Tag Archive | Oliver Sacks

Memory and plagiarism



Oliver Sacks writes eloquently about memory and imagination in the February 21 issue of the New York Review of Books, sharing his memory of a war-time event from his childhood and subsequently learning from his brother that he hadn’t lived it but had reconstructed it for himself from the description in a letter. He cites examples of memories enhanced or entirely made by the imagination from everyone from Ronald Reagan to Helen Keller and Samuel Coleridge. False memories are enjoyed with the same vivacity as those with a factual basis. There is no way to tell them apart in our subjective experience of them. Plagiarism is as natural to us as breathing.

Scary stuff, I thought. Reality becomes rocky and insubstantial. All our heralded battles for truth turn into fights that may have already been thrown. Without DNA or a filmed record, we can’t prove a thing.

But Sacks, looks at it from another perspective, and reality becomes more instead of less. I can only quote him:

Indifference to source allows us to assimilate what we read, what we are told, what others say and think and write and paint, as intensely and richly as if they were primary experiences. It allows us to see and hear with other eyes and ears, to enter into other minds, to assimilate the art and science and religion of the whole culture, to enter into and contribute to the common mind, the general commonwealth of knowledge….

Memory is dialogic and arises not only from direct experience but from the intercourse of many minds.

Will music save the planet?

I wrote a story not too many years ago about an old man who, except for doing a bit of clogging now and again, was unused to hearing music. The only pianist he’d ever heard, except on an incidental elevator ride or TV show, was at church. The pianist wasn’t much good and he wasn’t much of a churchgoer. Still, he had this fresh, uncluttered ear and mind where music was concerned, so when he found himself in the same room as an exceptional pianist playing an exceptional piece of music, the experience was soul-stirring. He was transformed by it.

I think a lot of us probably don’t hear as well as we should because music has become the background to our lives, a little like movie music. If we’re musicians, at least of the amateur kind, we may deepen our understanding of it by performing it over and over, but we also risk dulling our experience of it. My mother struggled to play the classics well, but was afraid, I think, to hear anything played by a real pianist. She didn’t want to know how far off the mark she was. I remember her dazed, almost frightened look, when I took her to hear Murray Perahia.

 I, on the other hand, listen to it and thank God for it at the same as I long for one of those freak accidents that happen to the brains of Oliver Sack’s patients in Musicophilia, Tales of Music and the Brain, where suddenly someone finds they can play like Rubenstein-come-back-to-life. Of course, brain damage is more likely to have a terrible outcome, like never being able to hear music again. One of Sack’s most fascinating conclusions is that playing and listening to music happens in a very different part of the brain than speaking, writing and reading do.

To me, music has always been a mystery, as well as something I can’t imagine living without. It’s not always highly valued. Why else would it so often be relegated to the “arts and entertainment” pages of newspapers and magazines? Why would music and the arts be the first subjects to go when schools must make budget cuts? I recently ran into a wonderful speech by Karl Paulnack, the Music Department head at Boston Conservatory. The talk was given to incoming freshmen and their parents.

According to Paulnack, the ancient Greeks were the first people to understand how music works. They paired it with astronomy. “Astronomy was seen as the study of relationships between observable, permanent, external objects; and music was the study of relationships between invisible, internal, hidden objects. Music has a way of finding the big, invisible moving pieces inside our hearts and souls and helping us figure out the position of things inside us.”

He gives a number of examples. One of the most striking is the important place of music in the Nazi concentration camps when it seemed that food, water, warmth and keeping safe, would have consumed all the prisoners’ energies. Music, it turned out, was also basic to survival. He describes the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City when he wondered, briefly, whether playing the piano was relevant. That evening, he found that one of the first things people in his neighborhood did together was to sing (“We Shall Overcome”). The first public event he heard of in the city was a concert.

Why does that make so much sense? Music, in fact, all the arts, are “the study of invisible relationships between internal objects.”

The conclusion of Paulnack’s speech is well worth quoting verbatim:

You’re not here to become an entertainer, and you don’t have to sell yourself. The truth is you don’t have anything to sell; being a musician isn’t about dispensing a product, like selling used Chevys. I’m not an entertainer; I’m a lot closer to a paramedic, a firefighter, a rescue worker. You’re here to become a sort of therapist for the human soul, a spiritual version of a chiropractor, physical therapist, someone who works with our insides to see if they get things to line up, to see if we can come into harmony with ourselves and be healthy and happy and well.

Frankly, ladies and gentlemen, I expect you not only to master music; I expect you to save the planet. If there is a future wave of wellness on this planet, of harmony, of peace, of an end to war, of mutual understanding, of equality, of fairness, I don’t expect it will come from a government, a military force or a corporation. I no longer even expect it to come from the religions of the world, which together seem to have brought us as much war as they have peace. If there is a future of peace for humankind, if there is to be an understanding of how these invisible, internal things should fit together, I expect it will come from the artists, because that’s what we do. As in the concentration camp and the evening of 9/11, the artists are the ones who might be able to help us with our internal, invisible lives.

Remembering is so complicated, how do we do it …. ?

I’m still reading Searching for Memory:The Brain, The Mind and The Past. It’s a long book and I may be at it for some time, but never fear. That doesn’t mean that every post will be about it, especially as I’m finding it somewhat dispiriting. Most of the book is about the complexities of remembering. It’s not just that memories aren’t like the movies. They’re the product of scraps of things actually remembered, and of the hard work of reconstruction of time past—using the expectations, the imagination, the general knowledge of the self and life, and God only knows what else.  As I said, I’m still reading.

