Monday, December 3, 2007

Circle complete

We have made it to the end and it really does seem like we have gone full circle. Sacks has assumed the role of Virgil in The Divine Comedy not only in the way he guides his patients through their illness, but also in a the way he has guided us in our course work. We began the semester with The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which laid the groundwork for our understanding of romantic science and tried to instill a tolerance and appreciation for neurodiversity. I feel as though Sacks then become apart of the class’s implicit memory and felt his presents during weeks were Sacks was not on the syllabus. We could not help but to compare Livesey, Skloot, Powers, Hirstein, Le Doux, or Luria, even if it was an assignment. I also think that it is appropriate the Sacks was our guild not only because that is obviously what he is good at but also because he lives in a very specialized niche between science and art. He is an ambassador of science in the realm of the people, which includes either mentally disabled or ill and those mentally “normal”. Not only is he an ambassador but also his writings in turn shift the paradigm of how medicine interacts with their patients, as Hawkins and Cassuto describe in varying degrees. In these ways Sacks is greatly responsible for the way that we examined our course work and was able to grasp the idea of narrative neurophysiology. It is only right that we wrap up our semester with him.

I also appreciated how the reviews of Sacks’s work came into play during this last reading. First of all, the reviews made a nice connection to Webber in The Echo Maker and his issues with how his narrative case studies were perceive. Points like Cassuto’s on the freak show platform in which he claims Sacks presents his patients almost seems like it was directly quoted in The Echo Maker. Also Harkin’s point of the phenomenological nature of Sack’s writings is conveyed in the way Weber becomes entangled in the happenings in Nebraska, his influence by Mark’s illness, and losses a firm sense of self. Webber’s demise does not seem to completely align with the impression we get of Sacks’s life, however you cannot help but to associate the two neurologists. Secondly, the reviews also function nicely to see how Sack’s is perceived in reality, and to see what others out side of class think of him.

Sacks is painted in a variety of lights in the reviews, just as Bennett has two side of his personality. Bennett is described as having a very intense case of Tourettes, however at the same time he is a remarkable surgeon. Sacks explains how Bennett is able to “forget” about his disorder and be able to focus on him work when he is in the middle of surgery, he becomes Bennett the Surgeon rather than Bennett the man with horrible Tourettes. Sacks similarly has a Dr. Jackal and Mr., Hyde dual personality. He is at times the well-informed, objective neurologist, preoccupied with clinical facts. Sacks can also push aside his concrete scientific background and be a complete humanitarian, focused on understanding how his patients’ disorders affect their personality and livelihoods.

Le Doux provides a nice ending in the way he tells us to understand the brain as an integrated whole. This is a useful approach for understanding not only synapses but also all the other issues we have examined. We must tie together Sacks’s dialectic qualities to fully appreciate his work. We also must tie together the various forms of writing that exists on neurological disorders; from Luria to Sacks, from Hirstein to Powers, there is a lot that can be learned about our synaptic selves.

Sunday, December 2, 2007


I think this weeks readings was a great way to end the semester. They provided an interesting way to reflect on what we've read, not just on a neurological level but also on a moral and ethical level.

We've spent a lot of time discussing the various processes of the brain, how these processes can malfunction and how viewing these malfunctions allows us to better understand or perhaps even acknowledge their existence. I think through this weeks reading, rather the semesters readings, has shown us that "the self" is in fact a summation of many parts that create a single whole and that the brain is a reflection of "the self," an integration of functions that are shaped by are genes and environment. And perhaps our society reflects this, a group of diverse people that must work together (and yet separately) to maintain order and stability, where there can easily be chaos.

With that, I think there certainly is something hardwired into our society that allures us to the chaos, parts of us want to see things go wrong (we don't read books about utopian societies.) I often wonder why that is, why we are so intrigued with what can go wrong? But as we studied the brains processes, especially the chapters in LeDoux about fear conditioning, I began to wonder if it's instilled in us for self preservation.

When we watch a movie or read a book, fiction or no, we give ourselves up to that suspension of disbelief because it is exciting and intense I wonder if that is similar to fear. That we need to know what can go wrong in order to prevent it, that perhaps we get excited and this triggers something chemical that is necessary to protect us. But with something like neurological disorders how much can this hypothetical self imposed fear conditioning do? Can we really prevent such disorders? So again we question the ethics of Sacks. Is he really exploiting his patients? I think it is fair for Couser to make the distinction between freakshows and Sacks; the contact between the viewer and the patient is indirect-- less traumatic -- because he is at a safe distance.

I think any time pieces of anyone's life is put on display is can be exploitation, no matter the intention, it is so easy to perverse what is meant to be positive. I think it is important that we hardwire our society's brain to have an objective opinion. I also believe people are hardwired to perceive things in a way that is specific to them and because everyone, when reading or watching, brings "what they have to the table," they will perceive Sacks differently. I don't think it's possible for a patient to fully understand the capacity of what they are doing when they allow their lives to be used as an example or case study for scientific purposes, similar to anyone in any other situation where potential "fame" is involved.

I do feel that it is necessary for us to read Sacks and similar case studies. I do believe that although Sack's cases may be extreme, they do show the humanity in people with various disorders. They show the "soul" separated from the brain which is necessary to our understanding of illnesses. They show us that one malfunction is not the end of the entire structure and that there are alternative ways of living subconsciously or consciously; and I do believe it is important that we as a society see that we can still function as a whole even if some of us fulfill our processes differently than the rest. But perhaps I am just hardwired into thinking this way.