Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Science and The Self: Contradictory or Complementary?

When I consider the three books we were asked to read this week (due on 9/10), I categorize them in the following way:

Synaptic Self represents the most scientific reading, with its discussions of neurons, synapses, and brain development.

"The Bear Came Over the Mountain" represents the least scientific, and most personal reading. Note the absence of any talk of pathology in the story; is the word "Alzheimer's" even mentioned? Grant and Fiona don't talk to doctors and don't discuss the physical expression of Fiona's disease in her brain. On the contrary, "Bear" focuses exclusively on personalities, emotions, inter-personal relationships - the pathology of Fiona's disease is excluded, irrelevant.

Lastly, Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat" represents a union of cold science and human emotion. Sacks, as a neurologist, is interested in the pathology of Dr. P's disease. As a sympathetic human being, Sacks is interested in P as a person and what emotions he feels in response to his condition. And lastly, as a writer, Sacks looks to combine his two perspectives into a coherent and compelling narrative. Out of all three authors, Sacks is in the best position to give the reader the most comprehensive understanding of his character, having both the scientific understanding of a neurologist and the ability to empathize that allows him to create "richly human clinical tales" (Sacks, xiv).

That is not to say that Synaptic Self does not have a human element, or that disease plays no part in the story of "The Bear Came Over the Mountain." On the contrary, an understanding of Alzheimer's (at least on a basic level) enhances one's reading of "Bear," and Joseph LeDoux seems committed to illuminating "the self" as a "psychological, social, moral, aesthetic, [and] spiritual" being as much as a "neural" one.

But I am saying that Sacks achieves the balance between the pathological and the personal most successfully out of the three authors. Synaptic Self, at least so far, lacks the human element of Sacks' tale because LeDoux has not brought us into the life of any specific human being, like Sacks brought us into the life of Dr. P. Munro, conversely, does not include a discussion of Fiona's pathology.

Both "Bear" and Synaptic Self offer great insight into the self - what it is, how it works, how certain conditions can change it, and how in some ways it is constant. But Oliver Sacks' story is the one that best fits the concept of "Narrative Neuropsychology" as I perceive it. He illuminates the life and personality of a human being, and at the same time invites us to wonder at the working of that person's brain as a physical thing - "a machine and a computer" (18). As we gain interest in the brain as a mechanism of great genius and mystery, we never forget that there is a person attached to that brain, "a human subject at the center," and that it is this person, his "essential being," who is most "relevant in the higher reaches of neurology" (xiv).


Hilary said...

I agree with your interpretation and categorization of the three texts, and what I found most personal and interconnecting while reading Sacks' text (I actually went through the whole thing because I found it so fascinating) was how he consistently and sincerely treated his patients as real humans, whatever their "deficits" (and how he remarks that neuropsychology as a science often focuses greatly on these lacks). To even those with the most profound disabilities, he finds the ability to focus on what they can do, not necessarily their inhibitions -- as exemplified in the case of Rebecca. Every scientific and reasoning test will label her as a clinical retard and a useless cog of society -- yet he paints her relationship with her grandmother and her love for theatre in such a way to make us sure that she is, indeed, a human with the same passions and pains as any of us. We can often forget this in regards to the disabled community and it was very touching to read.

Emmy P. said...

While I agree that Sacks develops a balance between the pathological and the personal, I believe it is imperative to look at all three of the readings in order to have a full understanding of how the pathology truly affects the individual.

Sacks and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” maintain that even after the pathology has manifested the personality still remains in tact. We see this as Fiona still continues to addle Grant in the ways she did throughout their youth and how Dr. P keeps his passion for music, teaching and creating art; but neither Sacks nor Munro explain how this is possible.

LeDoux explores this stating that “People don’t come preassembled, but are glued together by life.” (LeDoux, 3) From him we gather that the process of learning exist to enhance survival instincts that are present within us all. Because everyone has different experiences the “information” that the brain “records” varies in us, which in essence dictates who we are (if we define who we are by the way in which we react, behave and interact with our environment). The persona is able to transcend the pathology because learned behaviors are never forgotten as a means to survive.

We can rely on Sacks to describe the pathology and Munro to express how it can affect the interpersonal relationships of the “patient,” but in order to have a basic understanding of how the brain functions so that we can begin to grasp the concepts of which Sacks speaks we need LeDoux. Therefore all three passages work together to create a maximum understanding of the persona itself, the pathology and the emotional effects on the parties involved.