The River of Cosnciousness
by Oliver Sacks
Publishes October 24, 2017
From Goodreads: From the best-selling author of Gratitude, On the Move, and Musicophilia, a collection of essays that displays Oliver Sacks’s passionate engagement with the most compelling and seminal ideas of human endeavor: evolution, creativity, memory, time, consciousness, and experience.
Oliver Sacks, a scientist and a storyteller, is beloved by readers for the extraordinary neurological case histories (Awakenings, An Anthropologist on Mars) in which he introduced and explored many now familiar disorders–autism, Tourette’s syndrome, face blindness, savant syndrome. He was also a memoirist who wrote with honesty and humor about the remarkable and strange encounters and experiences that shaped him (Uncle Tungsten, On the Move, Gratitude). Sacks, an Oxford-educated polymath, had a deep familiarity not only with literature and medicine but with botany, animal anatomy, chemistry, the history of science, philosophy, and psychology. The River of Consciousness is one of two books Sacks was working on up to his death, and it reveals his ability to make unexpected connections, his sheer joy in knowledge, and his unceasing, timeless project to understand what makes us human.
I’ve been a fan of the podcast Radiolab for years, and I always enjoyed the segments where the neurologist, Doctor Oliver Sacks, was a guest. He wasn’t just in episodes about the brain, either. Sacks could speak about a dizzying array of subjects, and his ability to explain the most difficult topics helped make science accessible to a broader audience.
The River of Consciousness is a collection of essays Sacks wrote in the months leading up to his death. They cover topics like Darwin’s flower studies, how the brain processes speech it mishears, and how a culture can ‘forget’ basic scientific concepts before they are ‘rediscovered’ years later.
Each essay is written with the clear, lyrical prose that Sacks was known for. They read like stories and it’s not until the end that you realize that 1) you have learned quite a lot, and 2) you are suddenly interested in an esoteric topic you’d never heard of before. Sacks uncomplicates complicated ideas, presenting case histories to explain his concepts. He gives readers the key to these strange happenings so they might begin to understand them.
One thing that Sacks is notable for is his ability to notice the oddities of his own body- after surgery, after cancer treatments, and even as his body was failing in the last weeks of his life- and use these instances as a launchpad for his own curiosity and research. For example, in the essay, Mishearings, Sacks talks about the day he misheard his friend and thought she was going to ‘choir practice’. He puzzled over this fact for some time because she had never expressed an interest in singing in a choir. It turns out that she was talking about going to the chiropractor. But of course, Sacks didn’t let things end there. He recorded what he misheard, compared it to what was actually said, and used these mishearings to explain how the brain perceives words and makes sense of errors.
Sacks’ curiosity never ceases to amaze me. His willingness to keep an open mind and look into illnesses and phenomena that others dismissed helped so many people through the years. His ability to shed light the strangest, most complex scientific concepts has helped explain them to people around the world, making these intimidating topics more relatable.
Reading The River of Consciousness makes me want to go back and find all the Radiolab episodes Sacks was on, and then read every book he wrote. We need more writers like him. The world can be frightening, and it can seem like science is unsure of anything. But with more writers like Sacks opening our eyes to the wonder of this crazy world, we could see that science seeks to move us ever forward. It is how we make sense of things, and with more understanding, it can help us all to conquer our fears.