Neurologist Oliver Sacks—who found the deaf could “hear,” the blind could “see,” the catatonic could dance, and the mute could sing—died of cancer on Sunday.
Sacks revived men and women who had been catatonic for decades, as chronicled in his book “Awakenings” (which was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro in 1990). They began to walk, talk, and even dance.
He explored the marvelous networks in the brain that lead from memories to sounds, to colors, to abilities we never imagined our brains had.
If a patient couldn’t talk, he would get her to sing instead—literally. He investigated fascinating phenomena, including “musicophilia” (the ways in which the brain interacts with music) and synesthesia (a condition in which the senses are intermingled, so that one may taste the color green, for example).
Sacks discovered that about 10 percent of hearing-impaired people have musical hallucinations and about 10 percent of the visually impaired have visual hallucinations. Parts of the brain connected to music or vision can trigger even if the person is unable to perceive sight or sound from the outside world. He opened our minds to what our brains can do.
He also became known for highlighting the humanity of his patients. Steve Silberman, who wrote a biographical article about Sacks 13 years ago, wrote, “Sacks made patients the heroes of his case studies, rescuing the clinical anecdote from the margins of medical practice.”
Sacks, 82, died at his home in New York City of multiple metastases in the liver. In February, he wrote an essay for the New York Times in which he reflected on his imminent death.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude,” he wrote. “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.”
Sacks met with much resistance early in his career due to his unconventional findings and methods, but he eventually earned the respect of his peers. He wrote in February that he had similar hopes for the thinkers of tomorrow. “I rejoice when I meet gifted young people,” he said. “I feel the future is in good hands.”