Beloved neuroscientist faces death head-on

‘Enormously grateful’: Oliver Sacks has written movingly about having terminal cancer © PA

Oliver Sacks has spent his life understanding neurological disorders, and as he faces death he talks of having a deeper grasp of living. Can we all experience this level of clarity?

‘One has to unite the categories of brain and soul,’ said neuroscientist and author, Oliver Sacks. As he faces death and one category begins shutting down, he tells readers the other has never felt more alive.

Sacks is 81 years old and has spent most of his life studying the minds of patients with brain disorders, including autism, face blindness and Tourette’s. His rare ability to weave absorbing and awe-inspiring stories from his patients’ experiences led the New York Times to label him ‘the poet laureate of medicine’.

In an article that went viral, Sacks explains with astounding levels of acceptance how he has felt since his recent diagnosis of terminal cancer. He describes a new-found detachment, but not in the way one might think. He says he sees life as a ‘sort of landscape’, with a ‘deepening sense of connection to all its parts’.

This has left him feeling ‘intensely alive’, with a clear focus and no time for anything inessential. ‘I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can,’ he says. He acknowledges that he’s scared, but says his predominant feeling is gratitude. ‘I have been a sentient being on this beautiful planet.’

He says he shall no longer pay attention to politics. Although he is keen to distinguish between detachment and indifference, these are no longer his business, ‘but belong to the future’.

Sacks is not the only public intellectual who has written movingly about his experience of terminal illness. The journalist Christopher Hitchens, who died in 2011, described his own experience with introspection and humour, saying he felt ‘badly oppressed’ by a ‘gnawing sense of waste’.

Existential contemplations often feature a shift in perspective, a clearer perception of priorities and an increased appreciation of life that seems almost impossible for the rest of us. Can such realisations only come with a heightened sense of our mortality?

Stayin' alive

Accounts like these inspire us to appreciate every minute, some say. The more we learn about the clarity people achieve when they’re facing death, the easier it will be to emulate this state of mind. We’re all capable of perspective and introspection — and these realisations aren’t only achievable at the end of our lives.

It’s impossible for us to constantly see the world with such acuity, others argue. Such an all-consuming awareness of our mortality would get in the way of everyday life. Writing about a near-death experience, one woman says it all. ‘After a few months of smelling the metaphorical flowers, I’d probably go back to being the whiny ingrate I was before.’ Perhaps there’s just great irony in not being able to fully appreciate life until we know it is ending.

You Decide

  1. Is it possible to live each day as if it were your last? Is it desirable?
  2. Can science ever help us comprehend our own mortality?

Activities

  1. Write a list of three things you would like to achieve before you die. Compare your answers with the rest of the class — how similar are they?
  2. Imagine you’ve been given a month to live. Write an diary account of a day in your life as it comes to an end. Describe the smells and sights you see, keeping in mind your new sense of perspective.

Some People Say...

“Those who do not know how to live must make a merit of dying.”

George Bernard Shaw

What do you think?

Q & A

Why are we so interested in reading about people’s end-of-life introspections?
It’s natural to be curious about something so human, something that we haven’t yet experienced ourselves, and something so rarely talked about. Some call this ‘morbid curiosity’, and the prevailing theory behind its cause is an evolutionary one: it pays to scrutinise dangers that could threaten our own survival. Another argument is that we have a desire to experience others’ suffering and empathise with them.
What can we learn from the dying to live a better life?
A hospice nurse has written a book summarising the regrets of her patients. The most popular regrets were not living a life true to oneself, working too much, suppressing feelings, not keeping in touch with friends and not choosing to be happy.

Word Watch

Face blindness
Oliver Sacks himself suffered from face blindness, which is scientifically known as prosopagnosia. Sufferers of this condition have difficulty recognising faces, even of close friends and family. But it can also affect people’s ability to recognise objects. Sacks once walked past his own house repeatedly, wondering where he lived, before a neighbour shouted out to him. He couldn’t recognise his own home.
Tourette’s
Sacks has had a longstanding interest in Tourette’s syndrome. Throughout his career he has seen the figure of those with Tourette’s go from an estimated one in a million to one in 500 or 1,000. He has also seen the stigma attached to it be vastly reduced.
Patients’ experiences
Sacks often writes about individual patients in detail, retelling their symptoms and experiences (without using their real names). This engaging style was revolutionary when Sacks began his work and has influenced an entire generation of popular science writers.
Sentient
Sentient beings are capable of perceiving, feeling and experiencing the world around them subjectively.

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