An Anthropologist on Mars – Oliver Sacks

The brain terrifies me.

I am not sure exactly why. As best as I can but it to words, there is just something scary about the one object that connects physical reality to our subjective experiences. There is a Philip K Dick story where a man discovers a spool of tape (as  in computer tape. It’s an old story) in his body, and finds that by manipulating the tape he can manipulate reality. That’s the kind of dread I feel when i think about the brain, and more specifically brain trauma. But at the same time, I find the topic infinitely fascinating for pretty much the same reason. A lot, maybe even the majority, of what we are is our brains.

An Anthropologist on Mars is a set of seven narrative essays by British neurologist Oliver Sacks. Each one tells the story of a different individual with a different neurological condition, going into the details about how the condition affects the person’s life. The stories are all different enough in their tone as to not lose the reader with sentiments that they are reading the same thing over again.  Some of the stories felt a little more sorrowful, while others show just how well human’s can cope with just about anything that can be thrown their way, even a neurological disorder. On top of that, the essays are really well written. Sacks skates around the technical knowledge in a way to never make a reader feel either stupid or inundated while reading it.

If I had one nitpick for this collection, it is that there didn’t seem to be a really strong narrative thread between one story and the next. It seemed that they were only put together on the virtue of all being stories by Oliver Sacks. But somehow, that wasn’t all that bad a thing in this collection.

This might speak poorly of me, but the most memorable part of reading this is the anecdote from “the last hippie” that recounts how the person in question was living in a Buddhist monastery when the brain tumor set in, and when he lamented his dimming eyesight to those in charge of the monastery they told that it was a sign of his coming enlightenment. It was a nice reminder that even the most seemingly benevolent of religions is a force for harm when it ignores reality for the sake of their narrative.

But that is really not what the book was for me. I did feel there was a pretty heavy optimistic streak in the book. It may just be how I tend to read things. But the stories, excepting the most tragic, seemed to resound the notion that humans are geared towards surviving and adapting, even in the most trying of circumstances. If an artist can become color-blind and learn to adapt, there might be hope for us all.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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