Photos of Oliver Sacks:
Why do we have music? I
think music, starting with rhythmic music, is an essential
sort of instrument for social bonding. People sing and
dance together, work and play together. And one doesn't
see any other animal except human beings who get synchronized
by beat, who dance to external or internal music. I
think music, rhythm as a form of mimesis, must have
appeared early in human evolution.
You write about Chopin a lot
in Musicophilia. In fact, the book could have
been titled Chopinophilia. I'm only a pianist. I
can't play other instrument. I tried violin once
it didn't go well. For pianists, Chopin is our man,
the most pianistic of composers. I sort of had an adolescent
crush on the mazurkas and polonaises. I can still play
a lot of them in a clumsy, well meant but deplorable
Does the fact that you're a
scientist influence your taste in music? Your other
faves are Bach and Mozart - two very mathematical, patterned
composers. Yes, for me Bach is where it began. In
[my memoir] Uncle Tungsten, I wrote when I was
five my favourite things were smoked salmon and Bach
but I had just come from the deli. That was partly
because the house was full of Bach. Two of my older
brothers had a piano teacher passionate about Bach.
I think the miracle of combining proportion, symmetry,
pattern, repetition, with enormous feeling I
love it cognitively but it also makes me swoon.
Do you listen to other kinds
of music? No I'm sorry. I am ashamed of these
answers. I am sounding so square. No, I am very conscious
of my limitation here music for me is European
and North American music, from Monteverdi to Stravinsky.
Sorry about that. Maybe if we talk in a year, maybe
I will have had a conversion.
Are you a vinyl man, or do you
prefer CDs or MP3s? I used to have a lot of records
and a wonderful old record player which I rather reluctantly
I gave up. I didn't have room for the huge speakers
and things. I have CDs. I've never gone over to an iPod
but perhaps I should. But I was almost killed a few
months ago when someone walked in front of me with headphones.
I was on my bike and I flipped over and got hurt. I
have something against functional deafness.
But you're wearing earphones
on the cover of Musicophilia. Do you like that
photo, by the way? No. A one-syllable answer. Everyone
else seems to but I hated the picture. I feel I was
tricked into it. I never look like that normally. I
never wear earphones. I feel like tearing the cover
off. I like the calligraphy in the title though.
In the preface to your new book,
you sound a little sceptical about the current mania
for new diagnostic technologies taking over from old-fashioned
observation. I used to think I was a member of an
extinct species, but I think in neurology and psychology,
the importance of the long, studied case is coming back.
No one denies the use of statistics, but a long, single
longitudinal study is equally important.
Are observational skills undervalued
by modern medicine? I know my father, who was a
GP in London, felt this years ago. He was a master of
percussion and auscultation and he felt he could learn
more about a chest than an x-ray could. He wondered
what we would do if there was no x-ray. There's always
a danger of the classical skills being forgotten. I
was just in the local deli to get a few things and they
had trouble adding up the bill! This old grocer we had,
he could add a whole column in his head.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink
that snap judgements are often as good as long-studied
decisions. Have you found that to be true in your practice?
I think one needs both. One of my former chiefs wrote
a paper about sitting, standing and walking how
much one might judge of a patient before they even speak.
It's good to have intuitions, but you can't have the
wrong ones, as well. [laughs] I am for intuitions and
also for algorithms, both.
When you left England for North
America after med school, you landed in Montreal and
then hitchhiked across Canada. What was that like?
I kept a journal, called Canada Pause, in 1960.
Canada Pause because travelling in Canada, especially
in the Rockies, was sort of an interim for me. I had
left England but was not sure what to do, not sure I
wanted to stay in medicine. I wanted to write, but I
had no idea what about. I love going back to Canada.
You served as a firefighter
in British Columbia, right? I was dragooned into
that for a while.
