Back before I got busy with the end of the semester and the beginning of the summer, I attended a talk Oliver Sacks gave at Columbia. His book An Anthropologist On Mars shaped the way I think about the human brain and its abilities. Before reading the book, I knew that psychologists and neuroscientists and neurologists studied the average behavior of average people in order to build models of the mind and the brain. Sacks’ approach, however, is to study the abilities and concomitant limitations of individuals with unique neurology, due to a disease, condition, or injury, exploring the boundaries of neurological possibility. The idea that the examination of a single individual could illuminate so much about the brain packed quite a punch. It seems to be related to what I think the core of philosophy might be, the study of the possible, or the extension of a set of premises to their logical completion, where a single example can define swaths of boundary between the possible and impossible.
Hearing him speak was fun and interesting, but it couldn’t top the excitement you feel when you learn something really new. He’s on the speaking circuit pushing his new book, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, studies of neurologically interesting cases involving musical abilities, right up my alley. Columbia invited him to give the talk because, as Eric Kandell described in his introduction, Columbia is trying to attract “public intellectuals”, scholars gifted in spreading their message to the lay public. The idea seems to be that they are recruiting professors with their best work already behind them, and the idea didn’t seem very tempting to Sacks. I’d never heard Kandell before, and his wit impressed me, re-stating the audience’s questions in condensed and humorous ways when Sacks couldn’t hear them.
Sacks’ talk was good, but he interested me more as a person. He came off as extremely thoughtful, kind, caring, understanding, and insightful. After Kandell’s lengthy introduction of Sacks, Sacks spent almost as much time introducing him right back. When you hear someone talk in person, you realize things like, “hey, he has a British accent.” I’ll check out his new book when it comes out, but now I’m more interested in his autobiography, Uncle Tungsten.