BOOKS The Shape of a Gen­er­ous Mind

Kate Cole-Adams on Oliver Sacks’ The River of Con­scious­ness

The Monthly (Australia) - - NEWS - Kate Cole-Adams on Oliver Sacks’ ‘The River of Con­scious­ness’

This col­lec­tion demon­strates a breadth and eru­di­tion far be­yond the med­i­cal and neu­ro­log­i­cal for which Sacks is best known. “Two weeks be­fore his death in Au­gust 2015, Oliver Sacks out­lined the con­tents of The River of Con­scious­ness, the last book he would over­see, and charged the three of us with ar­rang­ing its pub­li­ca­tion.” So be­gins the fore­word to the ac­claimed neu­rol­o­gist’s most re­cent book. What went on in those con­ver­sa­tions in Sacks’ New York home – with his as­sis­tant Kate Edgar, edi­tor friend Daniel Frank and part­ner Bill Hayes – we don’t dis­cover. But in an es­say penned in the days after he re­ceived his ter­mi­nal di­ag­no­sis (and pub­lished else­where), Sacks plot­ted the new co-or­di­nates of his ex­is­tence and de­scribed the view they af­forded him. “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great al­ti­tude, as a sort of land­scape, and with a deep­en­ing sense of the con­nec­tion of all its parts,” he wrote in ‘My Own Life’. The River of Con­scious­ness (Pan Macmil­lan; $32.99) is a prod­uct of that high van­tage point. It is a se­ries of es­says that spans from the mid ’90s till shortly be­fore Sacks’ death. Much of it has ap­peared in print be­fore, of­ten in the New York Re­view of Books, but some pieces have been edited and slightly ex­panded. This col­lec­tion demon­strates a breadth of in­ter­est and eru­di­tion far be­yond the med­i­cal and neu­ro­log­i­cal for which Sacks is best known. Be­yond that, and through­out, is a sense of con­nect­ing things up. Through the prism of Sacks’ abid­ing fas­ci­na­tion with the ques­tion of con­scious­ness, we are in­vited to con­sider the shape not of a life but of a mind. It be­gins not, as you might ex­pect, with Sacks, but with one of his great in­spi­ra­tions, Charles Dar­win – al­beit in an un­fa­mil­iar in­car­na­tion. Best known as a chron­i­cler of finches, and the author of On the Ori­gin of Species, Dar­win’s work as a botanist has been less recog­nised. (“Dar­win in­ter­ro­gated or­chids, in­ter­ro­gated flow­ers, as no one had ever done be­fore …”) Out­lin­ing Dar­win’s ex­ten­sive, ex­haus­tive re­search on plant re­pro­duc­tion and adap­ta­tion, Sacks in­tro­duces us to themes that will eddy and flow through­out this gen­tle, fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion: evo­lu­tion in its var­i­ous forms, the value and vi­cis­si­tudes of sci­ence, and the vi­tal, in­ti­mate en­gage­ment that con­nects sci­en­tists across space and time. And he in­tro­duces us fi­nally to him­self: a small boy in the fam­ily’s Lon­don gar­den, in­tox­i­cated by the scents and colours of flow­ers, the tra­jec­to­ries of the bees. (“It was my mother, botan­i­cally in­clined, who ex­plained to me what the bees were do­ing, their legs yel­low with pollen, and how they and the flow­ers de­pended on each other.”) The sheer won­der of it all. The same child’s-eye per­spec­tive breezes us into the next es­say, an im­mer­sive sen­sory med­i­ta­tion on speed and mo­tion, cin­e­matog­ra­phy, and the sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of time. We en­counter HG Wells, philoso­pher Wil­liam James and neu­ro­sci­en­tist Christof Koch (whose work on the me­chan­ics of con­scious­ness in­trigued Sacks). Zip­ping through the de­vi­a­tions and rev­e­la­tions of near death, epilepsy and LSD, we land at last in Beth Abra­ham Hospi­tal in the Bronx. Here dwell the pa­tients we first met in Sacks’ book Awak­en­ings, who, hav­ing sur­vived the great sleep­ing sick­ness epi­demic of 1917– 28, now ex­ist in a “land­scape of dis­or­dered time”. Sacks ush­ers us deftly through a med­ley of thinkers, the­o­ries and thoughts. He in­ter­twines mus­ings on the re­la­tion­ship be­tween the brain, the mind and time with ob­ser­va­tions about the tem­po­ral dis­tor­tions of pa­tients with Parkin­son’s dis­ease and Tourette syn­drome, and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of to­day’s su­per mi­cro­scopes and tele­scopes. It’s ter­rific. The next piece brings us back to Charles Dar­win, now con­tem­plat­ing the men­tal lives of worms. One of the plea­sures and sur­prises of this col­lec­tion is how seam­lessly these dis­crete es­says seem to flow into each other. This is a vol­ume you can dip in and out of, but which re­wards se­quen­tial read­ing. About half­way through ‘Sen­tience: The Men­tal Lives of Plants and Worms’, I be­came aware of a sort of pulse start­ing to push up through the book. An echo, per­haps, of the rhyth­mic pul­sa­tions of the jel­ly­fish Sacks pon­ders, with their hunt­ing be­hav­iours and sur­vival strate­gies, and the deeper ques­tions that churn be­neath them: at what point does a ner­vous sys­tem be­come a brain; a brain, a mind; a mind, con­scious? Much of the de­light here de­rives, as al­ways, from Sacks’ own de­light in the sub­ject mat­ter and in his fel­low crea­tures – par­tic­u­larly the thinkers and re­searchers whose painstak­ingly recorded in­ves­ti­ga­tions and big dar­ing ques­tions have an­chored and ori­ented his own life’s work. “I was charmed by Ro­manes’s per­sonal style,” he writes of evo­lu­tion­ary bi­ol­o­gist Ge­orge John Ro­manes who spoke about pur­su­ing his stud­ies of the minds of jel­ly­fish, starfish and sea urchins “in ‘a lab­o­ra­tory set up upon the sea-beach … a neat lit­tle wooden work­shop thrown open to the sea-breezes’.”

