Storytelling with Oliver Sacks - A Review of "An Anthropologist on Mars"
Studying Neurobiology and Behavior presents us with a multitude of fascinating cases. The brain itself is amazing and performs tasks that hardly seem possible. Just simple functions we take for granted, like dreaming, are performed by a finite number of neurons and reactions in the nervous system, which in itself is a difficult concept to grasp. For An Anthropologist on Mars, Dr. Oliver Sacks finds seven cases of individuals that have truly extraordinary brains. He calls these "paradoxical tales" because each person defies normal standards of dysfunction. In this book, he collects the stories of an artist who loses his ability to see and conceptualize color; a victim of a brain tumor whose memory remains firmly seated in the 1960s; a surgeon with Tourette's syndrome; a formerly blind man whose sight is restored, but is reluctant to adapt; a "memory artist" who recreates vivid details of his hometown strictly from remembering; an "idiot savant" prodigy artist with published work only in his teens; and an autistic professor who often feels like an anthropologist on Mars. Each story is beautiful, spectacular and eloquently presented. At times it feels like you are Sacks, observing and learning more about the brain and the person in which it dwells.
The reason I refer to these different accounts as "stories" is because Sacks presents a full view of each person and their individual lives. Each chapter has a cast of characters, a setting, a plot – and all of these elements weave together to create a fascinating story. Alone these people are astonishing because of each paradox, but Sacks manages to reach past a sterile account of neurological functioning that could be found in any psychiatric journal and create a well developed narrative of the whole person. His ability to describe his setting, interactions and personal feelings with the subject makes every report a story. This is what makes Sacks a prolific writer, and also an extraordinary neuroscientist.
Sacks' analysis of each situation is uncanny. He is able to recognize the intricate details of the brain that cause changes in behavior based primarily on his past knowledge and experience. He points out the possibility that Franco has a temporal lobe epilepsy as though he's describing something as plain as a nose. However, Sacks' also investigates each case with a personal stake involved, with a kind of compassion that isn't always available in a psychiatrist's office or in an MRI machine. It isn't simply a diagnosis; he makes it become storytelling. Sacks has a responsibility to transform his characters, from just a brain to a human with a worthy story and he does it perfectly. As a reader, you forget that these people have neurological "problems" and begin to identify them as the other side of the paradox. For example, Dr. Carl Bennett is not a person with Tourette's syndrome who performs surgery despite the obvious problems associated with his disorder. He is first a surgeon, a father, a husband, even a pilot. We recognize his plight but he is not a series of tics and impulses that a purely medical description depicts. As a storyteller, Sacks develops his characters wonderfully with appropriate background and personality. As a scientist, he is brilliant, understanding the brain and its idiosyncrasies.
My favorite quote from An Anthropologist on Mars comes from the story of Franco, the Pontito artist. Sacks describes prominent figures in the arts and the neurological disorders to which their genius is often attributed. In a footnote he says "The danger is that we may go overboard in medicalizing our predecessors (and contemporaries), reducing their complexity to expressions of neurological or psychiatric disorder, while neglecting all other factors that determine a life, not least the irreducible uniqueness of the individual" (Sacks 165). Although he refers specifically to the tendency of psychoanalysts to connect genius purely with variations in the brain, I believe this view is important to neuroscience. Throughout the Neurobiology and Behavior course, we've analyzed the nervous system on both micro- and macroscopic levels. When studying the brain, it's important to see physiological changes that could be causing dysfunction. However, it is equally important to consider the person and his or her story.
As mentioned before, Sacks is a gifted storyteller; when talking about the brain, it is necessary to adopt a holistic approach. That is to say, we can find just as many clues outside of the brain as we can in it. Images from an MRI will not suffice. This stress on the "uniqueness of the individual" makes for better science and inspiring storytelling. If I learned anything from the course and Dr. Sacks, it is that every brain is more than a series of action potentials and neurons firing. The story is what matters; the story is what makes us an individual.
Works CitedSacks, Oliver. "An Anthropologist on Mars". New York: Vintage Books, 1995.