The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks: Contingency of science and the balance of all life
In The River of Consciousness, the late author, neurologist and physician Oliver Sacks puzzles an intellectual reader with his cross-science view of human perception. Fascinated with Darwin, Freud, James, and other revolutionary geniuses, he connects the known and missing synapses of all life.
Critics showered superlatives on Sack’s 15 books spanning oeuvre including this last work published posthumously (outlined two weeks before his death). The River of Consciousness takes you on a comprehensive scientific journey immersed in a gripping, deeply immersive style that initiates the reader into the complexities of the mind and pure existence. Oliver Sacks has the gift of writing about a difficult subject with an ease of a poet.
The title borrows from Jorge Luis Borges: “Time is the substance I’m made of, a river that carries me away, but I’m the river.”
A trio of close friends, whom Sacks charged with publishing The River of Consciousness, organised his wisdom of eight fruitful decades flowing with curiosity. The physical (hormones, molecular activity) is theoretically related to the mind’s processes of his patients and his own observations. The author’s theories are plucked from the stash of evolutionary science, molecular biology, neurology, neuroscience, philosophy, psychology, but also from the board literature that Sacks pondered over his long and intellectually fertile life.
Size does [n’t] matter: how human judgement increases the possibility of error
Great minds inspired “the poet laureate of medicine” [NYT] to pin ideas together. From the flowers feeling, sharing 70% of their DNA with us and the animals, through our perception of speed and the flow of the mind, he further explains why our memory fails, how we recreate the self and the reality of the past events. The biology hobbyist stirs appreciation for some lower animals (amoeba, lampreys, insects have feelings equivalent to these of a dog; studies by H.S. Jennings) and the other forms of life in the light of science. “Bees are expert in recognising different colours, smells, and geometrical shapes… and communicate these to their fellow bees.” While, paper wasps are “highly social species” as an “individual can learn and recognise the faces of other wasps”. Further, knowing that crayfish feels desire, hunger, pain, pleasure et al. (Freud) reasons for the potential to rewire one’s empathy towards animals. He reminds us: “Sensitisation and habituation are crucial for the survival of all living organisms”. Learning indeed is living.
The televised personality knows how to move smoothly between sciences and themes. Sacks dives into theory of what really matters – creativity, feelings, time, perception, memory, the laws and the meaning of life itself. In tune with the Darwinist Tree Of Life when balance, evolution, survival or extinction are the major forces in nature, Sacks lifts up the continuity of natural selection self-organising from chaos into universal realities. Strikingly, “Human beings might never have evolved” as evolution “never stops, never repeats itself, never goes backwards. It shows the irrevocability of extinction.”
The faults of science: why timing, forgetting, speed can inject more bias in science
By the route of showing – he demonstrates how old theories are replaced by new through adaptation. Today, neuroplasticity or modification of entire brain systems by individual experience is widely accepted. Freud (neurology and psychoanalysis) and Kohler (Gestalt psychology) sniffed at it, but could not measure this dynamic and constructive processes in their time. Timing is as important in science as it is in business. Premature theories are stifled by new consensus. So was the case of the heliocentrism of Aristarchus (3rd century B.C.) replaced by Ptolemy’s geocentric model (2nd century A.D.) for 16! centuries before Copernicus lifted the dark ages into the light of what we understand today.
Can we catch up with the flowing change?
The great connector of medicine to other sciences even technology, Sacks illuminates the grey corners of being in The River of Consciousness. Taking up photography for its microscopic prowess (altered rate of motion) he observes the daily life frozen in movement. Accelerated reality on contrary is possible through cinematic manipulation. Veering into science itself, speed fascinates Sacks.
Reflecting upon his medical research experience, he alerts that despite all the technological progress, modern science is less detailed, taking less time than the “fuller, more vivid” accounts of the 19th century. Scotoma or neglect in human learning erased from its accounts some great thinkers and their achievements essential for our scientific progress. The substance known today as oxygen was described by John Mayow in the 1670s. Oswald Awery discovered DNA in 1944 before Watson and Crick were credited with the double helix structuring of it almost a decade later. In his own field Ramon Y Cajal “the first and greatest micro anatomist of the nervous system” is re-celebrated in The River of Consciousness by the neurologist. Like Darwin with his orchids, he revealed the nature of previously unnoticed phenomena. Human experience, the origins of all life and sentience (feeling through electricity currents used to move and react) of insects and plants puzzled his inquisitive mind.
The secret of creativity: Is human perception less limited than we think?
In a chapter on Creativity, the author unleashes the magic of flow on the mind of any creator. The field of consciousness widens, and in his view a scientist merges with an artist. The two “break new ground through a special energy, over and above one’s creative potential, a special audacity or subversiveness to strike out in a new direction”. A genius can be awakened and use disadvantage to its benefit. The epileptic seizures of Dostoevsky, Stephen Hawkins Tourette’s syndrome, and other neurological pathologies affecting the greatest thinkers like Freud (migraines), allowed them to alter perception and to show us the world in a different way though literature and science. They illustrated a new dimension unknown to those with “normal” standardised behaviour.
What this energy is, “what makes an observation or a new idea acceptable, discussable, memorable” and its enemies that “may prevent it despite its clear importance and value” is broadened in The River of Consciousness so eloquently that it became one of the most intriguing books I have read to date. The author wisely concludes that “Science is not ineluctable process but contingent in the extreme.” Daunt Books in London nudged me to get my copy that stirred plenty of ideas and meaningful thinking.