Oliver Sacks is the scientist-as-artist, a rare species nowadays but one that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century and that almost single-handedly he has kept alive. His sensibility is Victorian in the best meaning of the word: reformist, literary, historical—empirical of course but speculative as well, in the tradition of the grand theorists of that less specialized time. As a neurologist, Sacks is a clinician above all, an unusually close listener to his patients’ symptoms and stories. He prefers to look through a wide-angle lens rather than a microscope. His impulse is to amplify his observations, to look beyond the minute workings of the brain to the varieties of human experience itself, something he has done much to map out in the medical case histories that comprise the core of his finest writing.
This isn’t to suggest that he doesn’t value the groundbreaking research of neuroscience’s current pioneers, who are in the process of adding, in steady increments, to our understanding of memory and perception, but rather that his particular mission, as I suspect he sees it, is to apply their findings philosophically, to the soul.
“Soul” may seem a strange choice of word, but reading Sacks, one senses that science for him possesses a measure of divinity. Uncle Tungsten, his memoir of his childhood until the age of fifteen, is a detailed account of falling in love with science and its “dark, hidden world of mysterious laws and phenomena.” As a young boy he was fascinated by the so-called “divine proportion,” the classical numerical formula illustrated by the Italian mathematician Leonardo Fibonacci in the early thirteenth century, that corresponds to recurring spiral patterns in nature—for example, the face of a pine cone or sunflower, or the patterns on a ram’s horn.
Sacks’s sustaining passion growing up was chemistry, but at the age of fifteen, as he tells it in Uncle Tungsten, he lost his muse. The study of modern chemistry, he discovered, was more theoretical than tactile—“a colorless, scentless mathematical world”:
This, for me, seemed an awful prospect, for I, at least, needed to smell and touch and feel, to place myself, my senses, in the middle of the perceptual world.
I had dreamed of becoming a chemist, but the chemistry that really stirred me was the lovingly detailed, naturalistic, descriptive chemistry of the nineteenth century, not the new chemistry of the quantum age.
This need to attain a level of maximum engagement with his work has seemed to hold true for Sacks as a neurologist as well. Personal revelations have marked the course of his professional life. From a very young age, he experienced migraine auras—the zigzag or fortification-like patterns and light that appear just before a migraine headache sets in. He came to regard the auras “as a sort of spontaneous experiment of nature, a window into the nervous system,” and credits them with being one of the …