Saturday, September 19, 2015

A Whole Lot of It Is In Your Head

Hey Toads!

Manicddaily, Karin Gustafson, Outlawyer, here writing about one of the writers I have most admired in my life. This is Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and best-selling science writer and memoirist, who died in New York City this past August.  

Dr, Sacks inspired great affection in his readers. His writing, both about his personal experiences, his patients’ experiences, and the experience acquired by science (as in, scientific research and records) showed him to be a tremendously thoughtful and empathetic person, with an immense sense of wonder (and humor.) 

Although Sacks wrote beautiful memoirs, many books explore neurological conditions. These explorations frequently involve particular case studies of Sacks' own patients, as well as a review of historical records (medical records but also, at times, histories of famous persons thought to possibly suffer from certain neurological conditions--such as Edgar Allen Poe, Dostoyevsky and Joan of Arc.)  

Not the voices again! 

What is especially wonderful about Sacks' writing is--well, his compassion. But, what is also wonderful is that he never sentimentalizes either the neurological issue or the compensatory tools that the afflicted person develops to live with it.  (These can sometimes turn the affliction into a strength.)

Most of the stories of people's forms of compensation are quite serious.  For example, the autistic Temple Grandin's invention of a "hugging machine," which gave her the firm and calming sensation of a hug, without the fear that her autism sometimes associated with human contact.  (Grandin's story is especially interesting because of the way her autism has given her an affinity with animals, helping her develop more humane systems for the treatment of livestock.)  

A rather funny compensation story involved a man who had a form of narcolepsy, which manifested itself as cataplexy (a temporary loss of muscle use).  The man found that uncontrollable laughter would bring on an attack (causing him to collapse) so that whenever he met up with Robin Williams, a friend, he would immediately just lie down on the floor. 

Sacks is perhaps most widely known for his best selling book, The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (the title case about a man with visual agnosia --an inability to recognize objects), and a movie based upon his book, Awakenings, about his work with a group of patients suffering from a form of encephalitus. (Robin Williams plays Sacks in the movie.) 

Looks like a deep-sea brain.
One my favorite books of Dr. Sacks, is A Leg To Stand On, which describes his personal experience of being gored by a bull on a solo hike on a mountain in Norway, severing the tendons and nerves in one leg.  After the accident, he crawled down the mountain on his backside (with the help of internal music), and then endured a long recovery, trying to regain not just the physical use of the leg, but the feeling that the damaged leg was still his.  

This brings up one of the most interesting aspects of many of the cases--how much sensation is based in the brain (and not in the applicable sensory organ--the eyes, the ears, the finger tips).  In Sacks‘ case, he was shocked that, for some time following his injury, his leg no longer felt like a part of his body; rather, it was like an intruder in his bed--dead flesh.

Brain in Bed (With Pearl)

Sacks also has written about the opposite condition, phantom limb syndrome--in which the brain still senses the missing limb, feeling pain in a foot that was long ago severed.

Many striking example of the brain’s role in sensation involve sight.  One case study (in An Anthropologist on Mars), involves a man, blind most of his life, recovering the use of his eyes. While at first there is joy on recovery, sight turns out to painfully laborious because the man's brain has not developed the visual cortex to a level that it can interpret vision.  (The poor man actually dies within a couple of years of the eye surgeries, in part because of this stress of trying to incorporate sight into his life.) 

Of course, there are the opposite stories where people lose vision, and their visual cortex supplies them with various compensations, often in the form of visual hallucinations. (Examples include people who, suffering strokes, can only see one side of a room, but whose brain simply makes up the other half.) 

Anyway, enough!  I urge you to read virtually any book or article by Oliver Sacks.  Here is a link to his personal website, and to certain articles about him. 

In the meantime, WHAT IS THE PROMPT?

I offer a plethora of choices!  One is to write about a disconnect between the body and brain, or the senses and the brain (or some other neurological glitch). This could involve some kind of phantom experience, sensation or body part, or a visual, auditory or olfactory, hallucination or flash back.   (NOTE THAT YOUR USE OF THIS IDEA COULD  BE COMPLETELY METAPHORIC!)   

