By: Gavin Francis | The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks review – an agility of enthusiasms | Neuroscience | The Guardian
One March in the mid 1990s I checked into a cheap hotel in Helsinki. I dropped my bag on the floor and, wondering what Finnish daytime television was like, switched on the TV. A darkened room with a dining table came into focus, and around it were six people having a conversation. To my surprise, all were speaking English, then a face I knew filled the screen – it was Oliver Sacks. Then another, Stephen Jay Gould, and another, Daniel Dennett. I had books by all three. It was snowing outside, and Helsinki seemed suddenly less inviting; I sat down on the bed and began to watch.
A Dutch TV company had assembled these men, together with Freeman Dyson, Stephen Toulmin and Rupert Sheldrake, for the round-table finale of a documentary series on science and the meaning of life. The series, A Glorious Accident, didn’t seem to have invited any women to take part but even so I watched it to the end – three hours later. The participants’ areas of expertise were diverse: biology, physics, palaeontology, neuroscience, philosophy. As the only practising clinician, Sacks made perceptive and valuable contributions – and was clearly having fun. I was just starting out in medicine, and it was a relief to see how a lifetime in clinical practice offered insights still relevant across the sciences.
If one looks at the charts of patients institutionalized in asylums and state hospitals in the 1920s and 1930s, one finds extremely detailed clinical and phenomenological observations, often embedded in narratives of an almost novelistic richness and density … this richness and detail and phenomenological openness have disappeared, and one finds instead meagre notes that give no real picture of the patient or his world.