Portland, Oregon

Oliver Sacks

Neurologist Oliver Sacks shares stories and video clips about his past diagnoses, discussing the relationship between neurology and the soul.

Oliver Sacks begins his lecture by sharing a series of anecdotes about his patients, such as one man who could not recognize faces or objects and mistook his wife for a hat—the inspiration for the title of one of his books. Additional stories include a man with a head injury who lost his sense of smell and a woman who had no left-sided sensory perception. He discusses the relationship between neurology and the soul, including the sub-cortex of the brain, the most primitive part, which affects will, action, desire, feeling, contact, engagement, and the animation of a person. He proceeds to show vintage video clips about his past medical diagnoses, talks about the patients that inspired characters in his novels, and examines the moral and humanist dilemma of bringing back to consciousness people who have been mentally absent for years. He expounds on the idea that medicine does not rely solely on physiology, but also on a patient’s place in society and the world.

Oliver Sacks is the author of numerous best-selling books, including several collections of case studies on people with neurological disorders. He ties his literary style to the 19th century tradition of clinical anecdotes, which incorporate detailed narrative case histories. He counts among his inspirations the case histories of Russian neuropsychologist A.R. Luria. Sacks’s 1973 book Awakenings was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, and his 2007 book Musichophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain was the subject of “Musical Minds,” an episode of the PBS series Nova. His books have been translated into over 25 languages, and his descriptions of people coping with and adapting to neurological conditions or injuries often illuminate the ways in which the normal brain deals with perception, memory, and individuality. In addition to his books, Sacks is a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, as well as several medical and scientific publications. In 2015, Sacks published the memoir On the Move, which covers the full trajectory of his life and career. He died on August 30, 2015.

One tends to take one’s experience for granted. One tends to think that the world is given to one, full of depth and color and movement—and sometimes one needs a neurological mishap to understand that nothing is given to one, and that we live in a world of constructs, starting with rather primitive constructs, like color, and moving on to narratives and theories about which we live our lives.”

“A man who has had a head injury and who has lost his sense of smell thought this would be absolutely trivial; who needs smell? In fact, he finds that this undercuts his sense of reality and of the vividness of the world to an extreme degree. He comes to find that smell is an unconscious accompaniment, an undertone to all one’s experience.”

“Disease is a social construct.”

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