This morning I learnt that Oliver Sacks has died at his home in New York City. Although I have not (yet) read any of his books, I was curious about the personality behind famous best sellers like “Awakenings” or “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, based on his experience with neurological patients of different conditions.
Not so well known is his first book “Migraine”, written in 1970. Let me share with you a couple of things about migraine:
First, migraine is a neurological disease characterized by recurrent moderate to severe headaches, often in association with nausea, vomiting, and sensitivity to light, sound, or smell. Typically the headache affects one half of the head—hence the name, from the Greek ἡμικρανία (hemikrania), “pain on one side of the head”. Migraine attacks last from 2 to 72 hours, and they often include an aura.
Second, migraine is a disease I suffer myself, and I estimate it has probably stolen 5,000 hours of my life so far. This is, according to Malcolm Gladwell, half a world-class expertise! On the other hand, it has given me the opportunity to understand from a very early age, that conscious experience is not likely what we think (But that’s another story maybe one day I will write about.)
Now you know why I immediately sympathized with Oliver Sacks. Interestingly, Sacks had himself an awakening while he was reading a book about headaches and migraines written by Edward Liveing in the 19th century. He was under the influence of MDMA while reading, and thought to himself:
“Who shall be the Edward Liveing of our time? And there was a very disingenuous clamor of names that came to me, followed by a very loud inner voice which said, ‘You Silly Bugger! You’re the man!'” (Wikipedia, “Oliver Sacks”)
You can read about Sacks’ epiphany in an article he wrote for New Yorker in 2012, “Altered States”, describing his experience with recreational drugs:
To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation,
Many of us find Wordsworthian “intimations of immortality” in nature, art, creative thinking, or religion; some people can reach transcendent states through meditation or similar trance-inducing techniques, or through prayer and spiritual exercises. But drugs offer a shortcut; they promise transcendence on demand.
one Friday, in February of 1967, while I was exploring the rare-book section of the medical library, I found and took out a rather rare book on migraine entitled “On Megrim, Sick-Headache, and Some Allied Disorders: A Contribution to the Pathology of Nerve-Storms,” written, in 1873, by one Edward Liveing, M.D. I had been working for several months in a migraine clinic, and I was fascinated by the range of symptoms and phenomena that could occur in migraine attacks. (…) I felt, every attack of migraine opened out into an encyclopedia of neurology.
It was in the hope of finding a fuller, deeper, and more human approach to migraine that I took out Liveing’s book from the library that weekend. (…) after downing my bitter draft of amphetamine—heavily sugared, to make it more palatable—I started reading.
I read steadily through the five hundred pages of “Megrim.” As I did so, it seemed to me almost as if I were becoming Liveing himself, actually seeing the patients he described. At times, I was unsure whether I was reading the book or writing it.
The book gave me what I had been hungering for during the months that I was seeing patients with migraine and being frustrated by the thin, impoverished articles that seemed to constitute the modern “literature” on the subject. At the height of this ecstasy, I saw migraine shining like an archipelago of stars in the neurological heavens. (…) I had a sense of resolution, too, that I was indeed equipped to write a Liveing-like book, that perhaps I could be the Liveing of our time.
The next day, before I returned Liveing’s book to the library, I photocopied the whole thing, and then, bit by bit, I started to write my own book. The joy I got from doing this was real—infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines—and I never took amphetamines again.
Oliver Sacks lived a long life. When he learnt that he has terminal cancer early this year, he wrote a moving article titled “My Own Life” (as David Hume did in 1776:)
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 travelled 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.
And what is it that you can feel after having had an intercourse with the world, when you manage to live past 80? This is a quote (emphasis mine) from a previous article for NYT two years before, “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)”:
At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60.
I am looking forward to being 80.