Being from a generation that did not have Facebook defining what friends mean, some of those who I consider my best friends are people I have never seen but have read only. One such friend, Oliver Sacks, passed away last week, making me feel a sense of loss that I need to share.
My first introduction to Oliver Sacks was in rather annoying circumstances as I chanced upon his very disturbing essay “The Last Hippie” in a second-hand bookshop while flipping through pages of a random book.
It was a beautifully written clinical history of a person with brain tumor, who developed this cancerous growth while staying with the society for Krishna Consciousness in USA. He started going into trans-like state that was celebrated by the Swamis till his parents felt something amiss and enforced medical intervention. It was then discovered to be a tumor and not some exalted state of mind. But, as the prognosis was towards a blissful state (along with blindness and other debilitating problems), temple management tried explaining it as a journey towards liberation till it became abundantly clear that it was a state of crippling vegetation that can’t be hidden.
With this, Sacks gave me jolt by showing a mundane physicality of brain that could be answer of a lot of questions that we have considered philosophical; but, at the same time, by discovering his books, I also got a glimpse of something extremely wonderful, i.e. the incredibly beautiful process of how brain “constructs” the reality it lives within.
Over the years, I have read many books on mind and brain, but Oliver Sacks stands alone for one single reason i.e. his acceptance of each individual with any type of brain-anomaly as a complete “person” capable of building his/her own coherent world. It is his great insight that is startling because it points out a unique quality of brain.
It is even more special because this amazing understanding is coming from someone closely working with those the world often considers mad or retarded. If you read Oliver Sacks’ clinical descriptions of even autistic persons, they appear to be people as colorful as characters from a novel of a literary master. His clinical records are finest renderings of personalities that he could see across an extremely constrained state of being. His work and books make it abundantly clear that we all are blessed with this wonderful organ that is designed to complete not just us but also our world.
Human brain works towards only one goal, to make “sense” out of whatever it gets. You could be deaf or a musical genius, an autistic person or a maniac, you could have deficit or excess of senses or intellect, your brain endeavors endlessly to construct a meaningful world for you to live in.
The insanity as we call it is nothing but a product of these efforts of brain; as the brain, in its unending pursuit for coherence, constructs the missing parts when it can’t find them in the reality. From another perspective, we may find this construction to be a delusion of a mad person; but, in reality, each of us is constantly engaged in the same process. It is our brain that constructs the reality we live in and hence it is through understanding its functions can we truly transcend into a new or “higher” state of being.
Brain is a gift that we have not really learnt to cherish because we fail to grasp what it is trying to do for us while we live “through” it. What we learn from modern scientific advances in neurology and psychiatry is information that is truly capable of bringing a disruptive change in the way we connect with reality.
With the help of people like Oliver Sacks, we are now embarking into a true transcending that can help us go beyond the limited existence we enjoy today and use the most wonderful tool that connects us with life in a more meaningful way.