Browse By

The River of Consciousness

The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks
237 pp, ISNB 9780385352567, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017

     Like many of my generation, I spent my childhood outdoors. I scooped up tadpoles from the pond next door, watching them sprout limbs and turn terrestrial. I trapped backyard fireflies in glass jars on warm June evenings, spending hours of observation trying to discern the secrets of their random flickers. I poured plaster of Paris into animal tracks in the woods, which I later carefully lifted from the forest floor and added to my bedroom shelf collection.

Oliver Sacks, in the early essays of his 2017 collection The River of Consciousness, takes a child’s inchoate curiosity of nature to a whole new level. In an essay titled “Speed,” we learn that the young Oliver photographed fiddleheads in his English garden hour by hour, developed the negatives, then arranged them in little flip-books so he could watch in seconds the unfurling of their crosiers, which took days in real time. Similarly, he captured the wingbeats of butterflies into up and down movements with the help of his cousin’s cine camera.

In this literary tour de force, Sacks links the worlds of botany, neurology, physics, and psychology by effortlessly invoking the works of a great many scientists, researchers, physicians and experimenters—some famous, others little known, some gone with the ancients, others friends and colleagues of the famed neurologist. We learn (or are reminded) of Charles Darwin’s discovery that plants are not self-pollinated but are fertilized by insects; Spencer Jennings’s proposition that single-celled protozoa, in effect, learn and remember; Eric Kandel’s reporting of face recognition in a species of paper wasp. All of these miracles of science are related back to Sacks’ own life and come to us wrapped in the gleaming bow of his wide-eyed wonder. Of evolution, Sacks says, “I rejoice in the knowledge of my biological uniqueness and my biological antiquity and my biological kinship with all other forms of life. This knowledge roots me, allows me to feel at home in the natural world, to feel that I have my own sense of biological meaning, whatever my role in the cultural, human world.”

The subject Sacks explores that may be of prime interest to the Doctors Who Create community is in the essay titled “The Creative Self.” He notes that one foundational requisite in the development of creativity is imitation and apprenticeship, in which the future artist absorbs lessons from famous painters, sculptors and authors by studying their work. All art, in other words, is derivative in some degree, highly influenced by earlier art and artists. What sets creativity apart from mere mastery of style and form involves an active interplay, an assimilation or incorporation of the talents underlying the creative process with one’s own life experience; an imposition of personal depth and meaning on the work.

In a related essay called “The Fallibility of Memory,” Sacks draws distinctions between intentional plagiarism and cryptomnesia, where a forgotten memory is recognized anew in a person, not as a memory but as a novel thought or creation. He notes that there is no way for events of the world to be recorded directly as truths in our brains. Every “truth” is experienced and interpreted uniquely by individuals. “Our only truth is narrative truth,” he explains. “The stories we tell each other and ourselves.” After reading The River of Consciousness, I am only glad that Dr. Sacks has shared his truth with us.