Oliver Sacks (1933–2015) was a physician and the author of over ten books, the most recent of which is On the Move: A Life.

Urge

Detail of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci, circa 1510–1511
Walter B., an affable, outgoing man of forty-nine, came to see me in 2006. As a teenager, following a head injury, he had developed epileptic seizures—these first took the form of attacks of déjà vu that might occur dozens of times a day. Sometimes he would hear music that no one else could hear. He had no idea what was happening to him and, fearing ridicule or worse, kept his strange experiences to himself.

A General Feeling of Disorder

Newcastle Beach, New South Wales, Australia, 2000; photograph by Trent Parke
On Monday, February 16, I could say I felt well, in my usual state of health—at least such health and energy as a fairly active eighty-one-year-old can hope to enjoy—and this despite learning, a month earlier, that much of my liver was occupied by metastatic cancer.

The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others

The Large Flowering Sensitive Plant, whose ‘plant electricity,’ Oliver Sacks writes, ‘moves slowly...as one can see by watching the leaflets...closing one by one along a leaf that is touched.’ Illustration from Robert John Thornton’s The Temple of Flora (1799–1807), published in a new edition by Taschen.
We all distinguish between plants and animals. We understand that plants, in general, are immobile, rooted in the ground; they spread their green leaves to the heavens and feed on sunlight and soil. We understand that animals, in contrast, are mobile, moving from place to place, foraging or hunting for food; they have easily recognized behaviors of various sorts. Plants and animals have evolved along two profoundly different paths (fungi have yet another), and they are wholly different in their forms and modes of life. And yet, Darwin insisted, they were closer than one might think.

Speak, Memory

Heinrich Kühn: Hans with Bureau, 1905; from Heinrich Kühn: The Perfect Photograph, the catalog of a recent exhibition organized by the Albertina, Vienna. Now out of print, it was edited by Monika Faber and Astrid Mahler and published by Hatje Cantz.
There is, it seems, no mechanism in the mind or the brain for ensuring the truth, or at least the veridical character, of our recollections. We have no direct access to historical truth, and what we feel or assert to be true depends as much on our imagination as our senses. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected.

The Lost Virtues of the Asylum

We tend to think of mental hospitals as snake pits, hells of chaos and misery, squalor and brutality. Most of them, now, are shuttered and abandoned—and we think with a shiver of the terror of those who once found themselves confined in such places. So it is salutary to hear …

Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers

We all know the canonical story of Charles Darwin: the twenty-two-year-old embarking on the Beagle, going to the ends of the earth; Darwin in Patagonia; Darwin on the Argentine pampas (managing to lasso the legs of his own horse); Darwin in South America, collecting the bones of giant extinct animals; …

A Summer of Madness

“On July 5, 1996,” Michael Greenberg starts, “my daughter was struck mad.” No time is wasted on preliminaries, and Hurry Down Sunshine moves swiftly, almost torrentially, from this opening sentence, in tandem with the events that it tells of. The onset of mania is sudden and explosive: Sally, the fifteen-year-old …

A Journey Inside the Brain

Frigyes Karinthy (born in 1887 in Budapest) was a well-known Hungarian poet, playwright, novelist, and humorist, when he developed, at the age of forty-eight, what in retrospect were the first symptoms of a growing brain tumor. He was having tea at his favorite café in Budapest one evening when he …

Remembering Francis Crick

I read the famous “double helix” letter by James Watson and Francis Crick in Nature when it was published in 1953—I was an undergraduate at Oxford then, reading physiology and biochemistry. I would like to say that I immediately saw its tremendous significance, but this was not the case for …

In the River of Consciousness

“Time,” says Jorge Luis Borges, “is the substance I am made of. Time is a river that carries me away, but I am the river….” Our movements, our actions, are extended in time, as are our perceptions, our thoughts, the contents of consciousness. We live in time, we organize time, …

First Love

In January 1946, when I was twelve and a half, I moved from my prep school in Hampstead, The Hall, to a much larger school, St. Paul’s, in Hammersmith. It was here, in the Walker Library, that I met Jonathan Miller for the first time. I was hidden in a …

Inside the Executive Brain

In 1967, Elkhonon Goldberg, then a twenty-year-old student of neuropsychology in Moscow, met a young man, another student only a few years older than himself. Vladimir, Goldberg tells us, had been standing on the platform of the Moscow subway, tossing a soccer ball from hand to hand, when the ball …

Leaving Nirvana

In 1967, a remarkable book was published, The Siege, by Clara Claiborne Park, an account of her daughter’s first eight years. It was remarkable on several counts. It was the first “inside” (as opposed to clinical) account of an autistic child’s development and life; and it was written with an …

The Poet of Chemistry

On April 6, 1804, Coleridge boarded the Speedwell and sailed into exile. A grim apprehension gripped him and most of his friends. “Suppose,” writes Richard Holmes, in the tantalizing postscript which ends the first volume of his biography, “Coleridge had indeed died, as he and his friends clearly expected he …

Making up the Mind

Five years ago the concepts of “mind” and “consciousness” were virtually excluded from scientific discourse. Now they have come back, and every week we see the publication of new books on the subject—Wet Mind by Stephen Kosslyn, Nature’s Mind by Michael Gazzaniga, Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett, The Computational Brain …

The Last Hippie

Greg F. grew up in the 1950s in a comfortable Queens household, an attractive and rather gifted boy who seemed destined, like his father, for a professional career—perhaps a career in songwriting, for which he showed a precocious talent. But he grew restive, started questioning things, when he was fifteen; …

The ‘Dark, Paradoxical Gift’

There have been many autobiographies written by the blind—narratives at once poignant and inspiring—that bring out the emotional and moral effects of blindness in a life, and the qualities of will and humor and fortitude needed to transcend them. Touching the Rock, John Hull’s account of his “experience of blindness,” …

Neurology and the Soul

There has always, seemingly, been a split between science and life, between the apparent poverty of scientific formulation and the manifest richness of phenomenal experience. This is the chasm which Goethe refers to in Faust, when he speaks of the grayness of theory as contrasted with the green and golden …

The Revolution of the Deaf

Wednesday morning, March 9: “Strike at Gallaudet,” “Deaf Strike for the Deaf,” “Students Demand Deaf President”—the newspapers are full of these happenings today; they started three days ago, have been steadily building, and now are on the front page of The New York Times. It looks like an amazing story.

The Case of the Colorblind Painter

Early in March 1986 one of us received the following letter: I am a rather successful artist just past 65 years of age. On January 2nd of this year I was driving my car and was hit by a small truck on the passenger side of my vehicle. When visiting …

Tics

I want to edge into my subject indirectly and personally, by recalling my own education as a neurologist, and how this served—or failed to serve—me in later years, when I encountered the realities of various syndromes and afflictions, in particular encephalitis lethargica and Tourette’s syndrome,[^1] a syndrome of multiple convulsive …

Mysteries of the Deaf

We are remarkably ignorant about deafness, which Dr. Johnson called “the most desperate of human calamities”—much more ignorant than an educated man would have been in 1886, or 1786. Ignorant and indifferent. During the last few months I have raised the subject with countless people and nearly always met with …