Oliver Sacks – The Mind Traveller

Science 2015-09-16

Having studied neuroscience as a degree, I have on more than one occasion found myself totally engrossed in one of Oliver Sacks many fascinating and peculiar books – a position anyone who has picked up a Sacks book will have no doubt found themselves in (and if you haven’t already done so, I insist you do!)

Therefore, when the famed neurologic storyteller died on August 30, 2015 aged 82 of cancer I was quick to join the millions of others grieving the misfortune of the world for losing a physician like no other.


To celebrate Sacks’ exceptional work and the brain in all its magnificent glory I therefore thought it entirely appropriate to compile a list of the more bizarre cases Sacks encountered during his colourful career – including the man that mistook his wife for a hat and the patients Sacks brought back from the dead. However, for those of you not familiar with the late explorer and storyteller, I first begin with some background to his studies.

“The brain, the imperfect organ that defines us all” – Morley Safer

Describing the brain as “the most intricate mechanism in the universe” Sacks was unafraid to ask the weightiest questions about its function and anomalies (even at the risk of losing his own mind) in the search for what could be learned about ‘normal.’ As an expert in fields such as phantom limb pain, epilepsy, colour vision and the effect music has on the brain, he confronted dysfunctional and disorderly brain syndromes, including his own prosopagnosia or ‘face blindness’ and presented his studies in a way that combined science and humanism that hadn’t been seen for over a century. This resulted in moving portraits of the human beings behind often-bizarre neurological conditions – captivating a wide audience of scientists and non-scientists alike and a style of medical writing that readers around the world fell in love with. It is no surprise then that Sacks’ four decades of expressive writing and breakthrough work has illuminated areas of brain science and dramatically increased awareness of syndromes such as Tourette’s and Asperger’s, naming him the world’s most well known neurologist.


Oliver Sacks Contribution to Neuroscience

He has contributed immensely to neuroscience and medical research and on the whole, people view his work as inspiring and ground-breaking. Indeed, anyone who has read any of his novels can most likely recall a study that they would call their favourite, most memorable or simply fascinating.

For this reason, I have compiled my very own list of some of Sacks’ stranger studies:


1.    The patients who appeared to wake from the dead

Sacks made some of his biggest contributions to neuroscience in the mid-1960s during his time at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York. Now considered one of his most famous cases and inspiring the 1990 Oscar-winning film Awakenings, there he treated patients suffering from ‘sleepy sickness’ – survivors of the 1920s epidemic of encephalitis lethargica, which had left them trapped inside their own bodies and unable to interact with or respond to the world around them.

Inspired by a neurology journal, Sacks decided to administer an experimentalpsychoactive drug known as L-DOPA (which increases levels of dopamine in the brain critical for movement control and mental functions) to the patients and it had an explosive ‘awakening’ effect.

However, as patients built up tolerance to the drug in months to follow, this became a “heaven-and-hell experience” (as Sacks described it) as the experiment trailed into failure and patients soon developed tics, seizures or manic behaviour, inevitably reverting back to their former catatonic states. Sacks maintains though that without the L-DOPA trial, the patients “would have just died without even a glimpse of that life.”

2.    The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Also the title of one of Sacks’ most famous books, this story is taken from the case study of Dr. P, a man who suffered from visual agnosia i.e. a rare condition characterized by the inability to recognize and identify objects or persons. Sacks himself suffered from this condition mildly. This meant Dr. P could see the world around him but did not always understand it and on one occasion resulted in him confusing the sight of his wife for a hat.

3.    The family man who neglected his family but loved strangers after brain surgery

Surgery to treat his epilepsy turned this 50-year-old loving husband and father into a shadow of his former family-centred self. Sacks reported this case in a 2003 article published in Epilepsy & Behavior, which called the condition ‘selective emotional detachment.’ The article reported that although in the months before his surgery the man hated the hospital, afterward he greeted his physicians as if they were long-lost friends and detailed his increasing distance from family members but growing tendency to “warm to strangers instantly”.


4.    The conductor with a 30 second memory

Musician Clive Wearing contracted herpes simplex encephalitis in 1985 and as a result he was left with what Sacks describes as “the most severe case of amnesia ever documented.” Wearing was unable to form any new memories that lasted more than 30 seconds and was convinced every few minutes that he was fully conscious for the first time! He could, however, still remember music and his wife.


More of Sacks’ bizarre cases include the painter who was concussed and became colourblind, the man trapped in one particular day in 1945, a blind woman who perceived her hands as useless ‘lumps of dough’ and a woman hunted by dragons.

If anything these cases emphasise how complicated and wonderful the brain really is and Sacks’ own impairment no doubt helped him connect with his patients and write about them in the compassionate fashion which captured so many of his readers hearts. If you have enjoyed reading about these cases then, I recommend you delve into one (or all) of Sacks brilliantly written books.

If you have any comments on these wonderfully odd studies or you have your very own favourite Oliver Sacks case, please tweet me @JennyAtNotch