The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks
In January 2015, neurologist Oliver Sacks learned that the ocular cancer he had battled years before had metastasized to his liver. He was given six to eighteen months to live. Upon hearing the news, he and his partner of six years, Bill Hayes, bought a digital recorder, and Sacks devoted himself to recording his thoughts and writing a number of essays.
“For Oliver, writing was a form of thinking and the primary activity for a human being,” said Hayes on the WNYC program, Radiolab. In the last seven months of his life, Sacks wrote and published nine pieces, some of which are in the posthumous collection, The River of Consciousness.
The River of Consciousness is an eclectic collection across various scientific disciplines. Sacks discusses, among other topics, Charles Darwin’s little-known efforts in the field of botany, the author’s own collection and categorization of “mishearings,” and the roles of mimicry and forgetting in the creative process. Each of these nine essays is written in the clear prose for which the neurologist is well known. The best among these essays, of course, are those in which the author delves into matters of perception, often providing a personal backdrop to his later studies in these matters.
In “Speed,” Sacks recalls being fascinated with photography as a boy. He took stop motion photos of ferns to speed up their unfolding so that it was discernible to him. Similarly, he photographed bumblebees at 100 frames per second in order to slow them down. At a young age, he was fascinated with perception, in this case the ability to alter it with photography – in effect, to speed up or slow down time. Sacks cites the work of H.G. Wells as influential in his early fascination with time-bending, and he quotes the writings of both Hannah Arendt and William James on this subject. Sacks would later go on to work with patients who suffered from neural speed disorders, work that he chronicled in his book, Awakenings.
In “The Fallibility of Memory,” Sacks explores the myth of historical truth, remarking that often what we perceive as memory is based as much on imagination as it is on actual perception. “Our only truth is narrative truth. The stories we tell each other and ourselves — the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from is basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are solid and reliable.”
In addition to the numerous essays and fifteen or so books that he published, Oliver Sacks was an inspiration for and became known as a regular guest on the WNYC radio program, Radiolab, and the program has nicely catalogued the episodes on which Sacks appeared. Also, 2017 saw the publication of Insomniac City, Bill Hayes’s highly recommended memoir about Sacks and their time together in New York.
On August 14, 2015, Oliver Sacks dictated table of contents for The River of Consciousness. He died sixteen days later.