Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Starting with an early book on Parkinsonism, Awakenings (which was later made into a movie starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams), Oliver Sacks has written about neurological conditions with the drama of a fiction writer. Recently, he wrote a piece in The New Yorker about his own battle with prosopagnosia. Prosopagnosia is the inability to recognize faces. Another condition, agnosia, is the inability to recognize objects—the syndrome that the subject of Dr. Sacks’s 1985 tome, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, suffered from. A complementary disorder is Capgras syndrome, in which the subject recognizes a face, but sees it as a mask occupied by an imposter. Richard Powers, a novelist and MacArthur fellow who has devoted his career to writing fiction about ailments of the mind, documents this condition in The Echo Maker. So we have novelists like Powers and Larry Shainberg (who wrote Memories of Amnesia, about a brain surgeon suffering from the aforementioned disorder) writing fiction about neurology and neuroscience, and neurologists and neuroscientists like Sacks and V.S. Ramachandran writing novelistically about the conditions they encounter in their work. Since the early ‘70s, when Sacks started to write poetically about neurological anomalies, the vocabulary of neurology and neuroscience has been coming into common parlance, much the way Freud’s discoveries of neurosis and hysteria did in early part of the last century. Today, parietal lobes, the amygdala, the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex are talked about the way the libido, the id and the superego were discussed when psychoanalysis first came under the scrutiny of the educated reader. This evolution in the way the functions and dysfunctions of the mind are described is significant in and of itself as a cultural phenomenon—whether looked at from the left or right side of the brain.

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