Oliver Sacks


British-American Neurologist, Writer, and Amateur Chemist, Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine best known for his book and movie, Awakenings

Author Quotes

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all… Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

The clinic and laboratory and hospital ward are all designed to curb the behavior and concentration, if not eliminated altogether.

This usually occurs at the moment when my head hits the pillow at night; my eyes close and ? I see imagery. I do not mean pictures; more usually they are patterns or textures, such as repeated shapes, or shadows of shapes, or an item from an image, such as grass from a landscape or wood grain, wavelets or raindrops? transformed in the most extraordinary ways at a great speed. Shapes are replicated, multiplied, reversed in negative, etc. Color is added, tinted, subtracted. Textures are the most fascinating; grass becomes fur becomes hair follicles becomes waving, dancing lines of light, and a hundred other variations and all the subtle gradients between them that my words are too coarse to describe.

When the brain is released from the constraints of reality, it can generate any sound, image, or smell in its repertoire, sometimes in complex and impossible combinations.

The doctor and the patient two equals, learn from each other and assisted other and reach together to generate new knowledge and treatment.

Thus the feeling I sometimes have - which all of us who work closely with aphasiacs have - that one cannot lie to an aphasiac. He cannot grasp your words, and cannot be deceived by them; but what he grasps he grasps with infallible precision, namely the expression that goes with the words, the total, spontaneous, involuntary expressiveness which can never be simulated or faked, as words alone can, too easily.

Who cared if there was really any Being to pray to? What mattered was the sense of giving thanks and praise, the feeling of a humble and grateful heart.

The doctor's office or hospital ward is not always the best place to observe the disease - or at least not the best place to observe the disorder appears, if the origin organically, in a rush, and tradition, and the diagnosis of, and reaction to, and interaction may reach the degree cannot be believed Almost ..

To be ourselves we must have ourselves ? possess, if need be re-possess, our life-stories. We must recollect ourselves, recollect the inner drama, the narrative, of ourselves. A man needs such a narrative, a continuous inner narrative, to maintain his identity, his self.

With any hallucinations, if you can do functional brain imagery while they're going on, you will find that the parts of the brain usually involved in seeing or hearing - in perception - have become super active by themselves. And this is an autonomous activity; this does not happen with imagination.

The inexpressible depth of music, so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain... Music expresses only the quintessence of life and of its events, never these themselves.

To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see over-all patterns in our lives. We need hope; the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or, at least, the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology, or in states of mind that allow us to travel to other worlds, to rise above our immediate surroundings. We may seek, too, a relaxing of inhibitions that makes it easier to bond with each other, or transports that make our consciousness of time and mortality easier to bear. We seek a holiday from our inner and outer restrictions, a more intense sense of the here and now, the beauty and value of the world we live in.

The miracle is that, in most cases, he succeeds - for the powers of survival, of the will to survive, and to survive as a unique inalienable individual, are absolutely, the strongest in our being: stronger than any impulses, stronger than disease.

Ultimately, there must be many latent powers in the brain that remain undeveloped and possibly actively suppressed. Under some conditions, there'll be a reorganization and these can be released.

The person is more important than the disease/problems he/she has.

Very young children love and demand stories, and can understand complex matters presented as stories, when their powers of comprehending general concepts, paradigms, are almost nonexistent.

The power of music, narrative and drama is of the greatest practical and theoretical importance. One may see this even in the case of idiots, with IQs below 20 and the extremest motor incompetence and bewilderment. Their uncouth movements may disappear in a moment with music and dancing?suddenly, with music, they know how to move. We see how the retarded, unable to perform fairly simple tasks involving perhaps four or five movements or procedures in sequence, can do these perfectly if they work to music?the sequence of movements they cannot hold as schemes being perfectly holdable as music, i.e. embedded in music. The same may be seen, very dramatically, in patients with severe frontal lobe damage and apraxia?an inability to do things, to retain the simplest motor sequences and programs, even to walk, despite perfectly preserved intelligence in all other ways. This procedural defect, or motor idiocy, as one might call it, which completely defeats any ordinary system of rehabilitative instruction, vanishes at once if music is the instructor. All this, no doubt, is the rationale, or one of the rationales, of work songs.

Waking consciousness is dreaming ? but dreaming constrained by external reality

The power of music, whether joyous or cathartic must steal on one's awareness, come spontaneously as a blessing or a grace.

We had a large old-fashioned battery, a wet cell, in the kitchen, hooked up to an electric bell. The bell was too complicated to understand at first, and the battery, to my mind, was more immediately attractive, for it contained an earthenware tube with a massive, gleaming copper cylinder in the middle, immersed in a bluish liquid, all this inside an outer glass casing, also filled with fluid, and containing a slimmer bar of zinc. It looked like a miniature chemical factory of sorts, and I thought I saw little bubbles of gas, at times, coming off the zinc. The Daniell cell (as it was called) had a thoroughly nineteenth-century, Victorian look about it, and this extraordinary object was making electricity all by itself?not by rubbing or friction, but just by the virtue of its own chemical reactions.

There are, of course, inherent tendencies to repetition in music itself. Our poetry, our ballads, our songs are full of repetition; nursery rhymes and the little chants and songs we use to teach young children have choruses and refrains. We are attracted to repetition, even as adults; we want the stimulus and the reward again and again, and in music we get it. Perhaps, therefore, we should not be surprised, should not complain if the balance sometimes shifts too far and our musical sensitivity becomes a vulnerability.

We have five senses in which we glory and which we recognize and celebrate, senses that constitute the sensible world for us. But there are other senses -- secret senses, sixth senses, if you will -- equally vital, but unrecognized, and un-lauded. These senses, unconscious, automatic, had to be discovered.

Some people with Tourette's have flinging tics- sudden, seemingly motiveless urges or compulsions to throw objects... (I see somewhat similar flinging behaviors- though not tics- in my two year old godson, now in a stage of primal antinomianism and anarchy)

There have been some very beautiful studies that have become possible with the advent of functional brain imaging, fMRI, and more recent forms of imaging, tensor imaging, that shows the white matter. If people were hallucinating faces, there tended to be abnormal activity in the so-called fusiform face area in the back of the right hemisphere in the infero-temporal cortex. If, on the other hand, they were hallucinating words or pseudo-words or letters, lexical hallucinations, then the visual word form area in the left hemisphere would be activated. And it looked very much that those systems of the brain involved in perceptual recognition generated hallucinations of that sort if they were being autonomously stimulated or released. I think the studies of musical hallucinations have not sorted things out quite in this way because people hear [complete] pieces of music. What we find is a very widespread activation of all those parts of the brain, including cerebellum, basal ganglia, premotor cortex, and so forth that are activated when one listens to real music.

We now know that memories are not fixed or frozen, like Proust?s jars of preserves in a larder, but are transformed, disassembled, reassembled, and re-categorized with every act of recollection.

Author Picture
First Name
Last Name
Birth Date

British-American Neurologist, Writer, and Amateur Chemist, Professor of Neurology at New York University School of Medicine best known for his book and movie, Awakenings