THE RIVER OF CONSCIOUSNESS
By Oliver Sacks
Alfred A Knopf, $27, 256 pages
Though Oliver Sacks published many peer-reviewed papers on his research into neurology, he is much better known for his numerous general-audience books and articles — many about neurology, others about the history of science, and still others on botany, chemistry, evolution and the great scientists who took soaring leaps to reach our current understanding of the nature of life.
Now 10 of Dr. Sacks’ articles, culled from the New York Review of Books and the other journals to which he contributed, have been published as “The River of Consciousness.” It is an immensely satisfying volume that can be read by newcomers as an introduction to the work of an author of unusual breadth of knowledge, and equally by aficionados as the final scintillation of one of the most invigorating and appealing writers of recent decades.
Dr. Sacks was born in London in 1933, the son of one of Britain’s first women surgeons. His father and three older brothers were also doctors, and he followed in their footsteps. After studying medicine at Oxford, he completed his internship in London, a residency in neuropathology in San Francisco, then in 1965 took a fellowship in neurochemistry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.
He abandoned this for clinical work as a neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital, where he pioneered treatments that restored movement to people immobilized by an encephalitis epidemic of 40 years earlier. He described this work and its effects — some of them bizarre — in his book “Awakenings” (1973), which was made into a film with Robin Williams.
Some of his other works also inspired films and plays. One characteristic that made this possible is his books and essays are rich in case studies and narratives about his patients. He describes how they experienced their neurological afflictions, and uses their words and perceptions to illuminate the bizarre deficits — and in some case benefits — of their conditions.
Dr. Sacks also often discussed his own neurological problems, including migraine and prosopagnosia — the inability to recognize faces. When an operation on a seriously injured leg bereft it of feeling so that it no longer seemed part of his body, he investigated the phenomenon of phantom limbs and wrote “A Leg to Stand On.”
Though he did not suffer Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, Tourette’s, color-blindness and the myriad other diseases and syndromes he writes about, it’s a reasonable speculation that his own problems helped him empathize with those who did. More fundamentally, his innate curiosity about the natural world suggests that whatever swam into his ken fascinated him so much that he wanted to know and understand everything possible about it. Such curiosity transforms sympathy with suffering patients into empathy, and empathy into new knowledge about life.
“The River of Consciousness” opens with an essay on Darwin, one of Dr. Sacks’ scientist-heroes. Most of us know of Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, his visit to the Galapagos, and his explication of the ever-branching species of life on earth. Dr. Sacks shows us a less familiar Darwin: the botanist and theorist who, despite chronic digestive disorders, worked curiously and energetically throughout his life, and published 10 more books after “Origin of Species.”
Dr. Sacks credits Darwin’s work with allowing him “to feel at home in the natural world, to feel that I have my own sense of biological meaning, whatever my role in the cultural human world.”
Similarly, in his discussion of another of his other scientific heroes, Sigmund Freud, now almost exclusively known as a psychoanalyst, Dr. Sacks focuses on his little-known work in neurology and anatomy, which he pursued for 20 years before turning to psychoanalysis.
Dr. Sacks makes this switch understandable by tracing Freud’s growing belief that functions were not strictly localized in regions of the brain; rather, there were “systems for achieving cognitive goals — systems that had many components and could be created or greatly modified by the experiences of the individual.”
William James also stands on a peak of Dr. Sacks’ pantheon of heroes. In the title essay of this volume he writes about consciousness as a series of “frames” or “momentary moments” that in James’ coinage term become a “stream of consciousness.”
But how can we experience moments as a stream? How does the stream become comprehensible? Dr. Sacks explains, “Consciousness is always active and selective — charged with feelings and meanings uniquely our own, informing our choices and interfusing our perceptions.” In this way, “moments of an essentially personal kind seem to constitute our very being.”
These essays explore Dr. Sacks’ conviction that “Science is not an ineluctable process but contingent in the extreme.” He chose them for inclusion in this volume just two weeks before he died in 2015. They are a joy to read: a delicious supply of information and commentary organized by a gifted writer of a curious and humane intelligence.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.