I read about neurologist Oliver Sacks a few days after his death on August 30, 2015, a press release quoting phrases from a last article of his written in a newspaper. He had written it already very ill, with a very advanced cancer. He said that he was afraid, but that he was leaving this life with a greater feeling: that of gratitude for all the experiences lived on this beautiful planet. The mere fact of existing as a thinking animal was, for him, a privilege and an adventure.
I thought she was a beautiful and captivating farewell. It was worth knowing this writer more. And I devoted myself to reading his books from that moment on. A set of very interesting and entertaining works showed me the fruit of his pressing and passionate effort to unravel the mysteries of the human mind. Sacks proposes to call his research «identity neurology», as they are focused on those brain disorders that primarily affect the self of patients.
There are still many aspects of the vast complexity of the human brain that are hidden from scientific inquiry. However, there are also many things that are known and Sacks teaches them in his writings with clear and pleasant style, without detract from his reflection.
From the study and treatment of his patients came titles such as An Anthropologist on Mars, Awakening (film based on this book was filmed), With one leg, I see a voice, Hallucinations, Journey to Oaxaca and The Man who mistaken his wife with a hat. The Spanish translations of these works have all been edited in Anagram.
On the move. A life, his autobiography, was published posthumously. In just over 400 pages, Sacks gives his readers a brazen portrait of himself, an intimate, frank and exciting confession.
But I want to highlight here his book Hallucinations (Anagram, 2013). In its pages, this man of science gathers a set of clinical cases in which patients suffer perceptions – visual, auditory, tactile or olfactory – in the absence of external realities. In normal perceptions, which can be shared among people, the brain plays a primary role… and he also plays it in hallucinations, although here an individual’s brain creates what he perceives, while those next to him perceive nothing. In the pages of this work he defies – by way of anthology – a wide variety of hallucinatory experiences.
There is little that has been investigated in this field. In recent decades, medical technology has managed to measure electrical and metabolic activities while patients hallucinate. This, together with research with electrodes implanted in patients with severe brain disorders (such as severe epilepsy), has also allowed to define which parts of the brain are responsible for the different types of hallucinations.
Our author points out that, since ancient times, hallucinations have occupied an important place in our mental life and culture. He writes, «We might wonder the extent to which hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, our folklore, and even our religion.»
True to his scientific vocation and his extensive knowledge of the power of the brain to create «non-existent realities», Sacks exhibits a healthy and permanent skepticism at alleged manifestations of paranormal phenomena: for example, to those who claim to have glimpsed the afterlife and returned from death; to whom they claim to have experienced mystical visions; to those who indicate the presence of ghosts and to those who claim to have communication with the spirits. He knows better than anyone that certain brain conditions – which make him a hallucination machine – are the most appropriate explanation for these «metaphysical experiences.» He checked, for many years, that the human brain is capable of imagining, seeing and even touching things even though there is nothing «out there» to perceive.
Today marks five years since the death of this remarkable scientific communicator. And I want, by way of homage, to recommend reading his works. They instruct, astonish and – above all – rescue a much-needed enlightened reflection in the face of so irrationality that envelops us.
The content poured into this opinion column is the sole responsibility of its author, and does not necessarily reflect the editorial line or position of El Mostrador.