A review of Vintage Sacks and other works

Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist well-known for his study of the effects of dopamine on Parkinson’s disease, has contributed significantly to neuroscience literature. He has written numerous books which include case studies of colour-blindness, Tourette’s syndrome, migraines, and the effect of music on the mind. The common thread throughout his works is an unending fascination with the brain’s intricacies and the accessibility of his language in describing scientific concepts. Vintage Sacks, a collection of excerpts from Sacks’s writings, is one of the best books for introducing new readers to his work.

One of the most fascinating stories Sacks recounts in Vintage Sacks is one of a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome. Tourette’s syndrome is a condition that is widely known and has a long history. It is also instantly recognizable by its compulsive tics and mimicry. However, what is most interesting is how every person with the syndrome experiences it differently. Sacks stayed with Dr. Carl Bennett in his hometown of Branford, British Columbia to observe his everyday life with Tourette’s. Some of Bennett’s tics include the involuntary repetition of phrases, the constant readjustment of his glasses and moustache, and sometimes the unexpected throwing of objects. Bennett tells Sacks: “It seems to me almost instinctual… I think it is something primal, pre-human—maybe something that all of us, without knowing it, have in us.” Bennett’s statement illuminates the idea that these neurological conditions do not simply happen to a person, but are instead a part of them. His outlook on Tourette’s indicates his relationship with his condition. While other people with Tourette’s have described their tics as a separate entity (some calling them names such as “Toby” and “Mr. T,” as if they were people), Bennett considers his tics to be an extension of himself. He does not view them as an impairment. This attitude shows through; he can fly an airplane, he has never gotten into a car accident, and he performs surgeries seamlessly. Sacks notes that Bennett’s tics cease when he operates—not because he is restraining himself, but because he is entirely focused. His comfort with his Tourette’s is part of what makes him a confident surgeon, and what makes patients trust him as well. In addition, Bennett is also well-known to be compassionate—a trait that is as innate as his tics. In this excerpt, Sacks captures the broad sweep of Tourette’s while drawing out the subtleties of the condition. He skillfully highlights the normalcy and humanity of patients with the syndrome, presenting Bennett’s personality and his tics as equally important.

Sacks’s nuanced and detailed observations also extend into his studies of deafness. This excerpt comes from his book, Seeing Voices. Sacks does his research well, summarizing the condition as well as providing the history of deaf communities. He cites David Wright, a poet who became deaf in his childhood, to contrast the worlds of sound and silence. Wright’s writings detail the phenomenon of phantom sounds: they arose from memories of his hearing days, and caused him to “hear” the sounds of his family members’ voices as he watched them speak or the sound of wind when he saw trees moving. These “phantasmal sounds” are not only intriguing, but are also a testament to the brain’s resourcefulness in synthesizing limited information. The most important part of this excerpt, however, lies in Sacks’s assertions about the intellectual capacities of the deaf. He makes clear that the reason people used to equate deafness with a lack of intellegence was based on the incorrect assumption that speech equals language. Though there is a critical age by which children must learn a language, he shows through examples of Sign-language schools that teaching Sign to deaf children allows them to acquire the language skills they need. Sacks also cites the people of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts as an example of a community that uses Sign in their everyday lives. Most people living on the island learned Sign as a primary language, as the island was once populated with deaf individuals. Sign language was used to break the barrier between the hearing and non-hearing, and no one was thought of as disabled in the community. Sacks notes that those with hearing still use Sign with one another to this day. Sacks writes: “Sign is ‘natural’ to all that learn it, and has an intrinsic beauty and excellence sometimes superior to speech.” This excerpt’s beauty lies in Sacks’s descriptions of the lively deaf communities around the world, and his appreciation for the human resilience and creativity that redefines disability as ability.

Succinct in style while broad in sweep, Vintage Sacks is a delightful read. Sacks’s style is lyrical without waxing poetic, and scientific without being unapproachable. Some of his most compelling works are included in this book, and it is highly recommended for those looking to explore the world of neuroscience.