A cartoonist confesses to an Oliver Sacks obsession that has him flexing his mental muscles in way he never thought possible
By Alan King
I have a confession to make. I’ve read just about every word Oliver Sacks ever wrote and, God knows, the man wrote a lot. Yes, I know it sounds like an unhealthy interest in medical literature — borderline OCD. But it’s not like I’ve read all of Sherwin Nolan or Jerome Groopman or Atul Gawande — just Sacks. I read him endlessly, page after fascinating page.
You could think of it as a mental disorder or a ‘cerebral deficit’ if you like. My doctor certainly does. In fact he has a name for it: florid non-sackistic verbo-dysplasia. It’s a rare, somewhat disabling affliction. There are maybe 50 people on the planet who have it and sufferers typically live only on beautiful, faraway tropical islands, hilltop Tuscan villages or have been institutionalized for decades without ever seeing the outside world.
I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve been able to live a fairly normal life, albeit hiding my condition from friends and colleagues.
Fortunately my doctor is concerned about my welfare and happy that he can be of help. He says this is just the kind of disorder he signed up to medical school for — non-contagious, non-life-threatening, pain-free. Patients just wander about in a daze and stare vacantly at books with weird titles.
He would love to discover the source of my mysterious ailment and perhaps find a way to alleviate the symptoms, if not cure them. There’s also the possibility that his research might have an impact on the larger world. Understanding my condition might shed new light on the mind/brain duality and answer some very important questions about perception and consciousness. If I forgo the confidentiality and financial compensation clauses he might even write a book about me!
Since the only thing I do with my brain is read Sacks, he thinks there may be another part of it that’s working overtime to compensate. He calls it neuroplasticity and he may have a point. Those parts of my brain that could’ve been thinking about Daniel Dennett or A R Luria have probably either atrophied through lack of use or developed enhanced capabilities.
And you know something? I have noticed lately that I do have some unusual abilities, usually when I’m in the grip of a powerful emotion. I’ve never studied music or played an instrument but recently I read a sentence that reeked of grandiosity and filled me with a profound sense of inadequacy — “I received a letter from W H Auden telling me my new book, Awakenings, was a ‘masterpiece’.” I suddenly found myself sitting at the piano, playing a very creditable rendition of Who Let the Dogs Out!
And then there was the time I read in the same book about someone who figured he had a photographic memory when he was a young man because he had memorized a seven-digit phone number scrawled on the wall of a phone booth. “Photographic memory”? I’ll show you a photographic memory. And in an instant I was able to memorize nine numbers in a row. Incredible!
That’s not all. Reading about someone who sat through an entire orchestra concert scribbling in his notebook I thought, ”Well I’m sure glad I wasn’t sitting next to that narcissistic nincompoop”. Then suddenly I was able to draw a vividly idiosyncratic interpretation of Munch’s The Scream on my iPad with just my little finger. Go figure!
My doctor tells me this is exactly the kind of compensatory behaviour he would expect. My brain is reconfiguring itself to deal with an insidious intruder that has robbed me of normal human consciousness.
As a first step in his treatment regime he has decided not to employ his usual course of powerful SSRIs. He wants to try something much more radical and he feels it’s necessary if I’m going to get my mind back.
Next week, he says, I’ll be starting on the complete works of Anthony Trollope.
THE EX-PRESS, December 7, 2015