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Gerald Edelman's work: reinventions and Neural Darwinism


Isolation, feeling unique and visual neuroscience
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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I had been pretty isolated until 1986, partly perhaps because I... I wanted to be. I think I partly left England feeling that... that I was perhaps eccentric or would not fit well into the rigid... into the sort of rigid medical hierarchies in England, anymore than I would fit into the military. This was one of my reasons for leaving England. And after my training was complete in neurology in California, I... I wanted to move into a, sort of, hiding place. I... well, that’s not a good way to put it. I hoped there might be interstices in medicine which I could occupy, untroubled by… and also by... by collegial criticism or contact. This was very much my situation at Beth Abraham Hospital. This was a... a poor, unknown chronic disease hospital, beneath the notice of neurologists, but in Beth Abraham I found my Awakenings patients and treasures galore, and I could spend as long as I liked with a patient. But I... I saw a few patients outside, the first one was Witty Ticcy Ray, and there were a few others.

But then after 1986 I had much more contact with... with colleagues, and Ralph introduced me to various visual colleagues of his, and I got a sense of the neuroscientific community. I didn’t even know the word neuroscience in 1986, and obviously there had been a huge transformation since my physiology days at Oxford in the early '50s. At that time one knew almost nothing about the brain. Physiology stopped very much at the level of the spinal cord and the brain stem. People had no idea, for example, how perceptions were constructed, or the very sentence, ‘perceptions are constructs’, would have been meaningless… would not have conveyed anything in the 1950s. So, the whole… Ralph himself embodied a new neuroscientific reality and vision. As Crick did, of course, and he introduced me to many others, perhaps very especially a visual neuroscientist called Charles Gross, Charlie Gross, who was the first man to find cells in a monkey’s brain which could respond specifically to the [sight of a] monkey’s paw.

It had been demonstrated before by Hubel and Wiesel in the early 1960s, that the brain had receptors which might respond to the orientation of lines and to angles and to elementary geometrical things like this. But when Charlie Gross found, in 1969, that there might be cells specific for the recognition of hands, or of faces, well, it’s... it's very interesting. He himself was incredulous of his own findings, and embedded them almost invisibly, almost in parenthesis, in a paper. And people didn’t respond, or they didn’t see this, and more than 10 years went past before there was a huge explosion to do with the recognition of specific parts of the brain, and even specific cells or cell clusters which were crucial in the recognition of face cells and... and all sorts of specific perceptual features. There was another… so visual neuroscience occupied, and still occupies, a considerable part of my life. My last book was called The Mind’s Eye, my current book is about hallucinations, and predominantly visual hallucinations. But there were other interests as well.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Beth Abraham Hospital, Awakenings, Witty Ticcy Ray, Ralph Siegel, Charles Gross

Duration: 5 minutes, 13 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012