Sacks Neurology and the Soul

“Neurology and the Soul”

Oliver Sacks

The Author1

“Oliver Sacks was born in 1933 in London, England (both of his parents were physicians) and earned his medical degree at Queen's College, Oxford. In the early 1960s, he moved to the United States and completed an internship in San Francisco and a residency in neurology at UCLA. Since 1965, he has lived in New York, where he is clinical professor of neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, adjunct professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine and consultant neurologist to the Little Sisters of the Poor.

“In 1966 Dr. Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital, a chronic care facility in the Bronx where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients, many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement. He recognized these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his second book, Awakenings (1973), which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter ("A Kind of Alaska ") and the Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie, "Awakenings," with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

“Dr. Sacks is perhaps best known for his 1985 collection of case histories from the far borderlands of neurological experience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat , in which he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's Syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation and Alzheimer's disease.”

Leading Questions

  1. “complete psychophysical transparency”
  2. Cahill mentions several dualisms in his introductory remarks; name them. How might these fit in with that great dualism in western thought: material vs. ideal?
      • body mind
      • sensation reason
      • nurture nature
      • perception reflection
      • experience thought
      • material ideal
    • Note that Ryan would add self and world.
    • Does modern psychopharmacology (“There is presumably a drug, diet, or exercise program that can cure almost any condition.”) effectively unite or overcome these dualisms?
  3. Mathematician case. Recall Rilke’s comment about psychoanalysis to the effect of “if you cast out my demons won’t, perhaps, my angels depart as well?” Comment.
  4. What sociological insights are suggested by the case of Miron V.? What sorts of things does it take to “be a self”? Are they all “inside”? Recall the lines about “chemicals can wake you up but identity, etc. is needed to keep you going.”
  5. Family, trade. Identity. Connections. Role. Role as defined by structural connections to other. I am my others. Or rather, I am the position that is created by the network of relationships in which I find myself.
  6. 5“…true of all of us, but especially clear in the neurologically damaged…” This suggests a methodological move here. Is Sacks writing about the neurologically damaged? Or is he using extreme cases to illuminate the non-extreme? Explain.
  7. Talk about how this is Sacks’ brief for us: “Implied in all this is the necessity for an adequate concept of the individual and of mind…. Dualistic approaches prevent us from developing such a concept (4a9-4b1).”
  8. “…our structuring the world is our own… (4b4)” Explain.
  9. In Sacks’ view, is the self given? Is it a thing? Or does it make more sense to think of it as a process? Explain.

Terminology and Vocabulary

William James
privative – constituting or predicating privation or absence of a quality (as the prefixes a-, un-, non-, in-)

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