I understand that at one point
you thought about joining the Canadian Air Force. What
stopped you? I had a romantic desire to fly
still do. I contacted the Air Force and they said, "You
are a trained physiologist" and offered me a position
in Toronto. I hesitated and said thank you, no. I met
a remarkable man there who said, "We are not sure of
your motives. Think about it and contact us back." I
can't imagine any other armed forces doing that.
After you left Canada, you headed
for California, tried LSD and served as a consulting
physician to the Hell's Angels in California in the
60s. How did that happen? I wouldn't put it as formally
as that. I had a motorcycle and sometimes joined them.
I was neutral and a medical opinion was handy occasionally,
but I wasn't a consultant. I am not particularly judgmental.
One shouldn't be. Doctors on the battlefield look after
the other side as well. Criminals and psychopaths get
good medical treatment.
And how about the LSD? We're
getting away from Musicophilia here...
OK. In the book, you come across
as incredibly insightful about yourself and the way
you think. What's your favourite aspect of your brain?
Did I hear you correctly? [laughs] Those wonderful times,
which I can't command, when ideas seem to string up,
bounce together, collide, coalesce, form larger structures.
For me this is considerably verbal, as well. Things
come into being and I feel I can think and write, I
feel something neurologically extraordinary. Not pathological
I think it is health, the brain is doing what
it should do.
And your least favourite? The
thing I am sorry about but, as it were, not annoyed
about is that my visual imagery is so poor compared
to most people. I can't conjure what people look like,
indeed I have trouble recognizing people. Also, I used
to curse myself for being so slow-minded compared to
my witty colleagues and friends, but if I am slow then
I am tenacious, I hold on for a long time to ideas and
brood. Excessive doubt is what I dislike in myself.
It infects everything, saps my self-confidence. Another
thing is shyness. Pathological shyness.
When you think about those things,
do you imagine the inner workings of your own brain,
the way you do when you discuss patients' cases?
To some extent. I recently read some interesting studies
about itch and simply mentioning this now caused me
to itch a bit. I'm imagining parts of my brain lighting
up now. Sudden changes in the brain do make me long
for a built-in fMRI, something even more sensitive.
I'm very curious about that lump in the head.
In Musicophilia, you
write about some research carried out by McGill neuroscientist
Daniel Levitin as well as physicians at the Montreal
Neurological Institute. Did you ever visit Montreal
to consult with them? Yes indeed. I regard Montreal
as the musical neuroscience capital of the world. All
the people there are musicians in their own right; they
know it from inside as well as outside.
What will your next book be
about? I was not sure until three weeks ago. My
next book will be narratives and essays on visual perception,
illusion and hallucination. People are terrified when
these things happen. They wonder if they're going nuts,
so it's immensely reassuring to people to know it's
a physical reaction to visual or auditory impairment,
maybe it's temporary or not, but they can live with
it and it's OK. Sometimes the doctor's function is not
to cure things but to say it's OK. And, on the topic
of LSD, though I avoided your question before, one learns
a lot about visual cortex with some mild dabbling.
by Sam Solomon
things you didn't know about Dr Oliver Sacks
first love Chemistry. [Dr Sacks bangs two
pieces of metal together] That little noise
iridium on tungsten.
latest crush Pteridology the study
of ferns. It's a relief when I have had enough
of human beings. Tomorrow morning I am going to
the American Fern Society, and we're all going
to tell our favourite summer fern experience.
I'll talk about when I saw moonworts in Iceland.
They're very beautiful.
role model I'm too old to have any living
ones. [The great Russian neuropsychologist] A
R Luria was close to a mentor. When I saw The
Mind of a Mnemonist in '68 it made me feel
Awakenings could be written. We never met, but
we corresponded in detail for years.
he and his pal Robin Williams [who played him
in Awakenings] do for fun We have long
aquatic dialogues. I do backstroke, he kayaks,
and we talk for hours on the water. He's a dear
friend entirely different one-on-one than
the eruptive persona that people know.
favourite place in Canada Manitoulin Island,
on Lake Huron. I've been there several times.