Oliver Sacks’ Ambivalence on Living in the Digital Age

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There isn’t anything I enjoy more in a stress-laden world than a time-out for a good read. Books lend me a purview of how others experience life, lending sagacity and connection with my fellows. Books teach me that I’m not alone.

Courtesy of The New Yorker (February 11, 2019), this morning I came upon Oliver Sacks’ restive short piece, ¨The Machine Stops.” Written in the last weeks of his impending death, the famed neurologist reflects on the fallout of living in the digital age.

Brilliant, cogent, unceasingly eloquent and abidingly compassionate, Sacks specialized in the eccentricities imposed by the brain, most famously in his Awakenings, later turned into one of the most compelling movies I’ve seen.

Sacks laments here the social distancing wrought by a technology that should be bringing us together, reminding me of Tolstoy’s initial response on seeing a film clip for the first time in his advanced years and countering that though this new technology was latent with promise, too often technology had been harnessed for ignoble ends.

Beginning with the ubiquitous cellphone, Sacks complains that he “cannot get used to seeing myriads of people in the street peering into little boxes or holding them in front of their faces, walking blithely in the path of moving traffic, totally out of touch with their surroundings. I am most alarmed by such distraction and inattention when I see young parents staring at their cell phones and ignoring their own babies as they walk or wheel them along. Such children, unable to attract their parents’ attention, must feel neglected, and they will surely show the effects of this in the years to come.”

In short, our digital milieu has decimated a once fecund public and private life, replacing social interchange with inferior virtual substitutes. I remember in my boyhood sitting with neighbors on stoops in Philadelphia on humid summer nights, conversing until the arrival of night’s cool breezes sweeping across the Delaware; houses teeming with porches where we played games, conversed, and shared neighborhood babble. Mornings, I’d grab my ball glove and saunter off to a crowded diamond. Those ball fields, in Philly and afar, lie increasingly vacant in these days of video games:

In similar vein, Sacks continues that he’s “confronted every day with the complete disappearance of the old civilities. Social life, street life, and attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to phones or other devices—jabbering, texting, playing games, turning more and more to virtual reality of every sort.”

0ur personal lives have been turned inside out, our privacy invaded. Think of what Facebook has done with posts you thought were personal to your friends, or that daily invasion of your cell phone space by a stream of telemarketing calls, or the tracking of your computer viewing via cookies.

And then there’s that immense loss for our culture and, consequently, for ourselves in our spendthrift use of our time for trivialities, foreclosing on better priorities such as art, music, literature and science that have buttressed our civilization and refine our humanity, promoting sensitivity, tolerance, knowledge and wisdom. Inundated by media, we traffic in noise. Bored, we may not like ourselves. We no longer know how to sit still.

“Everything is public now, potentially, Sacks writes: one’s thoughts, one’s photos, one’s movements, one’s purchases. There is no privacy and apparently little desire for it in a world devoted to non-stop use of social media. Every minute, every second, has to be spent with one’s device clutched in one’s hand. Those trapped in this virtual world are never alone, never able to concentrate and appreciate in their own way, silently. They have given up, to a great extent, the amenities and achievements of civilization: solitude and leisure, the sanction to be oneself, truly absorbed, whether in contemplating a work of art, a scientific theory, a sunset, or the face of one’s beloved.”

The punchline of all this arrives for Sacks in his now retreating days of life when he conjectures the worth of a life lived for better values in a context of seemingly burgeoning social indifference:

“. . . it may not be enough to create, to contribute, to have influenced others if one feels, as I do now, that the very culture in which one was nourished, and to which one has given one’s best in return, is itself threatened. Though I am supported and stimulated by my friends, by readers around the world, by memories of my life, and by the joy that writing gives me, I have, as many of us must have, deep fears about the well-being and even survival of our world.”

And yet Sacks stubbornly defies those hovering specters of demise:

“Nonetheless, I dare to hope that, despite everything, human life and its richness of cultures will survive, even on a ravaged earth. While some see art as a bulwark of our collective memory, I see science, with its depth of thought, its palpable achievements and potentials, as equally important; and science, good science, is flourishing as never before, though it moves cautiously and slowly, its insights checked by continual self-testing and experimentation. I revere good writing and art and music, but it seems to me that only science, aided by human decency, common sense, farsightedness, and concern for the unfortunate and the poor, offers the world any hope in its present morass.”

