Books To Get You Thinking

On July 9, 2013, Oliver Sacks, the eminent physician, neurologist and professor at NYU, celebrated his 80th birthday. A prolific writer and bestselling author, the New York Times calls him “one of the greatest clinical writers of the 21st century.” Oliver Sacks’ unique blend of medical knowledge, philosophical outlook and literary genius is reflected in the wide range of compelling short stories and essays in which he explores the many intricacies and profound mysteries of the human brain. The narratives largely originate from his decades of clinical experiences with his patients. Oliver Sacks has written twelve books and many more essays – all of them showcase his amazing gift of analyzing science through the lens of empathy and humanity. Mercer County Library offers our readers an extensive collection of Oliver Sacks’ writings.

In his latest book, Oliver Sacks delves into the fascinating world of hallucinations, providing insight into the many different forms that hallucinations could take as well as their different origins. They could arise from diverse medical conditions ranging from injury, illness, and sensory deprivation to grief, drugs and intoxication. Hallucinatory experiences could be visual, auditory and olfactory forms. Sacks examines the three distinct but commonly overlapping phenomenons of hallucinations, perceptual disorders, and illusions. It was only in the nineteenth century that hallucinations were treated as a medical condition – prior to this, hallucinations were much stigmatized and viewed with apprehension. Scientific advances have now made it possible to understand hallucinations, the part of the brain they originate in and the complexity of the brain structure. This is done through imaging the brain by implanting electrodes and then closely observing the electrical impulses in the brain that occur during hallucinations.  Discussing the varied hallucination experiences of his patients, as well as their innermost thoughts and feelings, Sacks provides new insights to our understanding of this commonly misunderstood phenomenon.    

Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
This book explores the mysterious and inexplicable relationship between music and the human mind that has existed from the dawn of the human age. Music could excite and calm, exalt and sadden. It could mesmerize some while leaving others totally indifferent.  The rhythm, harmony and the melodic arrangement of the tones are analyzed by many different parts of the brain in complex ways that are difficult to quantify. Oliver Sacks narrates the amazing experiences of some of his patients and gives us a glimpse into the brain and mind relationship. He narrates the example of an orthopedic surgeon with no prior interest in music who gets struck by lightning and suddenly develops a passion for the piano and Chopin’s works. The strange working of the brain is perhaps most intriguing in the healing powers it holds. Music therapy is used in treating a range of neurological conditions such as autism and aphasia, movement disorders, and dementia.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
In this classic book on neurological disorders published in 1985, Oliver Sacks presents a collection of case studies of patients suffering from rare neurological impairments which then manifest themselves in equally rare and strange disorders including that of perception, recognition, vision and memory. Sacks takes us into the different world of each of these individuals, discussing the sadness and pain of losing a vital part of their faculties and powers of perception. What is inspiring is how Sacks is able to convey to readers the hope that lies even within the imperfections - how the brain transcends the neurological deficiencies in a way that sometimes overcompensates and helps patients find new strengths in completely unusual ways. In the chapter titled "Hands", Sacks narrates the case of a sixty year old woman with cerebral palsy who was unable to see. Over time, using just her hands to feel objects, she developed the ability to create sculptures.

The Mind’s Eye                                   
Sacks draws on the many fascinating case studies of his patients through a collection of essays, sharing with readers the medical and neurological conditions that can manifest themselves in the loss of normal speech, hearing, sight recognition and other cognitive abilities. The focus of the seven different essays that make up the book is on how the brain, with its amazing resilience and capacity for change, is able to successfully adapt to a disability by filling in the gaps – compensating for a weakness by developing balancing strengths. Perhaps the most powerful section of the book is the part where Sacks confronts his own experience with ocular melanoma and his partial loss of vision through a beautifully documented journal. He shares with his readers his fears, anxieties and the transformative effects that a disability can have on one’s perception of life and reality. In the end, through all the tragedy and pain, the indomitable human spirit and resilience of the human mind find unique ways to give a new meaning to life.

-Nita Mathur 


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