cathy's Reviews > An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks
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May 16, 07

bookshelves: non-fiction-read
Recommended for: Everyone, especially those who want to learn how to write a case study.
Read in January, 2004

In An Anthropologist on Mars, Oliver Sacks seamlessly weaves fascinating patient stories and lessons in neurology for the layperson. This may sound quite dry if you're not into reading about bizarre behavior from brain circuitry goes awry, but Sacks makes the science very palatable. He acts as our well-traveled tour guide as we explore the everyday lives and thinking processes of seven people who have made creative use of their cognitive hiccups.

Some of the patients featured in this collection of case studies have managed neurological differences from birth; others have had to re-program and mourn grave deficits due to freak events. Dr. Sacks explains the malleability and compensatory functions built into the brain when one portion becomes dim. Perhaps more importantly, he demonstrates via his subjects how the human spirit also adapts after sensory loss. His tale of a painter who was made colorblind after a car accident is an example of the latter: Sacks works through myriad possible explanations for this man’s newly colorless world; however, he is eventually left without a reason—or a cure. During this process, the artist manages to reform his creative identity; he comes to see his newly gray vision as "pure" and not “distracted by color”, so previously unseen forms begin to shape his noirish, multi-shadowed work.

I read this book about 4 years ago and the story that has stayed with me is that of a surgeon with uncontrollable Tourette's. This man is unable to stop his violent tics and outbursts even for a few moments, but he is allowed a mysteriously zen-like reprieve when his hands (and quite possibly his mind) are steadied as he performs surgery. The story illustrates for me what I think is Sacks' message: People are not their pathologies, and talents and interests should always be encouraged, even in the face of what we sometimes misdiagnose as deficits.

Neurology for Sacks is a vocation, not a career. He conducts his research and writing in a truly humanistic spirit, and what I most love about both is the compassion and respect he shows his patients; they are not treated as curious oddities or guinea pigs, as is the case in so many medical and psychological case studies. Throughout all his work Sacks maintains a sense of wonder about the people he treats. He demonstrates that people who seem detached from experience can have full lives, and in some cases, an inner life that is cognitively richer than that of "normal" folks ( i.e. those of us unhindered by neurological or physical challenges).

The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat is considered essential Sacks, but for reasons stated--especially that surgeon--I much prefer this collection.
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message 1: by Trish (new) - added it

Trish Clifford "Cognitive hiccups"....I love that!


Manny Great review. I was also very taken with the color-blind painter.



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