I fervently hope along with you that Sacks’ midnight wager turns out right. But to paraphrase Keats, the thought paradoxically lingers in me: does Sacks “wake or sleep”?


My Best Reads for 2015

John-Williams-StonerMy thirst for good reads continued in 2015, and among them, two stand out for special praise in providing me with pleasure, insight, and continuing reflection. (I’ve reviewed both more fully elsewhere in Brimmings.)

Fiction:   John Williams. Stoner (New York Review of Books Classics)

My choice is probably subliminal and inevitable, as not since David Copperfield have I identified with a fictional character so fully as with Stoner, having like him, been a professor of English for several decades, thus  familiar with academic intrigue and its pettiness; even more, having, like Stoner, endured a previous incompatible marriage that served neither of us well. But aside from the personal, Stoner has also been the favorite novel of professors across the years, according to a recent article. And why not, since it excels not only for its verisimilitude, but its superlative craft of nuanced, rhythmic sentences replete with stylistic discipline made potent through understatement; in short, easily one of the best written novels I’ve come upon.

Sample Passage:

In his forty-third year William Stoner learned what others, much younger, had learned before him: that is the person one loves at first is not the person one loves at last, and that love is not an end but a process through which one person attempts to know another.

SacksNon-Fiction: Oliver Sacks: On the Move: A Life

Sacks, renowned as both a neurologist on the cutting edge and cogent observer of the eccentric manifestations of the brain’s malfunctionings in his many books, wrote this memoir in the final months of his terminal illness from cancer. As such, it startles with its wisdom and bravery; even more, in its honesty about himself in measuring the successes and shortcomings of his life journey, delivered with verbal beauty uncommonly found among scientists.

Sample Passage:

This gave me a feeling of what seemed wrong with American medicine, that it consisted more and more of specialists. There were fewer and fewer primary care physicians, the base of the pyramid. My father and my two older brothers were all general practitioners, and I found myself feeling not like a super-specialist in migraine but like the general practitioner these patients should have seen to begin with.


Dream Rummaging

We dream–it is good we are dreaming–
It would hurt us–were we awake.
Emily Dickinson

Freud in his London office (1939)


Do you dream a lot?

I know I do.


I dream more now that I’ve gotten older, abetted by having to get up in the nights at this juncture.

Should I care about dreams?

Do they have meaning?

Can they help us?

Perhaps show us our real selves?

Make for a better world?

I know I’ve always been interested in them from earliest days.

The catalyst was probably Freud’s massive Interpretation of Dreams, which I confess to reading all the way through.

For Freud, dreams reflected repressed desire, often of libido.

The wish principle always.

But how can that be?

Don’t I often dream my fears?

With Freud, I always sensed a wanna-be novelist at work, ingeniously spinning narratives, howbeit, in the name of science–alas, to confirm an a priori hypothesis without the backup of today’s medical formulae of random testing and cohort studies. But then, how do you quantify something so ethereal as dreams?

But don’t get me wrong.

I think his Civilization and Its Discontents one of the great masterpieces, despite its surprising brevity.

His triad of Id, Ego, and Super Ego continues to spellbind me by virtual of the myriad ways I see it manifest itself in both myself and others.

Auden, as always, said it so well in his “Memory of Sigmund Freud” (1939):

for one who’d lived among enemies so long:
if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion….

I was surprised to read in neurologist Oliver Sacks’ tell-all memoir, Moving On, published just several months before his death last week, that he was seeing a psychoanalyst for some fifty years–and, remarkably–the same one every week! Sacks kept a notebook on his nightstand, recording his dreams faithfully.

Make no mistake: Sacks is a man I came to love and respect deeply. I just wish I knew why he kept finding psychoanalysis a cornucopia of self-knowledge, apart from crediting it with his rescue from drug addiction acquired from his youthful halcyon California days a la Muscle Beach.

For me, the great influence on how I look at dreams has been Freud’s former disciple, Carl Jung. His notions of anima and animus, often projected in dreams, have proved revelatory personally and hence liberating.

He taught me that so much of living life is finding equilibrium, or the balancing of Ego and Self.  Dreams offer symbols to excesses in ourselves that can be remanded.

