Iron Mountain ski jump

Iron Mountain ski jump

Wednesday, May 8, 2019


I just read Oliver Sacks’ memoir, On the Move. Sacks was physician, neurologist, and author. As a neurological physician, he was memorably played by Robin Williams in the film “Awakening,” based on Sacks’ book of the same name. The film also stars Robert DeNiro as a patient.

I did not learn of Sacks through the film, since I am--for a reasonably educated and worldly 20th century person--remarkably ignorant of films, especially considering that my granddaughter has a master’s degree in film studies from The U of Chicago. I first became aware of Sacks through his writings in “The New Yorker,” which led me to two of his many books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and River of Consciousness. [Yes, that’s no mistake above. I am a 20th century—not a 21st century—person.]

I’m glad that I read those two books, in that order, for in between the first one to the latter, Sacks evolved from a classical understanding of neurology, as a sort of regionalized computer [although he was never a psychological behaviorist Skinnerian, as I was taught to be as an undergraduate] to the current plasticity model, generated most notably by Gerald Edelman.

Edelman’s theory is that each human brain evolves from birth to death in much the same way that humanity has been evolving as a whole for millions of years.

As a plastic neurologist [my term] Sacks’ main curiosity became: How does the brain produce the mind?

Sacks himself had an “interesting” brain. Among other things, he had prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize and distinguish between faces. Physical accidents, such as one that left him with a feeling that his leg was no longer attached to his body, became research fodder. He was a graphaholic, writing millions of words in journals throughout his life and, once written, never looking at them again. As a young physician, his compulsive brain, with its desire for movement, would cause him to ride on a motorcycle for ten hours at a time, without stopping, 100 miles per hour, at night.

Most interestingly--although most of the volume of his book is about his varied work as a physician with people with brain problems, and his collaboration with various researchers--he talks about his life in terms of love and loss, home and away, joyful and dreary, the way any one of us would, almost as though his understanding of brain mechanisms had nothing to do with his own living.

That’s the difference between brain and mind. Through research as a physician and living as a person, Sacks understood that brain and mind are not the same. I suspect he smiled as he titled his book. “On the move” is really about how the brain evolves to create the mind.

I personally believe that God, as Creator, is “involved” in general evolution. I think that the Edelman theory of the brain means that God is involved in the evolution of each of our minds. We call that “spirituality.”

In other words, as St. Augustine said it, “God loves each of us as though there were only one of us.”

John Robert McFarland

“With God, time is eternity in disguise.” Abraham Heschel

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