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Dr. Sacks and an Anthropologist on Mars

LS's picture

I have always been fascinated with Dr. Oliver Sacks since reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.  This book sparked my primary interest in neurology and brain and behavior studies.  After my first reading of a Dr. Sacks text, I found that the stories of the individuals were so complete and holistic that medical studies, for me, lost their impersonal images of stainless steel and sterility.  The title of the book was quirky, and unlike other medical texts did not push the readers away with highly scientific terms.  Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and a professor, has written several other books including Awakenings and Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf. When I opened my second text by Dr. Sacks, An Anthropologist on Mars, I was anticipating great stories and discoveries; my expectations were fulfilled.  In fact, before reading the book I started to think about what this title could mean.  Sparked by our class discussion, I very quickly realized that Dr. Sacks, as well as all of us, are “anthropologists on mars” when it comes to brain research.  We are all stumbling around on the foreign plant that is the brain, trying to understand the functioning and patterns of every day life there.


Dr. Sacks, in this book, presented “seven paradoxical tales” about the patients and individuals that he gets to know every day, each story prompting him to describe to the reader a fascinating aspect of the brain.  The first individual that we meet is a painter that has become color blind after a stroke; cerebral achromatopsia.  The reader is immersed in his depression and life experiences, exploring through a man who has made his living understanding color, how the loss of colors affects everything facet of life.  The second character had a brain tumor that destroyed and compressed the hippocampus and the adjacent cortex, causing an inability to form new memories, as well as causing his personality to change in a somewhat child like manner.  As Dr. Sacks takes this individual to a Grateful Dead concert (the only vivid memories the man has from his “hippie” days) the reader understand the true devastations of this man’s situation, which could have been saved if preventative measured had been taken. 

The third and fourth stories were my favorite as they completely highlighted the humanistic approach Dr. Sacks takes with medicine.  We meet a surgeon who is a pilot and father who has Tourette’s syndrome.  Upon first introduction, the reader sees a man who is a surgeon with tics and spasms, the reader is shocked and in disbelief, yet upon following this man though several days in his life, the reader’s opinion is quickly changed.  This man is able to manage his Tourette’s in such a way that he is able to live a successful and happy life.  The fourth story involves a man who lost his vision early in childhood.  With pressure from his fiancé he has his cataracts removed, however there is severe retinal damage and he has to be taught to “see”.  Dr. Sacks explores the visual image centers of the brain and how one learns to see.  We are shocked at the situation of this man who has lived his life as blind and now suddenly is forced into a scary new reality where nothing is as he thought.  Sadly, when he does master his vision the best way he can, he loses it forever to pneumonia and paralysis of the respiratory system in the brain, the oxygen depravation erasing his sight.  A fifth story tells of a man racked by such vivid images of his childhood villa in Italy that he is forced to paint and draw them at the expense of his life goals and relationships.  Dr. Sacks and the reader journey with him as he returns to his villa to find it changed very differently from his vivid memories.  The final two stories involve autistic individuals. The first, a savant boy who has uncharacteristic memory and drawing skills as well as musical talents; the second, a highly successful female professor and engineer who has learned to harness and transform her inabilities into capabilities that drive her career.  She in fact, is the individual who says that living with autism is like being “an anthropologist on mars.”


 What was most interesting about these seven very different stories was the way that Dr. Sacks approached each one of them.  The most commendable thing about Sacks is his ability to explore each individual’s life across every aspect of their being.  For Sacks it is “crucial [to see his patients] as a person, bringing [their] own life history-[their] particular needs and expectations” to his work “see[ing] how [they] manage in real life, inside [their] house, outside, in natural setting and social settings too” (pg 116).  Dr. Sacks is the story teller in this book, more specifically an ethnographer who explains these individuals’ realties to us.  Patients come to Dr. Sacks; he must strive to find the story to explain why their life has become what it is.  It is through this aspect that I see the closest similarity to our class this past semester.  We explored science and scientific discoveries in a loopy manner, striving to be “less wrong”.  It is in this same manner that Dr. Sacks must approach his patients; he has to make summaries of their symptoms and try to deduce what has gone wrong.


Loopy science as presented in our class is a particularly useful construct in neuroscience.  Until relatively recently in human history very little was known about the brain, but research is quickly changing this.  Neuroscience is unlike other scientific disciplines, as research is difficult and constraining.  Scientists are not able to simply cause damage to an area of the brain and then study the outcomes as this is unethical.  Animal models, although helpful, provide limited insight.   When an individual with brain damage is discovered, it is neuroscientists’ job as ethnographers to work with as little information as possible to discover the specific issues and possible outcomes, as well as potential treatments.  In such a constraining research environment, a summary of observation is the best that researchers can do until more cases are presented and previous knowledge bases can be built upon.   In this manner neuroscientists are striving to “get it less wrong”.  Dr. Sacks highlights this striving to get it “less wrong” approach by constantly noting and footnoting related and previous research and patients.  This is a great help to an individuals who does not have a strong research background in this area.


For me, this book complemented our class and our discussion well.  In class we deconstructed the nervous system taking it down to its basic most parts and then building it back up, getting it “less wrong”.  In class we discussed and explored how the nervous system and brain work when everything is working right, and when things are not working right.  Dr. Sacks’ book explored this further, detailing what happens when certain areas of the nervous system are damaged, the outcomes, and how patients strive to live and overcome these challenges.  In class we spend a lot of time covering reality and how individual experiences are controlled by the brain.  In An Anthropologist on Mars we see how different reality can be for each person when their brain or nervous system is damaged or changed and how this outcome becomes the person’s reality.  Dr. Sacks highlights this by showing how the individuals in the book are each able to live within their own reality (i.e. the surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome, and the professor with autism.)


Overall, I really enjoyed our class and feel like it prepared me to continue my research by giving me a solid base understanding of the brain and nervous system functioning.  The class contained very little neuroanatomy, but I had this covered in another behavioral neuroscience course at Bryn Mawr.  My experience with the other course taught me that neuroanatomy can be a very dry and tedious subject, and focusing on it may have taken away from our great discussion based environment.  Also, this course provided such flexibility in reading that if one felt compelled to focus more on neuroanatomy, one could.  Overall, I enjoyed the freedom of this class and our exploration into the nervous system and getting it “less wrong”.  Throughout the course I did feel like perhaps loopy science and getting it “less wrong” might not be possible in the real world research environment, but Dr. Sacks’ book reassured me that this is possible in research along with the human element. 


 Works Cited

Sacks, Oliver (1995). An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Random House inc.


Anonymous's picture

I really enjoyed An

I really enjoyed An Anthropologist on Mars. It was very fascinating. I understood the neurological science of everyday lives. c(: