As a part of the chancellor’s convocation kicking off UW-Madison’s Welcome Week, best-selling author and neurologist Oliver Sacks spoke Wednesday about the adaptability and perseverance of the human spirit.
Sacks is the author of “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” and “Awakenings,” which describes the brief revival of catatonic patients suffering from the brain disease encephalitis.
Chancellor Wiley described Sacks’ approach to studying the human mind as holistic and innovative.
“He is a neurologist and author who explains the connection between mind and body and tells stories that challenge us to see the familiar with new eyes,” Wiley said.
Sacks described how he left his work as a research scientist to begin work at a chronic-disease hospital in the Bronx.
“I started out as a ‘real’ scientist, but it turned out to be a disaster,” Sacks said. “I was exceptionally clumsy. I lost a specimen that I spent 10 months preparing, dropped a lunch in a centrifuge, and was then told to go see patients — they don’t matter so much.”
He began working with patients suffering from encephalitis in 1965 and became fascinated with what he called their “extinct volcano” state.
“There were dozens of people transfixed in statue-like positions,” Sacks said. “I wondered at first if anything was going on inside them. The nurses were convinced that they were intellectually intact.”
In 1967, Sacks used a new drug called L-Dopa on encephalitis patients. The drug returned several patients to normal consciousness; many of them were able to recall their lives before they experienced the effects of the disease and were able to express themselves. Although many patients’ recoveries were short-lived, Sacks said he was inspired by their “awakening.”
“These patients demonstrate the human ability to survive and transcend,” Sacks said. “In spite of awful calamity these people survived as personalities”
Sacks said that his work with people experiencing encephalitis, Tourette’s syndrome, color blindness and deafness has taught him to view human health as relative.
“I don’t like the word ‘normal,'” Sacks said. “I view health and wellness as having a complete and coherent world as it exists for them. You have to ask, if you had ever lived without sound, would you really want [sound]?”
Sacks said he worked with a Tourette’s syndrome patient who used his disease to his advantage in jazz drumming and in ping-pong.
“This speaks to the theme of identity. Someone who has [had Tourette’s] has had it condition them,” he said. “It is similar to an autistic patient I had who, when asked if she wished she could snap her fingers and not be autistic, said no, because it would change who she was.”
Freshman Emily Bunner said Sacks’ lecture gave her a new perspective on “normalcy.”
“He was wonderful,” Bunner said. “If you learn to live with whatever people say is wrong with you, you’re a healthy person.”
Sacks said that accepting individual differences expands the possibilities of life.
“There is no standard model of being human,” he said. “There is no clear path one has to follow. It is the nature of being alive. There is no one way to perceive. You’re all different and necessarily you face a life of adventure, risk, invention, surprise and wonder — if you’ll let yourself.”