4 Meaningful Ways Oliver Sacks Changed The World & Made It A More Empathetic Place
Oliver Sacks, a well-known neurologist and author, died Sunday at 82 years old after battling terminal cancer. His best-selling books were some of the first to blend medical writing and clinical observation with storytelling and deeply personal empathy. Sacks has been criticized for his somewhat subjective approach to medicine and for his dramatization of medical conditions, but, generally, writers and scientists alike have praised him as one of the first doctors to help the public understand and empathize with people living with neurological conditions. Oliver Sacks really helped make the world better for people with neurological disorders in a number of inspirational ways.
Some of Sacks' books, including Awakenings, have been turned into documentaries, plays, and movies. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a collection of previously published essays on conditions, including Tourette’s syndrome, autism, phantom limb syndrome, face blindness — a condition from which Sacks suffered — has been published in more than 20 languages, according to Biography.com. Sacks' books became popular because they explored conditions like Asperger's and Tourette's in a way that gave them a human face. Sacks helped make the world better through his work, his words, and who he was as a person. Here are four amazing ways he changed the world:
He Treated His Patients Like People
Sacks was both criticized and praised for his empathy in his work. He sought to understand what his patients' lives were like — how they dealt with their disorders outside of his office. He also wanted to help the public understand more about neurological disorders that many people found frightening. He was one of the first doctors to introduce Tourette's syndrome and Asperger's to a public audience through his books. Sacks made it OK for doctors to have emotions within the realm of their professional lives, because when it comes down to it, doctors aren't just dealing with science — they're dealing with human beings. Sacks described his empathy to The Economist:
Although it's up to me as a neurologist to diagnose the disease and to think in therapeutic terms, I always want to address the person as much as the disease, and I’m very glad my own doctor feels similarly. I’m not just a case to him, I’m a person responding to the situation. So I somehow sit between the biology and the humanist point of view.
He Sought To Destigmatize Mental Illness And Neurological Disorders
A few years before his death, Sacks began studying hallucinations. He said he was inspired to take on the topic because he had experimented with hallucinogenic drugs during his youth, according to Smithsonian magazine. His book Hallucinations, which came out in 2012, sought to break down the scare factor of hallucinations and show them for what they really are: a symptom of something funky happening with brain chemistry. He said that people who suffer from hallucinations will often ignore them because of the social stigma associated with seeing things that aren't there, according to Smithsonian:
In general people are afraid to acknowledge hallucinations, because they immediately see them as a sign of something awful happening to the brain, whereas in most cases they’re not. And so I think my book is partly to describe the rich phenomenology and it’s partly to defuse the subject a bit.
Further, Sacks said he wanted to show that people with neurological disorders were still able to lead relatively normal lives. Too often we assume that people with neurological disorders are "done for," or that their lives won't have any real meaning. In a 1986 interview with People, Sacks said he enjoyed combating this stereotype with his work. He said he loved "to discover potential in people who aren't thought to have any."
He Made Light Of His Own Disorder
Sacks himself suffered from face blindness, which means he sometimes couldn't recognize his own face or the faces of people that he had known for years. He never got defensive about his disorder, though, and it never greatly affected his work. Sacks, who had quite the quirky personality, even made fun of his disorder. In an interview with Radiolab, he described how he was standing in line at a cafe in Chelsea Market in New York City when he started preening his beard in a nearby mirror. After a few seconds, he realized that the figure in the mirror was not preening back at him. Instead, there was no mirror at all, and he had been making faces at another man with a beard expectantly as if it were his reflection.
Sacks described his condition and other conditions with a matter-of-fact attitude that makes neurological disorders as acceptable and normalized as a common cold. By speaking publicly and openly about his disorder, Sacks didn't take himself too seriously and also helped lighten the darkness with which we view neurological disorders and mental illness.
He Was Humble About His Work And Dedicated To It
Though Sacks was an accomplished professor, doctor, and writer, he never let his accomplishments go to his head. He often spoke about just how much more he had to learn, and he never deferred to stereotypes or assumptions when discussing neurological disorders. Sacks modeled himself after "a questing breed of 19th-century physicians," who saw medical science as a "vast, largely uncharted wilderness," according to The New York Times:
I had always liked to see myself as a naturalist or explorer. I had explored many strange, neuropsychological lands — the furthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.
In his book, A Leg to Stand On, he said he was "tenacious, for better or worse," according to the Times. No matter the extent of a neurological disorder, Sacks was never scared away, and he always sought to better understand what his patients were going through on an emotional level:
I am very tenacious, for better or worse. If my attention is engaged, I cannot disengage it. This may be a great strength, or weakness. It makes me an investigator. It makes me an obsessional.