Remembering The Brilliance of Oliver Sacks

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Oliver Sacks speaking at the World Science Festival in 2008
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"The most important thing I learned from Oliver Sacks was to be in the moment—always—and to be aware of how my actions influence and affect others," Mark from Massachusetts told The Takeaway on Sunday. "As a professor, I try to manifest that and try to always be there for my students—to be available and to help them in any way I can. Living my life this way has definitely made my life worthwhile and fulfilling. I will miss his voice.”

World-renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks died on Sunday at the age of 82 after battling cancer. Dr. Sack's devotion to the humanity of scientific study was perhaps his greatest gift—he could convey the unfathomable complexity of the human brain in ways that everyone could understand.

Dr. Sacks often shared his own experiences. When discussing hallucinations, Dr. Sacks once wrote that, about 20 minutes after taking LSD, he remembered seeing the color indigo.

“Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture: it was the color of heaven,” he wrote.

Oliver Sacks first gained notoriety in the early 1970s with his book "Awakenings," which followed a group of patients suffering from encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, otherwise known as "sleeping sickness."

His findings in “Awakenings” were so intriguing that his book was eventually adapted into a feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

And Oliver Sacks's love for music also led him down a long road of discovery. He devoted an entire book, "Musicophilia,” to the relationship between music and the mind.

A great deal of his work on music was done with Connie Tomaino, the executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. Dr. Sacks helped her establish that institute, and they were close friends for more than 30 years.  

“When I first met him, he was a very shy, introverted person that didn’t reveal much about himself,” says Tomaino. “He had his friends and was social in that way, but he really kept to himself. His sharing, I think, became a part of him being accepted and having so many people validate who he was, and his feeling part of the community of the world of people interested in the wellbeing of others. His sensitivity to being loved by so many people allowed him to open up and to share.”

Despite his huge popularity, Tomaino says that she believes that Sacks never felt famous.

“He was so humble in that sense,” she says. “He felt nurtured and appreciated by people. He had volumes of emails that he would get everyday, but he was very humble.”

Sacks had an apparent humanistic awareness and a sensitivity that is usually uncommon among researchers in his field. Neurology and neuroscience tends, by its nature, to be highly reductionist. Human behavior, passions, and hopes are often reduced to the level of neurons. But Sacks avoided and surpassed all of that.

“I think he only saw things in the sense of human awareness and function,” says Tomaino. “In fact, he had a long correspondence with A.R. Lauria, the father of neuropsychology. Lauria told him to keep writing these case studies that really look at the phenomena of what a person is experiencing, because as you describe their behaviors, responses, limitations—whatever it is—we get to learn about the neurology of that condition. If you limit things so specifically, you lose the whole picture of what this person is going through.”

Beyond his contributions to society and science, Tomaino says that she will simply miss Sacks—a lifelong friend.

“[I’ll miss] too many things,” she says. “His friendship, his wit, his knowledge, his sharing and compassion about the work, and his love of life.”