cognitive science
and more
A small tribute to Oliver Sacks

The Island of the Color Blind was the first of Oliver Sacks' books that I read, after I chanced upon it in the book store of the VU University Amsterdam where I was studying at the time. The book left a big impression on me. It was like a detective story, except that the crime was a neurological condition and the detective was a neurologist. So cool! Starting from there, over the years I began to read his other work as well, until by now I've read most of it. Most recently, I read Everything in its Place, a posthumously published collection of essays.

In his most famous essay, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Sacks describes a man who suffers from visual agnosia, which is an inability to recognize objects and people (such as hats and wives). It's a case study of sorts, as are most of his other essays. But to call them 'case studies' is to sell them short, because really they are personal stories, often with two main characters: the patient and Sacks himself. And although their relationship is always that between a patient and a doctor, both are described as people with their own views, worries, and interests.

Sacks introduced me to the bizarre world of neuropsychological disorders: hemispatial neglect, which is an extreme lack of curiosity for things that are, usually, on the left, and which inspired my own short story Negligence (see link below); prosopagnosia, which is a form of visual agnosia that is specific to faces, and which Sacks himself also suffered from to some degree; hallucinations, which are perceptual experiences of things that aren't there, which again is something that Sacks himself suffered from later in life, after he had lost much of his vision due to cancer (sensory deficits often result in hallucinations that have nothing to do with schizophrenia, a condition called Charles Bonnet Syndrome); and many, many other strange, awful, and wonderful conditions.

Around the time that I started reading Sacks' work, I was also taking courses on these topics. (I have a master's degree in clinical and cognitive neuropsychology.) Much of what I still know about neuropsychological disorders comes from Sacks, though, rather than from these courses. Because personal stories are simply so much more memorable than textbooks! This is something that I first learned from Sacks, and which I now try to use in my own lectures.

And then there's the warmth and empathy with which Sacks approached his patients, and which allowed him to laugh with them about their strange conditions. This kind of deep empathy is not something that comes as naturally to me as it did to him, but I hope that I learned something from Sacks also in this regard. And I often feel that, in the current climate in which people so often take offense to the smallest things, the world would benefit from a little more of Sacks' particular brand of respect, characterized by lighthearted tolerance.

Sacks often visited the Bronx botanical gardens on his breaks. There he would sit down on a bench and scribble his thoughts down in a notebook. He knew that to be a writer, you need to write, because writing is a skill that takes practice and effort. And so I started to write as well—a lot. Not only because of Sacks, of course, but he was and continuous to be one of my main sources of inspiration. I initially copied many aspects of Sacks' floral style, and from there began to develop my own (still-developing) voice.

Today it is exactly five years ago that Oliver Sacks passed away. He kept writing until the end. As a small tribute, I decided to put a short story online that I wrote some time ago, and which I normally distribute only in printed form on a small scale (through The story is called Negligence, and it is a fictional case study with two main characters: a patient and a doctor.