Another possibility is to write about a significant experience of music in your brain.  (I am thinking here about Sacks getting himself down the Norwegian mountain by singing to himself, but you should feel free to write about any kind of interior music, including an "ear worm" --a song that gets stuck in your head.)

Finally, you could write a poem based upon some version of one of Dr. Sacks‘ titles.  (Using a title of a book for a prompt is Kerry’s wonderful idea, but she has authorized me to co-opt it.)  The three titles of Sacks that came to mind for me are The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars, and The Island of the Color-Blind (or pick another). For this alternative,  you could write a poem on the idea of The _______ who mistook his/her _______ for a ___________. 

or, An Anthropologist on __________; or A ____________ on Mars;

or The Island of the ________    , or The _________  of the Colorblind. 

So, sorry for the length of the prompt.  Please have fun with it. And please visit your cohorts! (All the photos and pics here--such as they are-- were made by me, by the way;  all rights reserved.) 



Fireblossom said...

I love this! I have read three of his books, including A Leg To Stand On, which I really loved, too. I'm eager to see what I can come up with, to appease Pearl and the elephants!

hedgewitch said...

This is one of the most interesting and creative challenges ever for me, Karin. Thanks so much for all the hard work you put into it, and for choosing something that speaks to you so lushly--I have had a lot of fun writing for this, and I also apologize for the length of my effort--it's hard to stop once you start the neurological roller coaster ride the works of Mr Sacks suggest. Love your illustrations also. Thanks again.

Outlawyer said...

Thanks to both of you. Shay, Pearl will be looking in from the afterlife, but I'm sure she will be pleased to be thought of. The articles cited in the link are ones he published in the New York Times--the last one published a couple of weeks before his death is especially beautiful--it had to do with his parents' rejection of him for being gay and how he dealt with that and the whole issue of coming to a close--Sabbath--very lovely. k.

Maude Lynn said...

This is a really cool prompt, Karin. I want to apologize to everyone. I'm some computer issues, and I'm way behind on visits.

Outlawyer said...

Thanks, MZ. Hope all gets cleared up soon. k.

grapeling said...

I should be working, but this was too cool to let go of. K, you'll like the artist whose image is on my pen - visit his site... ~

Outlawyer said...

Ha. Will check it out. Thanks so much, Michael. I was going to say that anyone should feel free to write more than one poem for this prompt - certainly, I will be very happy to visit. k.

Sherry Blue Sky said...

What a glorious prompt, offering so many possibilities....I LOVE the picture of the Brain in Bed. LOL. I love Oliver Sacks so much. Awakenings is one of my fave movies. A wonderful prompt!

Outlawyer said...

Thank you, Sherry. He really was terrific. k.

Ella said...

I am intrigued and love the photo of Looks like a deep-sea brain~ I love the blend of your thoughts and Kerry's book title idea. The pairings of soulful ideas~

A wonderful challenge-thank you!!

Marian said...

Karin, this prompt is awesome. If only I could slow my brain to attend to it. Maybe tomorrow.

Outlawyer said...

Hey Ella, Marian--hope you have time to play along. K.

Outlawyer said...

Hey guys--I could not resist doing another little poem--this one short and very readable (unlike my usual fodder). No one should feel obligated to go. I am happy if anyone else wants to do a second or third, etc. k.

Amy Barlow Liberatore/Sharp Little Pencil said...

Karin, thanks. Have had some thoughts on Dave Ramsay, the financial guy who now presents the Gospel of Abundance like it has to do with credit cards!! So this was a chance to unload on THAT arrogance... I do love Oliver Sacks, even as I wrestle with my own attitude on psychiatry in general, having borne the brunt of bad medicine for years.

Glad to be back! Amy

Outlawyer said...

Hey Amy--I can understand anyone's issues with psychiatrists, but I think of neurologists as being a little different--they probably also dish out drugs--but somehow seem to be more open to investigating organic issues (just plain weird stuff)--so nice to see you! Glad also you are back! k.