He also introduced me to polarity as the essence of mythos truth with its tension of paradox.

If Freud looked to our past as the repository of dream content, Jung saw dreams as projections of possibility and therefore hope.

Jung was more a cultural analyst, or pseudo-anthropologist, finding universality across a wide spectrum of symbolic significance, rummaging what he collectively called archetypes.

In younger days I nearly chose becoming a licensed Jungian therapist and sometimes wonder if I committed one of the great follies in my life in turning down its seduction. Campbell, that ardent Jungian, famously urged we should follow our bliss. That maxim, aside from its latent dangers resident in reductionism, may often prove wise counsel and its rejection the source of substantial human misery.

But to sum up, I think what I’ve liked best in Jung is his acceptance of the banality of evil, Arendt’s phrasing for resident evil in Man. No liberal withering away via socio-economic exegesis, often speciously argued in my view.

Maybe my lifelong fascination with dreams stems from my youthful days drenched in fundamentalist biblical parochialism. There was Joseph, so masterful at dream interpretation that the Pharaoh took him into his confidence, ultimately saving Joseph’s kindred Hebrews.

And of course, there’s Daniel.

For the ancients, dreams gave warning and with it, admonition.

I chose to pursue a Ph. D. in English Literature. Well, you guessed it: Coleridge’s famous Kubla Khan poem, which he explained as the aftermath of an interrupted dream. But that’s just one dream poem. There are scores of other dream poems.

What I’m meaning to say is that there have been so many threads feeding into my dream fixation, not just Freud and Jung who were obviously mesmerized.

Do dreams exhibit patterns?

Do they help us to know ourselves?

I believe they do.

And that’s why I need to go back to exploring my dreams again, now that they seem to occur more frequently.

Like Sacks, I may soon be keeping a notepad on my nightstand.


Oliver Sacks: Medicine’s Laureate

I find every patient I see, everywhere, vividly alive,
interesting and rewarding; I have never seen a patient
who didn’t teach me something new.  Or stir in me new
feelings and new trains of thought.
–Oliver Sacks

SacksI’ve just finished Oliver Sack’s recently published autobiography, On the Move: a Life. Better, I devoured it.

Medicine has always interested me, and I read a lot of its literature on an almost daily basis. Still, while I know some things about how the body works, I’m largely ignorant when it comes to how the brain functions, its capacity for life enhancement and, conversely, its potential for horrendous suffering, physical and mental, when failing to function properly, either through genetics, injury, disease, or simply aging.

In reading Sack’s book, I’ve made a dent into the immensity of what I’ve missed. After all, Sacks is a neurologist, and a gifted one at that–a doctor fond of research with an extraordinary compulsion for not only writing down his observations of more than fifty years, but in an idiom we laymen can understand.

He’s written eleven books, published in hundreds of medical journals, and with a rare propensity for uniting science and art, has regularly contributed to the likes of The New York Review of Books and my favorite, The New Yorker. The New York Times has appropriately dubbed him “the poet laureate of medicine.”

Do you remember the riveting movie, Awakenings, starring a young Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, with its moving depiction of postencephalitic patients hospitalized for some forty years, initially responding to a bold and controversial therapeutic approach that gave them a brief window of normality, only to relapse? It came from Dr. Sacks’ book of the same title.

You may also know of his popular collection of brain vagary anecdotes published as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.

What I find most compelling in Sacks is his innate compassion for his patients, a doctor who sees them as individuals possessing a context integral to their healing and thus worth knowing, a practitioner who conveys to his patients that they matter deeply.

Up there too is his refreshing approach of reaching past the compensational paradigm of contemporary medicine to root out the origins of our morbidities and facilitate their cure.

And no corner thing, there’s his open honesty about his earlier drug addiction.

Likewise, he writes movingly of being gay and about his several loves.

At the personal level, Sacks is a natural draw for me in his love for both science and literature, lifelong zeal for motorbikes and  weight lifting, his introversion, a brother with schizophrenia (which is true of my son), his outspokenness about entrenched medical prejudice with its jealousies and frequent resistance to innovation.  All of these, and more, find their way into On the Move.

