What happens to his art when a painter can't see color?
- Oliver Sacks, professor of clinical neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine
- Book Type:
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In the preface to An Anthropologist on Mars, Sacks presents things that move us from the "norm," the center of the Bell Curve, as things which enable latent mental powers for brains to rewire themselves that only emerge in the presence of a defect, disorder, or disease. But why do such things become possible at all?
The brain is "plastic." It doesn't stop wiring itself at 20 or 25, as these seven people clearly show. Each one has found a way to create sense in the world despite an absence of the brain structures that "normally" enable the work they do. Their brains changed as a result of the need to create something because of what they valued and believed mattered as a problem to solve.
SOME PERSONAL THOUGHTS ABOUT WHY THIS BOOK MATTERS
These seven stories about people doing "the impossible" show how the humanities enable a brain to build its own capacity to accomplish something that an individual mind desires intensely and will persevere in.
"This sense of the brain's remarkable plasticity, its capacity, for the most striking adaptations...[that Dr. Sacks] is sometimes moved to wonder...if it's necessary to redefine health...as the ability of an organism to create...order that fits its special needs...rather than in terms of a rigidly defined 'norm.'"
--Oliver Sacks, in the preface
Everything is possible to the mind that knows itself
This doesn't mean "anyone can do anything if they put their mind to it." It means that the mind itself is fit for a particular problem, and we have to know ourselves well enough to discover what we are born for. Then we can change ourselves according to our inborn strengths to contribute something new to the world we live in..
We change ourselves the same way we define ourselves: by acts of willful energy. The energy is whatever we feel we must create: objects of art, conditions of compassion for other people, ephemera such as event planning, commitments such as parenting or nursing. Willful energy is any thing that contributes momentum that is easily fired into action and directed by a person's will. Its scope, power, and target is unique to everyone, but those three elements create affinities among people who share the same ones. So we are individuals and unique, and yet we are not aliens and alone.
Believing precedes seeing
Our brains make us capable in ways that people not like us have trouble crediting: to see something, you have to believe it possible.
Science proves over and over that the one who thinks something can be done sees the way first. William Harvey discovered circulation, but he could not see that he had explained the purpose of the physical heart: he did not believe it. We do not see before we believe: we believe in possibility before we see actuality thanks to willful energy.
I conclude my thoughts as Sacks concludes his preface: "These then are tales of metamorphosis, brought about by neurological change, but metamorphosis into alternative states of being...no less human for being so different."
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An Anthropologist on Mars 2015-01-15
a professor of clinical neurology interviews Temple Grandin in the title essay