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November 18, 2012

New York’s profile of the endlessly fascinated and fascinating Dr. Oliver Sacks—the solitary, painfully shy neurologist and amateur long-distance swimmer who once stalked Thom Gunn, counted Auden as a friend, ingested copious amounts of drugs, rode a Harley and set weight-lifting records—has reminded me to revisit his books.

Sacks’ stories of the neurologically damaged, of people suddenly unable to read or to speak, illuminates what a strange miracle language is, how unlikely it must be that our minds and bodies are wired in such a way that we’re able to communicate nuanced feelings and construct complex thoughts through a system of sounds, and how much more remarkable it is that we can transcribe this all in symbols and make perfect, flowing sense of marks on a page—except when we can’t. Injury or illness or age can throw a piece of the brain out of whack and steal these wondrous abilities, leaving an individual incapable of recognizing letters at all, or able to identify each letter but not to string them into words or sentences or sense.

These basic, universal abilities aren’t so basic or universal after all, but contingent on specific and revocable brain functioning. What, then, are the limits that our brains and bodies impose on us as a species? Our senses of touch and taste and smell aren’t the culture-building and transmitting forces that sight and hearing have been. Certainly our pets rely on scent for communication more than we do. Are there alien civilizations based on taste? With a few neurological changes would we invent whole symphonies of touch?

There are people who can’t recognize faces or emotions or color or common objects. What else are all of us missing? What wonders do the peculiarities of our neurology leave us unable to apprehend or even imagine?    


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