Nevertheless, Daniel Schecter, the author, does close on an uplifting note (yes, I’m one of those people who read the conclusion of a book before its middle):

On balance, however, our memory systems do a remarkably good job of preserving the general contours of our pasts and of recording correctly many of the important things that have happened to us. We could not have evolved as a species otherwise. Memory is a central part of the brain’s attempt to make sense of experience, and to tell coherent stories about it. These tales are all we have of our pasts, and so they are potent determinants of how we view ourselves and what we do. Yet our stories are built from nay different ingredients: snippets of what actually happened, thoughts about what might have happened, and beliefs that guide us as we attempt to remember. Our memories are the fragile but powerful products of what we recall from the past, believe about the present, and imagine about the future.

One more note: Schecter cites the tendency of older people to think about the past. There was a time when it was thought that “living in the past” would produce depression and despair. The attendants in nursing homes discouraged it and recommended bingo instead. Today, older people in institutional settings and without, are encouraged to tell their stories of the past.
Schecter worries that computer memory is replacing the story teller in our culture. If he were writing today instead of the 1990s he might be reassured: the many, many blogs by older writers on the internet are filled with stories of the past. The genealogy and the oral histories that it encourages are greeted enthusiastically by the culture.
Schecter argues that elderly story tellers play a major and creative role in connecting the past with the present. One of the most damaging things done to Native American societies was the discrediting of the elderly story tellers in their midst.

In today’s Time Goes By (still the premier blog for issues related to aging), Ronni Bennett talks about a New Year’s article by Oliver Sacks in the New York Times about the plasticity of the brain and how it can be rewired by most of us. He writes:

While some areas of the brain are hard-wired from birth or early childhood, other areas—especially in the cerebral cortex, which is central to higher cognitive powers like language and thought, as well as sensory and motor functions—can be, to a remarkable extent, rewired as we grow older.

While this is no longer news, it’s  just as exciting as it was the first day it was cited. As usual, Sacks makes the subject come alive with stories of individuals who have put it to the test. But he also poses some interesting questions: “That the brain is capable of such radical adaptation raises deep questions. To what extent are we shaped by, and to what degree do we shape, our own brains? And can the brain’s ability to change be harnessed to give us greater cognitive powers? ….”

My favorite example is that of Eliza Bussey, “a journalist in her mid-50s who now studies harp at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, who could not read a note of music a few years ago. “In a letter to me,”  says Sacks,  “she wrote about what it was like learning to play Handel’s “’Passacaille:’” ‘I have felt, for example, my brain and fingers trying to connect, to form new synapese. … I know that my brain has dramatically changed.’”

And since I’ve been trying to play the piano again in my late 60s and 70s—hoping against hope that there will be no arthritis, no stroke, not anything, to stop me… Eliza Bussey’s story is one I especially like.

Photo by Jeff Greenwood. Flickr. Creative Commons.

The eye and the word


my eye in front of the lens. Photo by onkel_wart (Thomas Lieser). Flickr. Creative Commons license.


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was the first book by Oliver Sacks I ever read, and what a beauty it was with its elegant text and touching content. I was an instant fan, and then, as now, I become deeply irritated when a few reviewers accuse him of exploiting his patients for his own literary gain. Because Sacks’ patients are not just oddly afflicted, they are deeply human. The author‘s respect for them and their humanity is the warp and woof of every essay he writes at the same time as the text helps illuminate the ways in which the normal brain deals with perception, memory, individuality, and in his latest book—The Mind’s Eye—language.

The book, reviewed by Mehan Crist in the November 14 Los Angeles Times,  is about our subjective experience of the world and the ways in which we try to describe it.

While most scientists will describe a neurological anomaly’s biological and mechanical causes in all their complexity, they will refuse attention to what Sacks calls “its qualitative and subject aspects.” But what happens neurologically doesn’t just happen; the fact is that it is experienced. Why do we have this extra dimension? Why do we experience anything at all? Some scientists will argue that unless what we’re interested in is objective, measurable truth, it isn’t science at all. But Sacks believes that if we don’t ask it about the subjective experience of it, we’re missing something of great importance, and possibly even what’s central.

We must try to imagine our way into minds unlike our own.

The Times reviewer describes a conversation Sacks has with Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist who has turned her autism into extraordinary insights into nonhuman behavior. “When he admits to her, who “thinks entirely in terms of literal images she has seen before, that he cannot summon visual images at will,” she is baffled: “How do you think then?” Here lies the fundamental tension between perception and language; How do you translate mental experience into words?”

Sacks finds again and again that people who are radically different from one another seem unable to imagine the perceptions of others at the same time as he urges the reader to try, and in fact spends the book helping us to do so. Among these essays is one where he describes his own recent experience with ocular melanoma where people turned into bizarre, elongated, El Greco-like figures, tilted to the left—they made me think of the insectlike Selenites pictured in my edition of H.G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. Faces in particular would develop translucent, puffy, almost protoplasmic protuberances, like a Francis Bacon portrait.

Certainly, Sacks’ description of his own condition is powerful.

Writes the reviewer: The Mind’s Eye expresses a stubborn hope that rests on language, “that most human invention,” which Sacks says can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.

And if that’s true, then the writer is not just one more possible purveyor of truth, he or she is essential to our understanding of ourselves and each other.