I was surprised to learn that Aubrey “Abba” Eden, Israeli diplomat, who always impressed me with his Cambridge accent and articulate English, was a first cousin; likewise, Al Capp, formerly loved for his Little Abner cartoons until his sexual downfall.

Sacks, towards the end of his autobiography, writes of his declining health, without mentioning his now, terminal metastatic melanoma (he’s now 82). I take this omission as his not wanting reader pity to enter into play in judging his autobiography.

The reality, of course, is that Sacks is a very brave man who has lived in death’s neighborhood for many years, both as a physician and in his personal life.  Thus I wasn’t surprised  in the least in his openness and acceptance of his terminal illness elsewhere.  See http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/19/opinion/oliver-sacks-on-learning-he-has-terminal-cancer.html?_r=0

Below I’ve given you my chosen book highlights, hoping they’ll entice you to read this supremely humane work.  As I write, On the Move has made the Best Seller List of the New York Times:

On being gay:

“You are an abomination,” she said. “I wish you had never been born.”

My mother, so open and supportive in many ways, was harsh and inflexible in this area.

Her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality.

On taking tests:

I am very bad at factual exams, yes-or-no questions, but I can spread my wings with essays.

On his brother’s schizophrenia:

…what sort of world Michael lived in, none of us knew. And yet he was very intelligent; he read continually: had a prodigious memory, and seemed to turn to books rather than “reality” to get his knowledge of the world.

On the poet Thom Gunn:

I’m not sure what Thom saw in me at this point, but I found in him great personal warmth and geniality and warmth mixed with fierce intellectual activity. He was incapable of indirection or deceit, but his directness was always accompanied, I thought, by a sort of tenderness, too.

On Robin Williams (who, portrayed Sacks in the film version of Awakenings):

Over the next twenty-five years, Robin and I became good friends, and I grew to appreciate–no less than the brilliance of his wit and his sudden, explosive improvisations–his wide reading, the depth of his intelligence, and his humane concerns.

On medicine:

This gave me a feeling of what was wrong with American medicine, that it consisted more and more of specialists.

…unconscious motives may sometimes ally themselves to physiological propensities. One cannot abstract an illness from the whole pattern, the context, the economy of someone’s life.

On Awakenings:

The postencephalectics had been in a state of suspension for decades–suspension of memory, perception, and consciousness. They were coming back to life, to full consciousness, and mobility. Would they find themselves like Rip Van Winkle, anachronisms in a world that had moved on?

When I gave L-dopa to these patients, their “awakenings” were not only physical, but intellectual.

American Medical Association response to “Awakenings” experiment:

In the summer of 1970 then, in a letter to JAMA, I reported my findings, detailing the total findings of L-dopa in sixty patients whom I had maintained on it for a year. JAMA published my letter, but while I had got plenty of positive responses to my letter in The Lancet, my letter in JMLA was greeted by a strange, rather frightening silence.

The silence was broken a few months later, when the entire letters section in one JMLA was devoted to highly critical and sometimes angry responses from various colleagues.

I thought it was improper of JMLA to publish these attacks without giving me an opportunity to respond to them in the same issue.

I knew that I had something important to say, but I had no way of saying it, of being faithful to my experiences without forfeiting medical “publishibility” or acceptance among my colleagues.

On the death of his mother:

My mother’s death was the most devastating loss of my life–the loss of the deepest and perhaps, in some sense, the realest relation of my life.

On W. H. Auden:

He was …critically important to me during the writing of Awakenings, especially when he said to me, “you’re going to have to go beyond the critical…Be metaphorical, be mystical, be whatever you need.”

I wept after I received Auden’s letter [following publication of Awakenings]. Here was a great writer, not given to facile or flattering words, judging my book a “masterpiece.”

On nursing homes:

In some of these places …I saw the complete subjugation of the human to medical arrogance and technology. In some cases the neglect was willful and criminal–patients left unattended for hours or even abused physically or mentally….I worked in other nursing homes where there was no negligence but nothing beyond basic medical care. That those who entered such nursing homes needed meaning–a life, an identity, dignity, self-respect, a degree of autonomy–was ignored or bypassed; “care” was purely mechanical and physical.

On himself:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease. I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired). I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over.

On writing:

The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy unlike any other. It takes me to a place–irrespective of my subject–where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time.
































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