An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales
Neurological patients, Oliver Sacks once wrote, are travellers to unimaginable lands. An Anthropologist on Mars offers portraits of seven such travellers—including a surgeon consumed by the compulsive tics of Tourette’s syndrome unless he is operating; an artist who loses all sense of color in a car accident, but finds a new sensibility and creative power in black and white; and an autistic professor who cannot decipher the simplest social exchange between humans, but has built a career out of her intuitive understanding of animal behavior. These are paradoxical tales, for neurological disease can conduct one to other modes of being that—however abnormal they may be to our way of thinking—may develop virtues and beauties of their own.
The exploration of these individual lives is not one that can be made in a consulting room or office, and Sacks has taken off his white coat and deserted the hospital, by and large, to join his subjects in their own environments. He feels, he says, in part like a neuroanthropologist, but most of all like a physician, called here and there to make house calls, house calls at the far border of experience. Along the way, he shows us a new perspective on the way our brains construct our individual worlds. In his lucid and compelling reconstructions of the mental acts we take for granted—the act of seeing, the transport of memory, the notion of color—Oliver Sacks provokes anew a sense of wonder at who we are.
The works of neurologist Oliver Sacks have a special place in the swarm of mind-brain studies. He has done as much as anyone to make nonspecialists aware of how much diversity gets lumped under the heading of “the human mind.”
The stories in An Anthropologist on Mars are medical case reports not unlike the classic tales of Berton Roueché in The Medical Detectives. Sacks’s stories are of “differently brained” people, and they have the intrinsic human interest that spurred his book Awakenings to be re-created as a Robin Williams movie.
The title story in Anthropologist is that of autistic Temple Grandin, whose own book Thinking in Pictures gives her version of how she feels—as unlike other humans as a cow or a Martian. The other minds Sacks describes are equally remarkable: a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome, a painter who loses color vision, a blind man given the ambiguous gift of sight, artists with memories that overwhelm “real life,” the autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire, and a man with memory damage for whom it is always 1968.
Oliver Sacks is the Carl Sagan or Stephen Jay Gould of his field; his books are true classics of medical writing, of the breadth of human mentality, and of the inner lives of the disabled. —Mary Ellen Curtin
Barnes and Noble
Paradoxical portraits of seven neurological patients, including a surgeon consumed by the compulsive tics of Tourette’s syndrome unless he is operating; an artist who loses all sense of color in a car accident, but finds new creative power in black & white; others.