from WIRED

The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks

by Steve Silberman

photo by John Midgley

Pioneering neurologist and author Oliver Sacks died Sunday, August 30 at age 82. In his writings about patients’ sometimes bizarre case studies—which he would call “neurological novels”—Sacks was able to draw out the humanity in pathology. Steve Silberman wrote about Sacks’ own case study in 2002.

One night in 1940, a bomb tumbled out of the sky into a garden in North London, exploding into thousands of droplets of white-hot aluminum oxide, which cascaded over the lawn. The buckets of water that the inhabitants of the house at 37 Mapesbury Road—two Jewish doctors and their sons—poured on the fire only fed its chemical vehemence. Amazingly, no one was hurt, but the brilliance of the bomb left an indelible image in the mind of Oliver Sacks, who was 7 years old the night it fell.

The thermite bomb was the second of two delivered to Mapesbury Road during the war. The first, a 1,000-pound monster, landed next door, but failed to explode. Sacks remembered both scenes vividly while writing the memoir he published last October, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. After the book was published, however, the neurologist and author learned that his memory had deceived him, as memories made unreliable by disorders of the brain had played tricks on the minds of the subjects of his books. His brother Michael told him that, on the night the thermite bomb fell, in fact, they were both away at boarding school.

“I told him, ‘But I can see it now in my mind. Why?’” Sacks recalled last November. Michael explained that it was because their brother David had written them a dramatic letter about the incident. Even after Sacks accepted this as fact, a visual image of the second bomb still burned in his memory. Looking more deeply, however, he noticed a curious difference between his memories of the two bombs. “After the first one fell”—the bomb that didn’t explode—“Michael and I went down the road at night in our pajamas, not knowing what would happen. In that memory, I can feel myself into the body of that little boy. And in the second memory”—the thermite bomb—“it’s as if I’m seeing a brilliantly illuminated scene from a film: I cannot locate myself anywhere in the scene.”

Sacks has been turning his analytical gaze inward more often these days, after four decades of studying the minds of those with such disorders as autism, Tourette’s syndrome, loss of proprioception, and the sudden onset of color blindness. His tales from the borderlands of the mind, translated into 21 languages, have earned Sacks a worldwide readership. This month, he will be awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University, given to scientists who have made a significant achievement in literature, and his insights have been ported to a broader range of media than those of any other contemporary medical author. His 1973 book, Awakenings, inspired both a play by Harold Pinter and a 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Two years ago, a chapter from An Anthropologist on Mars also got the Hollywood treatment in a movie called At First Sight. His first best-seller, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (published in 1985), has been turned into a one-act play, an opera, and a theatrical production in French staged by Peter Brook.

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