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Book commentary on ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’ by Oliver Sacks

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      The book ‘an Anthropologist on Mars’ byOliver Sacks discusses seven ‘paradoxical tales.’ These tales describe thelives of individuals who have had accidents that damaged their brain, have hadtumors removed, have been blind and regained their lives or are autistic. Sacksfocuses on the impact of these ‘conditions’ on the lives of these individualsand how their lives change or how their lives have turned out. In anAnthropologist on Mars I saw many of the similar themes to our class in termsof loopy science, an holistic approach to neurobiology, the lack or truth andreality as well as a distinction between the self and the body, the environmentand the unconscious. Sacks further elaborated on the importance of seeing thestrengths and weaknesses of specific conditions and the degree to which theyopen different doors for individuals.

      The first important thing to note aboutSacks is that he makes neurobiology accessible to a non scientific audience.Like our class, ‘An Anthropologist on Mars’ uses specific examples to describegeneral ways of thinking about the brain and functioning of humans within theirenvironment. Sacks humanizes the neurobiology as a science through looking atindividuals and how changes or born difference in their brain affects theirlives. The book moves beyond traditional science to explaining the significanceof these individuals in their personal lives, moving beyond just seeing them asdisabilities.  Sacks conducts a kind ofloopy science approach by writing about his observations and by not looking foranswers but only to summarize his findings.

      The ‘paradoxical tales’ described in ‘Ananthropologist on Mars’ describe the changes in the lives of individuals withsevere changes in brain functioning. Although the ‘otherness’ of theseindividuals is salient the holistic approach that Sacks uses decreases theimportance of this otherness. Sacks is not looking at a disease but atindividuals with whom he has a personal relationship. What is important now, inthe stories, are the individual changes and the relation of individuals withthemselves and their environment. Sacks seems to be looking for the individualwithin, to explain unique ways of thinking. In a way Sacks is using hisholistic approach to ‘get it less wrong.’ By making more observations hisknowledge grows and he is able to make new summaries of observation.  

      With this insight about individuals andtheir way of looking at the world also introduces questions about reality andtruth. There are many different observations to be made and individuals havetheir own individual way of interpreting the world. There is no way of knowingexactly what the world looks like without using a subjective perspective.Consensus and similar summaries of observations give us temporary answers butthere does not seem to be a truth. Furthermore, Sacks points out the importanceof these differences. New ideas arise from seeing the world differently. The colorblindpainter is a good example or this, first he is disabled by the colorless worldbut soon he sees it as ““a whole new world,” [to] which the rest of us,distracted by color, are insensitive to” (Sacks, 38). Hence we gain from havingindividual viewpoints.

      Many of the characters in ‘AnAnthropologist on Mars’ come to experience their conditions not just asnegative but also as positive aspects. The colorblind painter interprets hiscolorblindness as; “a as a strange gift, one that has ushered him into a newstate of sensibility and being” (Sacks, 39). The autistic individuals describedin the last two stories might not reach the same level of social life as othersdo but they have significant talents in other areas. The surgeon with Tourette’ssyndrome sees his obsessions as part of himself; “I don’t think of it as adisease but as just me” (Sacks, 102). We now see the broader view ofneurobiology and the way in which people adapt to and even gain from theirconditions.

      Although it is good to hear the successstories of these individuals to adapting to their ‘new worlds’ Sacks also putsa certain importance on the ability to articulate and agency to interpret thesedifferences. What one realizes when reading the book is that communication isvery important. Sacks runs into this problem with Stephen, he is a naturaltalent in terms of drawing but it is very difficult to know how he is feeling.Sacks states that in the end; “We do not know, finally, how Stephen thinks, howhe constructs the world, how he is able to draw and sing” (Sacks, 241). It isclear from the book that an absence of a story teller or even the absence ofthe ability to communicate the feelings of this story teller to others preventspeople from naturally interacting with people. This does not only blur concepts of reality and truth but also theextent to which others have an individual story as well as a cultural story.

      It is not clear to me from the book theextent to which these stories impact the lives or which one is the reasonbehind the success or failure of the different people in the stories. Thedegree to which the individuals in the stories were able to be active membersof society varied greatly in an Anthropologist on Mars. The surgeon was verysuccessful but the boy in the last hippie was unable to generate muchspontaneous activity.  Here we do seethat although there are different ways of living and interpreting the world notall seem to result in equal forms of independence. The damage to the diencephalonin the boy meant that “he seized his environment, he was seized by it, he couldnot distinguish himself from it” (Sacks, 57). In relation to our class thismakes me wonder about what is left or his story teller and how essential thestory teller is for individuals to even have a viewpoint of the world toreflect upon.

      Sacks also emphasizes not only theimportance of the structure of the brain but the adaptations and furtherconnections formed between structures as we grow up. Most of us are born withthe ability to see but we still have to learn to actually experience seeing.The learning process that we go through adapts the brain in specificdirections. It is also true that in the absence of certain abilities the brainadapts differently. The man who regained his sight after almost forty years isa good example of this. Sacks tells us that; “We achieve perceptual constancy-the correlation of all the different appearances, the transformations ofobjects- very early, in the first months of life” (Sacks, 128). And thereforethe man was not able to just see without going through a similar process thatfor the rest of us occurred unconsciously early on in life. Sacks isacknowledging our reliability on the connections that our brain formed and thedifficulty of changing our reliance after a different system of interpretationof the world (in this case touch) has been formed.

      This book was a good addition to our classdiscussions and I have learned a lot from it in terms of loopy science and thesubjectivity of perspectives. In an Anthropologist on Mars the differentstories come together in order to explain the relations of the individuals withthemselves, their environment and other people. Like our class the book makescertain distinctions between the individual story teller, their body and theenvironment in which they live. The relations between these different parts ofthe brain linked strongly to ideas of the bipartite brain and individual versuscultural stories. The importance of an individual story and the expression ofthis is emphasized as well as challenged in an Anthropologist on Mars.





       Oliver, Sacks (1995). “An Anthropologiston Mars seven paradoxical tales” Alfred A. Knopf Inc. United States.