Why Oliver Sacks is One of the Great Modern Adventurers

The neurologist’s latest investigations of the mind explore the mystery of hallucinations – including his own

Dr. Oliver Sacks dives deep into the brain to find the greatest adventures. (Leonardo Cendamo)
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“We don’t know very much about the neurophysiology of Belief,” he concedes.

The closest he came to a religious hallucination himself, he says, was “a sense of joy or illumination or insight when I saw the periodic table for the first time. Whereas I can’t imagine myself having an experience of being in the presence of God, although I occasionally tried to in my drug days, 45 years ago, and said, ‘OK God, I’m waiting.’ Nothing ever happened.”

When I ask him if he was a materialist—someone who believes all mental phenomena including consciousness and spiritual experiences can be explained by physics and biology—rather than a “dualist”—one who believes consciousness, or spirituality, is not tied to neurochemistry—he replies, “I would have to say materialist. I cannot conceive of anything which is not embodied and therefore I cannot think of self or consciousness or whatever as being implanted in an organism and sort of released at death.”

I wonder if this skepticism extended to love. Just chemistry?

“I think that being in love is a remarkable physiological state, which, for better or worse, doesn’t last forever. But,” he adds, and this is the remarkable part, “Vernon Mountcastle [a neurological colleague] wrote me a letter when he was 70; he said he was retiring from laboratory work and would be doing scholarly work—he’s still doing that in his 90s now—but he said in this letter that ‘Any piece of original research, however trivial, produces an ecstasy like that of first love, again and again.’

“I love that description of love in science,” Sacks says.

I love that description of love in life. “First love again and again?” I repeat.

“Yes,” Sacks says.

“Because we used to think that nothing could repeat first love?” I ask.



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