Day 150: My Weekend with Oliver Sacks

Over the weekend, I attended Live Ideas: The Worlds of Oliver Sacks in New York. It. Was. Wonderful.

Live Ideas was a five-day festival of dance and discussion exploring the mind-body connection through Dr. Sacks’ work.  You may know Oliver Sacks as the author of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, or the semi-fictional doctor portrayed by Robin Williams in Awakenings. He’s a neurologist and writer known for his in-depth case studies of people with unusual neurological disorders.

I’ve read three of his books (I’m currently mid-way through a fourth—Hallucinations) and have been mildly obsessed with his work for the better part of a decade. The way he writes and thinks about his patients is fascinating, kind and brilliant. So when I heard about Live Ideas (thank you, Erin), I booked a ticket and signed up for the events in three minutes flat. Dance + neurology? Sold.

In the brief weekend I spent listening to Dr. Sacks, watching footage of his patients, listening to his publishers and peers, watching dance and generally being inspired, overwhelmed and delighted, a small window into his world emerged. This is potentially a much larger post, but in favor of sharing my excitement immediately, below are a couple of things I took away from the weekend and some quotes from the man himself.

Hospitals are non-narrative. They’re built to collect metrics and provide diagnoses. But as Lawrence Weschler, a panelist in Sacks the Writer: Process & Influence pointed out, neurology is all about narrative. “The brain secretes stories,” as he says, and tells the doctor how it is functioning and what might be amiss. Dr. Sacks’ way of collecting and recounting his patient’s stories is part of the treatment. He has somehow always understood that to know a person’s brain is to ask them how they are.

It’s possible to be empathetic and academic. Dr. Sacks’ care for his patients is compounded by his interest in the way the brain functions. The stories he writes read almost like poetry, but they are precise and based on systematic observation and careful listening. Dr. Chris Adrian, one of the other panelists, brought up the question of empathy within the medical field. He said, “Can one person participate in and truly understand another person’s suffering? In reading Sacks, I think the answer is no. But he shows us that we can—and should—surely try.”

Straight from Dr. Sacks:

“Human beings’ capacity to forget is very, very great.”
With regard to forgotten diseases, such as encephalitis lethargica, the “sleepy sickness” that attacked the nervous system and left its sufferers catatonic and mute in the 1920s. Dr. Sacks worked with survivors of the disease in the 1960s and, at the request of those who could speak, documented their stories in Awakenings.

“No one got more disappointed with the stem cell situation than my patients with Parkinson’s, who thought their lives were being sacrificed for fetuses.”
Reflecting on the way Parkinson’s disease kills dopamine-generating cells in the mid-brain, and that there is no known cause or cure.

“Any physical activity will work. Exercise of any sort calls on the executive functions of the brain, which takes patients out of dysfunction.”
Answering a question about how dance and physical activity can positively combat brain disease.

“What I did then I would surely be imprisoned for now.”
Telling the audience his experience with administering L-Dopa to catatonic patients in the 1960s and how he ignored the DEA’s mandate to perform a blind study in favor of treating everyone. 

“Oh, there’s nothing overwhelming about me.”
After I asked him for a photograph and nervously admitted being overwhelmed by meeting him in person.