Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, renowned neurologist and writer, died last Sunday August 30, aged 82. Sacks wrote prolifically about the extraordinary workings and oddities of the brain. He brought many neurological conditions into public consciousness through his captivating chronicling of case histories, notably in books including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, the latter of which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film. 

In this edition of Neuroscience Weekend Reads, we’ve selected some of Sacks’s best writing, as well as a few articles related to topics that he covered at length in his books—hallucinations, music and the brain, how the brain adapts to sensory loss, and more.


Case Histories

New York Review of Books – Urge [MEDIUM READ]

INSATIABLE: Following surgery to treat his epilepsy, a man named Walter B. developed a ravenous appetite and sexual drive. He ate entire blocks of cheese, played the piano for eight or nine hours at a time, and became prone to road rage. His condition, a case of the rare Kl├╝ver-Bucy syndrome, had some troubling legal consequences.  

Lightning strikes by John Fowler under CC BY 2.0

The New Yorker – A Bolt from the Blue [LONG READ]

STRIKE A CHORD: After being struck by lightning, Tony Cicoria, an orthopaedic surgeon, found himself obsessed with—even possessed by—music. He became a spirited composer and retaught himself to play the piano at age 42. Was it possible that he had developed a pure ‘musicophilia’, without any other changes in personality or behaviour?

The New Yorker – A Man of Letters [LONG READ]

THE READER: Howard Engel, a Canadian novelist, woke one morning to realise that he was unable to read his morning newspaper—the letters looked ‘like Cyrillic one moment and Korean the next’. After a battery of tests in hospital, it transpired that he’d had a stroke, causing his alexia—an inability to recognise written language. Remarkably, Engel was still able to write normally, although he himself couldn’t decipher what he had written.  

The New Yorker – Face Blind [LONG READ]

ABOUT FACE: For as long as he could remember, Sacks suffered from a difficulty recognising people’s faces. Sacks, like many others, has a mild case of a condition known as prosopagnosia, or ‘face blindness’. Severe congential prosopagnosia is estimated to affect 2–2.5% of the general population—these people are often unable to recognise their husbands, wives, children, siblings and friends.  

For more of Sacks’s books, personal essays, and interviews, have a look at Brain Decoder’s Oliver Sacks Reading Guide.

Sacks’s Neuroscience Topics

Music and the brain (Musicophilia)

How does learning a musical instrument affect the brain? This short video describes some of what researchers have found out so far. It might motivate you to get practising again!

Hallucinations (Hallucinations)

Why do people hallucinate? What’s the link with epilepsy? And what do hallucinations have to do with Joan of Arc? Find out here, and read about out-of-body and near-death experiences in a Sacks article here.

Compensating for sensory loss from blindness or deafness (The Mind’s Eye; Seeing Voices)

Different parts of the brain are dedicated to different functions—vision, hearing, movement, etc. So what happens when the visual part of the brain no longer gets any visual input? The brain adapts, through neuroplasticity, with other senses moving in on the vacant neural real estate, as described here.

When the brain goes weird (The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat)

When the brain malfunctions, things can get pretty bizarre. Can you imagine looking in the mirror, after 70-odd years of knowing what mirrors do, and deciding that your reflection is actually another person who just coincidentally dresses like you and acts like you? That’s Capgras Syndrome for your mirror image, a case study of which is described here.