His passion for science manifested itself in his early years as an idiosyncratic love for the periodic table and its metallic elements. Metals “are things that you could count on — indestructible,” he explains.
This obsession never left him. Lined up on his office desk are a variety of exotic metals that he, at various points in our conversation, gives me to feel and handle. “I identified Mendeleev with Moses, coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the periodic law,” he once said.
Science is the only religion Dr. Sacks has ever known.
Following the war, he returned home to London, and his love affair with science grew. This was in large part thanks to his parents, who were doctors that brought their work home with them. One night over dinner, Dr. Sacks‘ mother laid sheep’s brain on the table and started explaining its anatomy to her son. Another time, she brought home a malformed fetus and insisted that he dissect it. He was only 11 years old.
Dr. Sacks‘ interest in the brain also developed in his childhood. As a young boy, he would have many one-sided conversations with animals, as most children do. But unlike most children, he quickly realized that it was language and mental life that set human beings apart from the rest of the animal world. The key to the human condition, Dr. Sacks came to see, was the human brain, a topic to which he would devote his professional life.
Dr. Sacks was catapulted to fame when his second book, “Awakenings” (1985), was adapted into the 1990 Academy Award-nominated movie of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. “Awakenings” tells the story of a group of patients in a Bronx, N.Y., hospital who contracted “sleeping sickness” in the aftermath of World War I. After decades of living in a trance, they were revived from their stupor when Dr. Sacks administered the “miracle drug” L-DOPA to them in 1969. The poet W.H. Auden, Dr. Sacks‘ friend, called “Awakenings” a “masterpiece.”
Dr. Sacks had hit upon a genre — the case history — that he would soon master with subsequent books. In his hands, the case histories of patients, which form the basis of his most popular books such as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985) and “The Mind’s Eye” (2010), became more than sterile medical records to be archived in a filing cabinet. They were poetic commentaries on the state of modern man, human suffering, and what gives life meaning.
“I try to do justice to patients, the ecstasies and tribulations they experience,” Dr. Sacks says. His fans, many of them hoping to be his patients, send him well over a thousand letters a day.
“Hallucinations,” like his other books, tells the story of patients who have traveled to the hinterlands of neurological experience and back. It also tells Dr. Sacks‘ own story and how his experience with hallucinations in part led him to where he is today.
Escape and fulfillment
Throughout his life, Dr. Sacks suffered from migraine attacks — the first one occurring when he was 3 or 4 years old. “I was playing in the garden when a shimmering light appeared to my left, dazzlingly bright,” he writes. “It expanded, becoming an enormous arc, stretching from the ground to the sky, with sharp, glittering, zigzagging border and brilliant blue and orange colors.”
These visions terrified him at first, but later turned into a source of fascination that, arguably, saved his life when he was older.
“I was a risk taker,” Dr. Sacks recalls of his life as a young adult. “I was solitary. I liked pushing boundaries. I had a motorcycle and rode it hard. And I was also curious, perhaps in a rather dangerous way.”
In 1960, after receiving a degree in medicine from Oxford University, he left England and eventually found his way to San Francisco, where he fell in with a crowd of bohemian poets. Not only was his field — neurochemistry — in fashion at the time, but so were psychedelic drugs.
In an autobiographical chapter in “Hallucinations” on mind-altering drugs — which he was not originally planning to include in the book — Dr. Sacks details his extensive drug use in California while he was working as a resident in UCLA’s neurology department. On the weekdays, he would go to work; on the weekends, he would go on “drug holidays,” as he called them, experimenting with LSD, morphine and high doses of amphetamines.View Entire Story
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