Oliver Sacks, MD, the neurologist who wrote so eloquently about the many maladies of the mind and the patients affected by them, died yesterday at age 82 from a rare eye cancer that had spread to his liver. In his essays and 13 books, Dr. Sacks helped us understand the mysteries of the human condition, through compelling case histories of men and women living with glitches in their brains. (Dr. Sacks himself struggled with face blindness.) In memory of the “poet laureate” of medicine, here are a few of his most moving missives on life, death, and everything in between.
On the inner workings of the brain
“The brain is more than an assemblage of autonomous modules, each crucial for a specific mental function. Every one of these functionally specialized areas must interact with dozens or hundreds of others, their total integration creating something like a vastly complicated orchestra with thousands of instruments, an orchestra that conducts itself, with an ever-changing score and repertoire.” ―The Mind’s Eye, 2010
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On neurological disorders
“In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.”—The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, 1985
On the “norm”
“People will make a life in their own terms, whether they are deaf or colorblind or autistic or whatever. And their world will be quite as rich and interesting and full as our world.” —Interview with the Associated Press, 2008
On the healing power of music
“I have seen deeply demented patients weep or shiver as they listen to music they have never heard before, and I think that they can experience the entire range of feelings the rest of us can, and that dementia, at least at these times, is no bar to emotional depth. Once one has seen such responses, one knows that there is still a self to be called upon, even if music and only music, can do the calling.” —Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, 2007
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“One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.” —The New York Times, 2013
On the transience of life
“A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky ‘powdered with stars’ (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience—and death.” —The New York Times, 2015
“When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate —of every human to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” — The New York Times, 2015