Oliver Sacks


British-American Neurologist, Naturalist and Author who explored the brain’s strangest pathways, best known for Movies: Awakenings, The Music Never Stopped, and At First Sight as well as for his Books: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, On the Move: A Life, and Musicophilia

Author Quotes

The best way of doing this, I found, was to write, to describe the hallucination in clear, almost clinical detail, and, in so doing, become an observer, even an explorer, not a helpless victim of the craziness inside me.

The mare in nightmare originally referred to a demonic woman who suffocated sleepers by lying on their chests (she was called Old Hag in Newfoundland).

The tri-tone - an augmented fourth (or, in hazz parlance, a flatted fifth) - is a difficult interval to sing and has often been regarded as having an ugly, uncanny, or even diabolical quality. Its use was forbidden in early ecclesiastical music, and early theorists called it diabolus in musica (the devil in music). But Tartini used it, for this very reason, in his Devil's Trill Sonata for violin. Though the raw tri-tone sounds so harsh, it is easily filled out with another tri-tone to form a diminished seventh. And this, the Oxford Companion to Music notes, has a luscious effect... The chord is indeed the most Protean in all harmony. In England the nickname has been given it of 'The Clapham Junction of Harmony' - from a railway station in London where so many lines join that once arrived there one can take a train for almost anywhere else.

They remind us that we are overdeveloped in terms of mechanical skill, but lacking in intelligence, intuition, biological knowledge; and it is this, above all, that we must regain not only in medicine, but in science in general.

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 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.

When I was twelve, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report, Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far, and this was often the case.

You have done useful, honorable work. Come home. All is forgiven.

I sometimes wonder why I pushed myself so relentlessly in weight lifting. My motive, I think, was not an uncommon one; I was not the ninety-eight-pound weakling of bodybuilding advertisements, but I was timid, diffident, insecure, submissive. I became strong?very strong?with all my weight lifting but found that this did nothing for my character, which remained exactly the same.

If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self - himself - he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.

In the course of a short city-block this frantic old woman frenetically caricatured the features of forty or fifty passers-by, in a quick-fire sequence of kaleidoscopic imitations, each lasting a second or two, sometimes less, and the whole dizzying sequence scarcely more than two minutes. And there were ludicrous imitations of the second and third order; for the people in the street, startled, outraged, bewildered by her imitations, took on these expressions in reaction to her; and those expressions, in turn, were re-reflected, re-directed, re-distorted, by the Touretter, causing a still greater degree of outrage and shock. This grotesque, involuntary resonance, or mutuality, by which everyone was drawn into an absurdly amplifying interaction, was the source of the disturbance I had seen from a distance. This woman who, becoming everybody, lost her own self, became nobody. This woman with a thousand faces, masks, personae- how must it be for her in this whirlwind of identities? The answer came soon- and not a second too late; for the build-up of pressures, both hers and others?, was fast approaching the point of explosion. Suddenly, desperately, the old woman turned aside, into an alley-way which led off the main street. And there, with all the appearances of a woman violently sick, she expelled, tremendously accelerated and abbreviated, all the gestures, the postures, the expressions, the demeanors, the entire behavioral repertoires, of the past forty or fifty people she had passed. She delivered one vast, pantomimic regurgitation, in which the engorged identities of the last fifty people who had possessed her were spewed out. And if the taking-in had lasted two minutes, the throwing-out was a single exhalation- fifty people in ten seconds, a fifth of a second or less for the time-foreshortened repertoire of each person. I was later to spend hundreds of hours, talking to, observing, taping, learning from, Tourette patients. Yet nothing, I think, taught me as much, as swiftly, as penetratingly, as overwhelmingly as that phantasmagoric two minutes in a New York street.

It seems that the brain always has to be active, and if the auditory parts of the brain are not getting sufficient input, then they may start to create hallucinatory sounds on their own. Although it is curious that they do not usually create noises or voices; they create music.

Much more of the brain is devoted to movement than to language. Language is only a little thing sitting on top of this huge ocean of movement.

My favourite dream is of going to the opera (I am Hafnium), sharing a box at the Met with the other heavy transition metals ? my old and valued friends ? Tantalum, Rhenium, Osmium, Iridium, Platinum, Gold, and Tungsten.

One has had a long experience of life, not only one?s own life, but others?, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.

Physiological confirmation of such filling in by involuntary musical imagery has recently been obtained by William Kelley and his colleagues at Dartmouth, who used functional MRI to scan the auditory cortex while their subjects listened to familiar and unfamiliar songs in which short segments had been replaced by gaps of silence. The silent gaps embedded in familiar songs were not consciously noticed by their subjects, but the researchers observed that these gaps induced greater activation in the auditory association areas than did silent gaps embedded in unknown songs; this was true for gaps in songs with lyrics and without lyrics.

Since the fragment had been there, he said, each time he leaned his head to one side he could hear music. His head was filled with melodies?different each time?which he then made use of when composing.

The body, normally, is never in question: our bodies are beyond question, or perhaps beneath question - they are simply, unquestionably, there. This unquestionability of the body, is, for Wittgenstein, the start and basis of all knowledge and certainty.

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.

The users of a language, above all, will tend to a naive realism, to see their language as a reflection of reality, not as a construct.

Think! cried the Professor. This prodigious bowl was filled with ice to a depth of three hundred feet. And when we and our children are dead, seeds will have sprouted in the silt, and a young forest will nod over these stones. Here before you is one scene of a geological drama, past and future implicit in the present you perceive, and all within the span of a single human generation, and a human memory.

To restore the human subject at the center - the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject - we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale; only then do we have a 'who' as well as a 'what', a real person, a patient, in relation to disease - in relation to the physical. The patient's essential being is very relevant in the higher reaches of neurology, and in psychology; for here the patient's personhood is essentially involved, and the study of disease and of identity cannot be disjoined.

We ourselves were made of the very same elements as composed the sun and stars, that some of my atoms might once have been in a distant star. But it frightened me too, made me feel that my atoms were only on loan and might fly apart at any time, fly away like the fine talcum powder I saw in the bathroom.

When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate - the genetic and neural fate - of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

You keep pressing me, he said, to say that the attacks start with this symptom or that symptom, this phenomenon or that phenomenon, but this is not the way I experience them. It doesn?t start with one symptom, it starts as a whole. You feel the whole thing, quite tiny at first, right from the start.? It?s like glimpsing a point, a familiar point, on the horizon, and gradually getting nearer, seeing it get larger and larger; or glimpsing your destination from far off, in a plane, having it get clearer and clearer as you descend through the clouds. The migraine looms, he added, but it?s just a change of scale?everything is already there from the start. This business of looming, of huge changes of

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British-American Neurologist, Naturalist and Author who explored the brain’s strangest pathways, best known for Movies: Awakenings, The Music Never Stopped, and At First Sight as well as for his Books: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, On the Move: A Life, and Musicophilia