Response to ” Oliver Sacks: An Anthropologist on Mars”



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Response to ” Oliver Sacks:  An Anthropologist on Mars”

Oliver Sack’s book An Anthropologist on Mars is a compilation of seven paradoxical stories dealing with neurobiology. The stories explore cases of patients with neurological conditions, which they are attempting to cope with. Most of the cases deal with vision, blindness of different types such as color blindness as well as total blindness. Additionally, he explores other forms of blindness such as loss of photographic sight and sight in the brain. Furthermore, he explores a case on restoration of sight. He examines how different neurological conditions may affect an individual’s understanding about self and the universe. Sacks is able to experience the distress in his patients by working with them. Additionally, he suffers from prosopagnosia and is in a better position to understand what being deficient of a sense means. The stories examine discernments about oneself as well as those about the world. This response paper examines Sack’s method of investigation, the reasons Sack takes a unique investigative approach and how he discovers the individuals discussed in the essays. The paper will also analyze how disease affects the way individuals understand themselves and how reading these essay has enable me understand concepts such as normality and handicap.

Sacks’ Method of Investigation

To come up with these stories, Dr. Sacks associates closely with the subjects in the stories. His insights are stimulating and provide an insight on neurological conditions and the manner in which the brain functions. He investigates the altered self-opening the mind of the reader to experiences and perceptions witnessed by people with disorders such as autism, blindness, amnesia, and Tourette’s syndrome among others. He views the ailments not as disorders but deviation from norm. However, he still manages to explore the distress and challenges faced by persons with these disorders. Instead of analyzing the various conditions and organizing them into chapters, he organizes the conditions into narrative essays. This is a different but interesting way to learn neurobiology. Sack follows his patients from their loss of sense though their distress to their liberation. He empathizes with the patients after their loss of sense and reveals to the reader the struggle that they go through to cope with the deviations that result from the losses (Sacks 12-15).

Sack makes use of literature references to support his arguments. His investigative style is captivating and the reader is able to experience the terror that comes with the neurological disorders. When  he narrated The Last Hippie, the reader get to experience the fragility of our brains. The reader does not just empathize with the individuals with disorders but gets to understand how such conditions can be detected early. Instead of patronizing his patients or person who may have such neurological deviations, Sack instills hope in them. His work enlarges the view on what a human being is (Sacks 112-115). However, Sacks manages to change the perspective on how brains work. He incites the reader to adopt a new sense of who they are. Additionally, he enlightens us on the significance of abilities such as being able to see, memory, notion, and differentiating color, which we sometimes take for granted. He inspires us to appreciate our sense and use them appropriately. Additionally, he demonstrates that loss of a sense such as sight is not the end of life (Sacks 161-165).

Sack essays are written in a clear, empathetic, yet humorous tone. However, the concise nature does not prevent him from clearly explaining how each of the different disorders tampers with the brain, and their historical background. The language used is simple for different kind of readers to understand. However, the scientific details given in the footnotes give more insights to persons who may wish to explore the matter further (Sacks 92-95). There are different reasons why Sacks approaches his investigations in a different manner from the normal scientific methodologies. One of the reasons is to make it easy and interesting for his readers to understand. Instead of writing the essays as case studies or scientific articles, he takes an approach of writing the cases as stories about people. By avoiding treating the essays as case studies his respect for the individuals involved is depicted.  Additonally, Sacks wants to involve the readers more closely by making them understand the historical background of the conditions of his patients. This makes the readers experience the distress of suffering from neurological disorder. However, he goes further, to explore how his patients cope with their deviations. This inspires the reader to stop viewing the disorders as some sort of disorder but to consider them as deviations that one can learn to live with (Sacks 76-81).

In each essay, Sack choose individual with a neurological disorder that tampers with their work. The stories are constructed from some of the cases he has dealt with in his work as a biologist and psychologist. Other than sitting in the office, Sacks joins his subjects and explores other aspect of their life other than focusing on their conditions only. By being with his patients, he is able to discover their inner self and potentials in them. In The Case of the Colorblind Painter the artist’s condition affects the part of brain he needs most such that he has to adapt to black and white. A Surgeons Life is a tale of a surgeon who is determined enough to continue practicing surgery irrespective of suffering from Gilles de la Tourette syndrome. To See and Not See where a man regains sight in his 50’s after spending all his childhood as a blind person show how deviation from the norm can affect how we perceive things. An Anthropologist on Mars clearly demonstrates how people with deviations are able to adapt to adversities.

Sacks treats the people he studies as “patients” and not “subjects.” As opposed to other approaches where the authors focus on the condition, Sacks discusses the person as a whole. He does not analyze the various parts making the individuals. Sack tries to avoid treating the individuals in the book as subjects but prefers viewing them as different or deviating from the norm. Sacks places himself in his patients’ position and is able to view the world differently or in the way, his patients view it. By so doing, he empathizes with them but does not pity them. However, this enables him to explain and demonstrate the complexity of human mind. In all the cases, the patients suffer from what we call ‘disabilities’. However, they demonstrate an unusual way of coping with the condition and the side effects associated. The essays explore the coping abilities that our brains have (Sacks 145-151).

Reading these essays, I was able to recognize the importance of the human brain in determining such concepts as “normality.” Additionally, I was able to understand how the human brain works. However, I realized that we should never underestimate those who are neurologically different from us. Each story on a neurological deficit is a lesson on how people with different neurological condition learn to adapt. After reading the essay, my view on what handicap is changed. Instead of viewing the persons in the stories as lesser like I have always done in the past I was able to appreciate the strength within them. In The Case of the Colorblind Painter, I was able to see how we can derive strength from our weaknesses.

“Disease” affects the ways in which individuals know and understand themselves in different way. In addition, diseases affect our sense of self as well as the ways in which we relate to others. In case of individual in Sack’s essay, they find different ways of adapting to their conditions. Some like autistic professor develops her career out of her instinctive understanding of the behaviors displayed by animals. However, some people may respond negatively to the people’s way of thinking, which makes them feel handicapped.

After reading Sack’s essays, I was able to realize that neurological disorders can help unveil creative potential of an individual. Depending on how one perceives a condition he or she is able to develop virtues or beauties of their own or feel sorry for themselves. Those who feel sorry for themselves will not achieve much. Additionally, peoples view about neurological conditions affects how persons with such conditions perceive themselves. However, some are still able to succeed in their lives irrespective of how abnormal they may appear to our way of thinking.

In conclusion, Sacks essays explore the great capacity of brains to adapt to different capacity. He uses some of the cases on his patients with neurological disorders and explores the case by giving historical as well as medical description of different condition. His manner of investigation makes his work interesting and makes the readers more involved. Each of the patient losses a certain sense but learn to cope with it. The patients eventually develop a different way of perceiving themselves and the world, which liberates them from their distress. However, he is able to make the reader understand the difficulties of adapting to a new sense or to loss of a sense. After reading Sacks essays, I developed a different perception toward neurological condition, which we often refer to as ‘disability.’ In fact, they are not really disability but deviations that people can adapt and cope with. Sacks inspires us to start viewing the world in different perspectives.


Works Cited

Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. New York: Pan Macmillan, 2011. Print.



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