River of Consciousness

An obituary in the New York Times said that neurological conditions, and his patients’ experiences of them, were for Oliver Sacks, occasions “for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.”

As someone with a rare neurological condition (Chiari Malformation, since you ask), I have long had a love affair with Sacks’ interest in the field, and his beautiful way of synthesising material from his professional interest in them, and other material collected along the path of a voraciously curious life lived.  His death in 2015 moved me to tears, and I miss him intensely, in the same way there is a hole in my life without the likes of Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Oliver Postgate and Robin Williams.

This book (“The River of Consciousness”, by Oliver Sacks, 2017, London: Picador) gives us a chance to spend ‘extra time’ with him following his death – allowing Sacks to spend time dwelling on interests stretching across marine biology; botany; the history of science; quantum physics; philosophy; and of course, neurology. It manages to knit together a collection of what appear at first glance to be unrelated contributions with his trademark hand-holding, and storyteller’s aplomb, to a point where you feel you are at the brink of making a new discovery yourself, by reflecting on all of the areas he has opened up, step-by-step – whether that be issues to do with ‘speed’; or ‘near death experiences’; or ‘plagiarism’; or ‘creativity’; ‘memory’, ‘consciousness’ or the way in which certain discoveries are filed away and forgotten, only to be celebrated again, many years later. He makes it all feel so easy. As Gavin Francis described it in a Guardian review, the book is able to showcase Sacks’s “agility of enthusiasms”.

A book that could all too easily be seen as an after-thought, or a publisher’s exercise to collect together Sacks material that happened to be lying around after his death, and package it up as an excuse to make more money, I found this, like all Sacks’ earlier work, a delight to read, and illuminating.

As a complete coincidence, I had only just picked up the book at the same time as I had been introduced to the work of philosopher/scientist/theologian/mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), and discovering too that he had written about neuro-anatomy (effectively discovering CSF – cerebrospinal fluid), and covered a similarly diverse terrain, making connections across it in much the same way, it further provoked my own reflective river of consciousness.  Where Sacks brought ferns, Mexico, sexuality, headaches and neurology to my table (all personal obsessions of sorts), Swedenborg is beginning to do the same with hovercraft, spinal fluid, the pituitary gland, charity, tremors, and the concept of an after-life and near-death experiences too – very similar territory at times to Sacks.  This posthumous set of writing has only served to fuel my love of Sacks, and his embrace of ‘the particular’ – a belief that the little, taken-for-granted human observations are just as important in helping to develop explanations for why things are as they are, as are the ‘big’ debates.

I will leave one final quote to Nicole Krauss, writing in the New York Times, who remarks on one of the most powerful insights I took away from one of the pieces in the book.

“This is an extraordinary insight, one that helped to establish our understanding of the self as flexible rather than static, and our sense of the past as an imaginative reconstruction, ever evolving, both of which make therapy possible. As a neurologist, Sacks deepened our understanding of the dynamic, creative abilities of the brain by uncovering, again and again, the unusual ways the impaired brain may deal with its handicaps, compensating in ingenious ways, or by creating plausible explanations for the nonsensical, thus preserving a form of coherence, however subjective. Taken together, his case studies illustrated how just as homeostasis, the maintenance of constant internal environment, is crucial to all organisms, so is a stable, cogent narrative of reality crucial to the mind and its construction of the self, such that even severely disordered brains will find ways of creating order.”

“The River of Consciousness” is now available in paperback.  I don’t know why I took so long to read the hardback that I had left by the side of my bed!


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