At what point does a ner­vous sys­tem be­come a brain; a brain, a mind; a mind, con­scious?

Sacks is frank in his ad­mi­ra­tion of his 19th-cen­tury pre­de­ces­sors. He mourns the loss of their richly de­scrip­tive meth­ods of in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and this book is in part an ex­tended, af­fec­tion­ate con­ver­sa­tion with long-dead com­pan­ions-in-thought. Chief among them are Dar­win, Sig­mund Freud and Wil­liam James, with whom Sacks shares a faith in the power of nar­ra­tive to cap­ture ex­pe­ri­ence and im­part mean­ing. The young Freud (“al­ready a pas­sion­ate Dar­winian”) first ap­pears in The River of Con­scious­ness in a Vi­en­nese lab. There he is in­ves­ti­gat­ing the cel­lu­lar struc­ture of a prim­i­tive fish, the lam­prey, which he shows (counter to pre­vail­ing be­liefs) to be pretty much the same as for a cray­fish or, by ex­ten­sion, you and me. (The dif­fer­ence, it turned out, was not in their struc­ture but in the com­plex­ity of their or­gan­i­sa­tion.) Freud’s first ca­reer as a neu­rol­o­gist – and his grad­ual aban­don­ment of the hope of work­ing out which bits of the brain were re­spon­si­ble for which psy­chi­atric states – forms the ba­sis of the next es­say, ‘The Other Road: Freud as Neu­rol­o­gist’. This is one of three pieces in the col­lec­tion that I could not find pub­lished pre­vi­ously, and al­lows Sacks to mark out ideas that he cir­cles for the rest of the book: the evo­lu­tion of sci­en­tific thought, the neu­ral sub­strates of mind and con­scious­ness, the na­ture of mem­ory and for­get­ting. The most clearly au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal ma­te­rial comes in the mid­dle of the book: four es­says that ex­plore the fal­li­bil­ity of pro­cesses (mem­ory, hear­ing, life) that we pre­fer to take for granted. They cul­mi­nate in a short and won­der­ful piece, ‘A Gen­eral Feel­ing of Dis­or­der’, one of sev­eral that Sacks worked on in the weeks be­fore he died. Bill Hayes, in his own re­cent mem­oir, In­som­niac City: New York, Oliver, and Me, de­scribes a morn­ing con­ver­sa­tion in which the ail­ing Sacks

… with his eyes closed as if see­ing the pages in his mind … pro­ceeded to de­scribe in the most care­ful de­tail the work­ings of the au­to­nomic ner­vous sys­tem, grad­u­ally ze­ro­ing in on the topic of “a gen­eral feel­ing of dis­or­der,” a state the body en­ters when the small­est change – whether in­testi­nal, vas­cu­lar, hor­monal, neu­ro­log­i­cal, cel­lu­lar, “what have you” – trig­gers a “cas­cade of un­well­ness.” … He hardly took a breath for thirty-five min­utes.

