hindered his progress in learning to walk again. Although some have accused Sacks of exploiting his own patients for profit, he wrote about his subjects with a “capacious 19th-century humanity,” wrote Lisa Appignanesi in the Guardian earlier this year. In the thrall of amphetamines, sleep was impossible, food was neglected, and everything was subordinated to the stimulation of the pleasure centers in my brain.” “My analyst tells me he’s never encountered anyone less affected by gay liberation.

There was the case history, for instance, of a color-blind painter who lost all perception of color but discovered that he could capture the nuances of forms and shapes in hues of black and gray with great mastery. I remain locked in my cell despite the dancing at the prison gates.” “People will make a life in their own terms, whether they are deaf or colourblind or autistic or whatever.

Sacks gave them the drug L-dopa, which was just beginning to be recognised as a treatment for similar symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s, then watched as they emerged into a world they did not recognise. Those events feel even more moving today following the news that Oliver Sacks, the kindly doctor who Robin Williams so memorably played, has died, aged 82. In hopes of keeping him safe from the Nazis’ bombing blitz of London during World War Two, his parents sent him away to a school and the shy young Sacks turned to science. No mere objects of hasty clinical notes, or articles in professional journals, his “patients” are transformed by his interest, sympathetic gaze and ability to convey optimism in tragedy into grand characters who can transcend their conditions.

Illness, he made plain, need not rob us of our essential selves—and this was something he exemplified in his final months, as a he continued to write remarkable essays even as cancer began to sap his strength and overwhelm him. Some responded better than others – both to the drug and to their changed circumstances – and Sacks used his book to explore the differences and celebrate his patients’ limited rebirth. Professor Sacks, who had cancer, was often described as the ‘poet laureate of medicine’, thanks to both his pioneering work with the mentally ill and his gift for writing about it.

They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.” Sacks understood our frequent ability to adapt, and emphasized that the capacity for someone to adapt to a particular condition—amnesia, blindness, deafness, migraines, phantom-limb syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, and countless other conditions—cannot be known from the outset. His other books included the best-selling An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), about autistic savants and other patients who managed to thrive with their disorders; The Mind’s Eye (2010), about the ways people compensate for brain injuries; and three books about specific neurological conditions: Migraine (1970), The Island of the Colorblind (1997) and Seeing Voices (1989), a look at language perception among the deaf.

They had been untreated and virtually frozen in catatonic states for decades until Sacks administered an experimental psychoactive drug known as L-dopa. Instead of simply seeing his patients or cases as victims, Sacks often chose to focus “on how a neural abnormality can create surprising ability,” notes Bloomberg. After a full and rich life as a blind person, he became “a very disabled and miserable partially sighted man,” Sacks recalled later. “When he went blind again, he was rather glad of it.” As a writer, Sacks emulated the Soviet founder of neuropsychology, A. The drug had an explosive “awakening” effect on the patients but the experiment trailed into failure as they developed tics, seizures or manic behavior and had trouble adjusting to the contemporary world.

I wish you had never been born,” her mother told an 18-year-old Sacks. “The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.” The ending of the essay was the most poignant though, giving the reader an insight into how the writer and scientist was coming to peace with his own demise: And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. With his trademark beard, and circular spectacles, Sacks (who liked to spend two hours a day swimming, often in busy commercial waters around New York) was also a leading figure in the arts.

Oliver Wolf Sacks was born on July 9, 1933, in London, the youngest of four sons of Samuel Sacks and the former Muriel Elsie Landau, who were both doctors. When examining patients on the autistic spectrum, for example, he highlighted, and informed the public about, individuals with the capacity to draw precisely from memory, the capacity to make calculations nearly at the speed of a computer, or the ability to listen to a piece of music and reproduce it on the piano. After receiving his medical degree from the Queen’s College, Oxford, Sacks moved to America in the early 1960s for an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, then did his residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. Among those paying tribute yesterday were historian Simon Schama, who described the news of his death as ‘devastating’; biologist Richard Dawkins, who said he ‘greatly admired’ Sacks; and J. In more recent years, that life had formed the basis of a trio of colourful memoirs, the last of which, On The Move, has been in the bestseller lists for the past six months.

The fourth and youngest son of Jewish doctors, he grew up in a large house in London’s Willesden Green which is today the HQ of the British Association of Psychotherapists. He engaged in dialogue with Nobel laureates and lab scientists about the nature of consciousness, providing what they lacked—the insights of a naturalist, a field worker.

He encouraged young doctors and scientists to record their experiences and communicate them in prose, celebrating their endeavors rather than seeing them as a form of competition or threat. Elsie, who wanted her sons to pursue careers in science, would bring home human foetuses in jam jars, and dissect them in front of her sons to teach them about the brain.

There, according to a recent magazine profile, ‘they subsisted on meagre rations of turnips and beetroot and suffered cruel punishments at the hands of a sadistic headmaster’. It was clinical work, caring for others with competence and compassion, that proved therapeutic for the doctor, giving him the strength to break the powerful grip of drug use.

Soon afterwards, perhaps as a result of the bullying and beatings, Michael became schizophrenic. ‘A sense of shame, of stigma, of secrecy entered our lives, compounding the actuality of Michael’s condition,’ Sacks said later. For several years, he spent his free time bodybuilding (holding a California record, for a ‘full squat’ with 600 lb across his shoulders), riding motorcycles (he was consulting physician for the Hell’s Angels), and taking vast amounts of LSD. ‘I lived on Venice Beach, and disguised myself as a muscle builder at the open air jungle gym,’ he once said. ‘I was quite suicidal: I took every drug, my only principle being “every dose an overdose”. After a brief period in which patients appeared to recover, Sacks was dismayed to observe that many such as Leonard Lowe would begin to suffer from ticks and seizures, a side effect of treatment with L-dopa.

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