Still rummaging through the library for things involving Oliver Sacks. I've got a book by a long-dead neurologist who is not the same long-dead neurologist whose work I was trying to beat out of the Interlibrary Loan people, but which nevertheless coincidentally also has a foreword by Sacks. It's a very Sacks-ian foreword, aside from them not letting him take up half the page with footnotes. (The footnotes in Oliver Sacks' books make me feel that my incessant tangenting is completely reasonable. Minimalist, even. He's written entire parallel chapters at the bottom of his manuscript pages, and they're fascinating.) A R Luria is not as vivid and intertwined with his case as Sacks has always been, but I see where he got it from.

I owe a great many things to Oliver Sacks. Not the least of these is the idea that having a brain full of blue and purple wire is not necessarily a bad thing. Sacks was the first writer I had ever run across -- and still one of the very few -- who gave a description of how brains were "supposed" to work before getting into how his patients had gone squiffy. It was the first opportunity I had to develop any kind of baseline for what the interior of other people's heads looked like, and to note that mine was very different in many respects. I'd no idea before that; I live in this head, and it's always looked like this in here. Nobody feels the need to enumerate all the hypnopompic hallucinations and migraine auras and synaesthetic experiences they're not having, so how the hell was I supposed to know?

Dr Sacks was intensely curious about how his patients experienced life, and he had the clinician's beautiful deafness to propriety, so he asked all kinds of mad things. People don't answer those questions honestly if they think you'll get all judgey. He reconciled the two by taking a great joy in being allowed to know what was going on, and absolutely no interest at all in making value judgments with respect to normality. He had, privately, a great many feels about watching people slowly lose their faculties, but it seems always to have been overshadowed by his fascination with watching patients adapt to their new brain-states, and continue to function long past the point where "normal" people would be completely incapacitated. He never failed to be delighted by the ingenious ways in which the people he met somehow wriggled round the limitations of whatever neurological malfunctions they had.

He was not, I suspect, precisely what you would call neurotypical. Nobody could be that smart and that logophilic and that prosopagnostic with factory-standard circuitry. He made references to a lifelong clumsiness that kept him out of surgery, and absent-mindedness that led him to misplace entire manuscripts, but he had a prodigious memory for the written word, and was one of the few authors who occasionally used English words I didn't know.

He also seemed to think he was socially awkward. I'm unqualified to comment on that, since I am notoriously blind to the kinds of oddness he seemed to think he had. I've seen video, and I always read him as genial, if slightly gun-shy about sharing the flow of wordification in person, even after a solid forty years of being a best-selling author. I have absolutely no idea how that scans to others. (That probably also explains why I can't start up the Kindle text-to-speech and let it read his work to me: I know how he sounded. Sacks had a rather old-fashioned Oxbridge accent that put a /k/ in the middle of encephalitis, an enthusiastic professorial cadence, and a pronounced case of rhotacism.) A number of patients stayed in his care for decades, and judging from his books, he was a friend to them as much as a doctor -- he traveled quite a distance to visit some of them, and made a great many house calls, and more than one of them called late at night to panic at him about something only distantly related to their brain-thing.

Reading several very large books about all of that made me realize three things:

  1. I am not normal.
  2. This is probably not a big deal.
  3. There has existed at least one person in the history of the human race who would have wanted to hear all about it in excruciating detail.
There is also more than a little in his writing about the functioning of the narrator himself. You cannot read a book about Oliver Sacks' patients without learning a fair amount about Oliver Sacks. He talked about his own brain a lot, mainly because it was the one he always had on hand. One of his best tricks was continuing on with the calm, patient tone of an anthropological case study until you got halfway through an example case, and suddenly realized that the good doctor was giving you a rather analytical recounting of what happened when he got bored one weekend and took entirely too much scopolamine. 

I pick apart my own inner workings in public in the vague hope that someone will read my blueprints as I've always read his: With great interest, and respect for the fact that it's not easy to be that honest on paper. Sacks' delight in the sheer plasticity of the human brain was something I took to heart. It's why, as I was shuffling to the bathroom in the dark the other night, so as to avoid waking anybody else up, my first thought wasn't, "Surely we own a fucking flashlight," but, "I really need to work on my echolocation." 


  1. I, for one, am very grateful to you for picking apart your inner workings in public. I'm one of the weird-and-smart-but-not-genius kids, with little talent for the awesome Sherlocky stuff you do. Your musings frequently switch on lightbulbs in my head and clarify stuff that I'd noticed but not fully understood. Your posts on autistic spectrum stuff a while back, for instance, gave me sudden insight into a whole slew of stuff about me and my family. That one wasn't so much *a* lightbulb, more a whole field full of lightbulbs all at once, and HOLY SHIT, they're all on the same switch! It's not easy realizing you're Aspie As Fuck, but it's a lot better than thinking you're weird and broken in 15 seemingly-unconnected ways. So thanks for that!

  2. I'm exceedingly grateful for the ways you've described your brain and your thought processes. I'm not synaesthetic, but I apparently have moderate Sherlock talents and your descriptions of said talents and That Kind of Brain have helped me see and value what my brain can do differently.

    Also, there is little I like better than listening to a passionate, curious, interested person tell me all about what they're interested in. Oliver Sacks, Stephen Colbert, rats, Japanese logic games -- I love reading about all of it, even when I had none of it previously.

    1. "Also, there is little I like better than listening to a passionate, curious, interested person tell me all about what they're interested in."

      This, exactly. I've been following your blog for years now and I love reading about whatever it is that's caught your fancy at any given time. Interesting people being interested in things is one of my favorite things and the fact that you're articulate and share your research makes it even better.

      (Also, I rate as smart-but-not-genius with absolutely no sense of what other people can't do, so you describing both how you work and how it compares to other people has been extremely helpful in figuring that kind of thing out, so many thanks.)


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