When read­ing Sacks, there is al­ways the sense of be­ing with an ex­pan­sive, gen­er­ous mind. Even so, I was dis­con­certed less than a third of the way through, at hav­ing to re­mind my­self that I did not ac­tu­ally know the man. While I get that the Sacks who leads us through these pages is not the Sacks who in­hab­ited his own phys­i­cal and emo­tional space in the world, the en­gage­ment with Sacks the thinker and writer is com­pelling. What, he won­ders, might some fu­ture brain mon­i­tor re­veal about the na­ture of cre­ativ­ity and the “gor­geous clar­ity and mean­ing” that flow through him in this state. At such times, he writes, “I feel I can by­pass or tran­scend much of my own per­son­al­ity, my neu­roses. It is at once

Like con­scious­ness, the his­tory of ideas tends to present it­self as a con­tin­uum or “ma­jes­tic un­fold­ing”.

not me and the in­ner­most part of me, cer­tainly the best part of me.” And, while at­tuned to the speci­ficity of lived ex­pe­ri­ence, this is pri­mar­ily a book of ideas: Sacks’ own and, at least as im­por­tantly, other peo­ple’s taken in and fil­tered through his own unique con­scious­ness. There is a small but telling change to the ti­tle of the es­say from which this book takes its name. First pub­lished in 2004 as ‘In the River of Con­scious­ness’, the piece has now lost the “in”. And there is a sense in the fi­nal two es­says (this one and ‘Sco­toma: For­get­ting and Ne­glect in Sci­ence’) of Sacks mov­ing up and out of him­self, to oc­cupy that higher ground. ‘The River of Con­scious­ness’ re­turns ex­plic­itly to one of his cen­tral pre­oc­cu­pa­tions: how does a tan­gle of neu­ral mat­ter give rise to the seam­less sub­jec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence of hu­man con­scious­ness? This tan­ta­lis­ing search (“the most fun­da­men­tal and ex­cit­ing ad­ven­ture in neu­ro­science to­day”) sug­gests that the wak­ing life we rou­tinely ex­pe­ri­ence as a flow is in fact a col­lec­tion of dis­crete units, like pho­to­graphic stills, that we con­strue in ev­ery mo­ment into the cin­e­matic – and deeply per­sonal – ex­pe­ri­ence of con­scious­ness. There is in all this a recog­ni­tion of the pro­vi­sional or frag­men­tary na­ture of pro­cesses and struc­tures that we tell our­selves are solid. And in this con­text, Sacks’ de­ci­sion to fin­ish the col­lec­tion with a piece from nearly 20 years ear­lier func­tions as a plea, or warn­ing, to com­ing gen­er­a­tions of thinkers, doc­tors and sci­en­tists. Like con­scious­ness, the his­tory of ideas tends to present it­self as a con­tin­uum or “ma­jes­tic un­fold­ing”. But Sacks’ own re­search, and that of oth­ers, sug­gests oth­er­wise. As with plants and an­i­mals, the evo­lu­tion of ideas is dot­ted with dead ends, paths not taken. And, like con­scious­ness it­self, sci­ence is prey to mem­ory lapses, dis­tor­tions and eva­sions. Sacks won­ders if, in our ad­her­ence to “com­fort­able, re­duc­tive” ex­pla­na­tions in mod­ern sci­ence, we risk frag­ment­ing and miss­ing in­for­ma­tion that may seem ir­rel­e­vant now, but which might prove crit­i­cal to fu­ture gen­er­a­tions – and in­deed our own. Writ­ing on con­tem­po­rary ap­proaches to the study and treat­ment of Tourette’s, he notes: “This sort of frag­men­ta­tion is per­haps typ­i­cal of a cer­tain stage in sci­ence – the stage that fol­lows pure de­scrip­tion. But the frag­ments must some­how, some­time, be gath­ered to­gether and pre­sented once more as a co­her­ent whole.” Which is pretty much what Sacks has done here. Gath­ered his frag­ments – from the evo­lu­tion of flow­ers to that of hu­man knowl­edge – and pre­sented them to us as a co­her­ent and elo­quent whole: one that might en­dure and evolve long after the ex­tinc­tion of the self.

© Sued­deutsche Zeitung / Alamy

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