The River of Consciousness

Review From User :

This might be described as an Oliver Sacks primer. I've enjoyed it. Dr. Sacks was known for his fondness for the footnote, which is little in evidence here. So this might be a very good place to start for those new to his work. Moreover, it has a little taste of a number of his books, among them: Migraine, A Leg to Stand On, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist On Mars, The Island of the Colorblind, Hallucinations, and Awakenings, his fascinating magnum opus in which the footnotes sometimes rival the main text in length.

Sacks's hobby was botany, which makes his insights in the chapter "Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers" irresistible. On studying an orchid with a footlong nectary, Darwin predicted a moth with a matching proboscis would eventually be found which was that blossom's particular pollinator. "More than 130 years after Darwin first suggested that a large moth pollinated an African orchid, his hypothesis was confirmed. It took quite some time, but quite clearly Darwin's prediction, based on extremely limited evidence but bolstered by his understanding of his own new theory of natural selection, was correct." (The Guardian 2 Oct 2013.)

The last chapter, "Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science," speaks to the absense of historical consciousness in science. This area is now starting to be addressed, but for most of the 20th century it was not. To tell the tale Sacks revisits the story of his own injured left leg (see A Leg to Stand On). After experiencing alienation from his injured leg, as if it did not belong to him, he mentioned this sensation to his doctor who dismissed the notion out of hand. This angered Sacks who set about looking for case literature on the subject. He found nothing for three years. Then he came upon three works.

The first was "an account by Silas Weir Mitchell, an American neurologist working at a Philadelphia hospital for amputees during the Civil War. He described, very fully and carefully, phantom limbs (or 'sensory ghosts,' as he called them) that amputees experienced in place of their lost limbs. He also wrote of 'negative phantoms,' the subjective annihilation and alienation of limbs following severe injury and surgery. He was so struck by these phenomena that he wrote a special circular on the matter, which was distributed by the surgeon general's office in 1864.

"Weir Mitchell's observations aroused brief interest but then disappeared. More than fifty years passed before the syndrome was rediscovered as thousands of new cases of neurological trauma were treated during the First World War. In 1917, the French neurologist Joseph Babinski . . . published a monograph in which, apparently ignorant of Weir Mitchell's report, he described the syndrome I had experienced with my own leg injury. Babinski's observations, like Weir Mitchell's, sank without a trace. (When, in 1975, I finally came upon Babinski's book in our library, I found I was the first person to have borrowed it since 1918.) During the Second World War, the syndrome was fully described for a third time by two Soviet neurologists, Aleksei N. Leont'ev and Alexander Zaporozhets- again in ignorance of their predecessors. Yet though their book, Rehabilitation of Hand Function, was translated into English in 1960, their observations completely failed to enter the consciousness of either neurologists or rehabilitation specialists.

"The work of Weir Mitchell and Babinski, of Leont'ev and Zaporozhets, seemed to have fallen into a historical or cultural scotoma, a 'memory hole,' as Orwell would say.

"As I pieced together this extraordinary, even bizarre story, I felt more sympathy with my surgeon's saying that he had never heard of anything like my symptoms before. The syndrome is not that uncommon: it occurs whenever there is a significant loss of proprioception and other sensory feedback through immobility or nerve damage. But why is it so difficult to put this on the record, to give the syndrome its due place in our neurological knowledge and consciousness" (p. 196)

The chapter "Mishearings" is probably the funniest thing Sacks has ever written-just hilarious this unquestionably informative application of his clinical sensibilities to his own failing hearing.

"When Kate spoke of going to choir practice [actually a chiropractor], I accepted this: she could have been going to choir practice. But when a friend spoke one day about 'a big-time cuttlefish diagnosed with ALS,' I felt I must be mishearing. Cephalopods have elaborate nervous systems, it is true, and perhaps, I thought for a split second, a cuttlefish could have ALS. But the idea of a 'big-time' cuttlefish was ridiculous. (It turned out to be 'a big-time publicist.') (p. 125)

So three fascinating examples, one very detailed, of the essays included here. I recommend all of Dr. Sacks's book, including this one, unreservedly.


From the best-selling author of Gratitude, On the Move, and Musicophilia, a collection of essays that displays Oliver Sacks’s passionate engagement with the most compelling and seminal ideas of human endeavor: evolution, creativity, memory, time, consciousness, and experience.
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Oliver Sacks, a scientist and a storyteller, is beloved by readers for the extraordinary neurological case histories (Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars) in which he introduced and explored many now familiar disorders–autism, Tourette’s syndrome, face blindness, savant syndrome. He was also a memoirist who wrote with honesty and humor about the remarkable and strange encounters and experiences that shaped him (Uncle Tungsten, On the Move, Gratitude). Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology. The River of Consciousness is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human. (less)

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