Heroes: Oliver Sacks

I was in Los Angeles at UCLA doing a residency in neurology, but I was also very much on the beach — on Venice Beach, muscle beach.  There, there was very much a drug culture, as there was in Topanga Canyon where I lived.  One day, someone offered me some pot, and I took two puffs from it.  And I’d been looking at my hand for some reason, and the hand seemed to retreat from me, but at the same time get larger and larger, until it became sort of a cosmic hand across the universe, and I found that astounding. … I was fascinated that one could have such perceptual changes, and also that they went with a certain feeling of significance, an almost numinous feeling.  I’m strongly atheist by disposition, nonetheless when this happened, I couldn’t help but think that that was what the hand of God was like.

From Terry Gross’ excellent 2012 interview with Sacks.  Definitely worth a listen:

http://www.npr.org/2012/11/06/164360724/oliver-sacks-exploring-how-hallucinations-happen

It’s impossible to summarize the life and work of the great neuroscientist Oliver Sacks.  You can read about him and his many books, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat here.  Just today, the New York Times published a beautiful piece in which Sacks reveals and responds to his diagnosis with terminal liver cancer and his impending death.  He concludes:

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

Sacks will leave the world having vastly deepened our understanding of the human mind, and in particular the terrible and glorious aspects of the mind in extremis.  He spoke openly and evenly (if a bit shyly) about his own experiences with psychotropic drugs, including marijuana.  May his own wishes for the end of his life come to pass.

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