OLIVER SACKS The River of Consciousness. Reviewed by Jean Bedford
Oliver Sacks continues to enrich our understanding of ourselves and our world.
In the first essay of this posthumous collection (Sacks died in 2015), ‘Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers’, Charles Darwin’s son Francis is quoted on his father:
‘[it was] … as though he were charged with theorising power ready to flow into any channel on the slightest disturbance, so that no fact, however small, could avoid releasing a stream of theory.’
The same could be said for Oliver Sacks. Darwin is best known as an evolutionist because of On the Origin of Species (1859) although he wrote widely and originally on many different topics, and similarly Sacks is usually first thought of as a neurologist. Yet he, too, was a polymath; his passionate and delighted interest awakened by music, mathematics, the animal (and insect) world, psychoanalytical theory (Freud was another of his heroes, with some reservations), natural phenomena and the history of scientific discovery as well as the quirks of brain-damaged people and of the psychologically or perceptually challenged.
Everything alive on the planet is grist to Sacks’s mill, because everything impacts on human life and consciousness in some way. In The River of Consciousness it isn’t so much Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is man,’ although Sacks obviously agrees, as it is ‘What a piece of work is everything around us’ – yet without the slightest religiosity or mysticism: just wonder at the way nature performs its miracles. The antithesis of Shelley’s Ozymandias, Sacks invites us to look on nature’s works and marvel.
This collection’s 10-page Bibliography gives some hint of the scope of his interests and knowledge, citing poets, novelists, biographers and playwrights as well as the expected scientists, science theorists and science historians, and the essays range across a broad spectrum, from Darwin’s experiments with cross-pollination and Freud as a neurologist to the mental lives of plants and worms:
Nature has employed at least two very different ways of making a brain … Mind, to varying degrees, has arisen or is embodied in all of these, despite the profound biological gulf that separates them from one another, and us from them.
There are lovely details throughout the book for the reader to savour – like the fact that the octopus has millions more neurons than the mouse; that many plants have nervous systems (‘plant electricity’ in Darwin’s words) that move a thousand times more slowly than those of animals and humans; or quoting William James: ‘our passing thoughts … (in an image that smacks of cowboy life in the 1880s) do not move around like wild cattle’, and in discussing Parkinson’s disease: ‘… being in a slowed state is like being stuck in a vat of peanut butter, while being in an accelerated state is like being on ice’.
‘Speed’ is familiar ground for Sacks readers, describing the warped perceptions of time that occur in both Parkinson’s disease and Tourette’s syndrome, with some interesting sidelights on Ronald Reagan and Robin Williams. ‘The Fallibility of Memory’ and ‘Mishearings’ likewise deal with the different ways our brains can experience the world, the first essay coincidentally illuminating the possibility of accidental plagiarism and the other musing on the way the brain can mis-translate what is heard (‘… and a mere mention of Christmas Eve [is heard as] a command to “Kiss my feet!”’)
In ‘The Creative Self’, a companion piece to ‘The Fallibility of Memory’ that includes digressions on Susan Sontag, Sherlock Holmes and Alexander Pope, Sacks talks about how we assimilate culture and learning and how that might then be translated via mimicry into original creativity:
Vicarious assimilation, imitating various models, while not creative in itself, is often the harbinger for future creativity. Art, music, film, and literature, no less than facts and information, can provide a special sort of education, what Arnold Weinstein calls a ‘vicarious immersion in others’ lives, endowing us with new eyes and ears’.
This essay ends with Sacks talking about his own creative self – ‘It is at once not me and the innermost part of me, certainly the best part of me.’
‘A General Feeling of Disorder’ deals with the imbalance of body and mind, with passing thoughts on migraine and Alzheimer’s. The title essay ‘The River of Consciousness’, which also refers to some of Sacks’s previous writings on the L-dopa patients in Awakenings (1973), Migraine (1970) and Musicophilia (2007), examines how our perception of the world actually works. Is it a series of snapshots or a continuous flowing stream of impressions that we somehow order into conscious thought?
Is it possible to define the almost inconceivably complex processes that form the neural correlates of thought and consciousness?
… We cannot begin to catch the density, the multifariousness of it all, the superimposed and mutually influencing layers of the stream of consciousness as it flows, constantly changing, through the mind. Even the highest powers of art – whether in film, theatre, or literary narrative – can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like.
The last essay in the book, ‘Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science’, takes us on a fascinating journey into medical and scientific discoveries that were ignored, resisted or ‘forgotten’, needing to be revived again later by others when the climate was more receptive:
Scotoma [a partial loss of vision], surprisingly common in all fields of science, involves more than prematurity, it involves a loss of knowledge, a forgetting of insights … and sometimes a regression to less perceptive explanations. What makes an observation or a new idea acceptable, discussable, memorable? What may prevent it from being so, despite its clear importance and value?
Sacks goes on to attempt explanations for this phenomenon and the scientific and medical communities do not come out well, with rivalries, jealousy and conservative resistance to new ideas to the fore. Contingency, serendipity and the receptivity of society also play a part.
Anyone who has read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat will know that Sacks is a highly skilled and evocative writer – the case histories in that book are small gems of stories, illuminating human behaviour and the world inside us and around us. The New York Times dubbed him ‘the poet laureate of medicine’ – I’d have given him the Nobel Prize for both Medicine and Literature, myself.
We are promised more posthumous collections of his work, thankfully, so we can look forward to the continued insights of this brilliant and original thinker, enriching our understanding of ourselves and our world.
Oliver Sacks The River of Consciousness Picador 2017 PB 256pp $32.99
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