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Oliver Sacks' "The River of Consciousness"

Mack Carlisle

Published posthumously, The River of Consciousness reads a bit like a catalog of ideas and individuals influencing and inspiring Oliver Sacks’ own life’s work. Topics covered are as varied as photography, speed, luck, illness, “the immense power of worms,” paracuses (or mishearings), creativity, play, relationships between art and consciousness, time, perception, and ways in which “memory arises not only from experience but from the intercourse of many minds.” Sacks references and includes biographical details from scientists and authors who are his predecessors on the subjects. As such, the book also serves as a convenient bibliographic reference for anyone interested in digging further into his ideas.

Sacks explores the ways great thinkers observe and question: “By asking why, by seeking meaning (not in any final sense, but in the immediate sense of use or purpose).” The river referenced in the title is perhaps a nod to the “stream of theory,” which Darwin’s son describes as his father’s prolific flow of thought from even the seemingly smallest originating fact. As Sacks describes Darwin’s garden, the quotidian inspiration for much of Darwin’s research: “What had once been a pretty picture of insects buzzing about brightly colored flowers now became an essential drama in life, full of biological depth and meaning.” The same “stream of theory” is easily evident of myriad great scientists and thinkers—an individual appears to have a glimmer of an idea that unleashes a river of research, evidence, and learning for decades to come. Sacks certainly falls squarely within this set of well-springs of new thought.

While writing about the complexities of influence and plagiarism, Sacks also tells of his own artistic practice as a writer and ways he views his craft. In a section about memory and “forgettings” or “auto-plagiarism” wherein one might be “reproducing entire phrases or sentences as if anew,” he writes: “I suspect that such forgettings occur for everyone, and they may be especially common in those who write or paint or compose, for creativity may require such forgettings, in order that one’s memories and ideas can be born again and seen in new contexts and perspectives.” As a prolific writer, he also considers unintentional plagiarism. He writes: “we borrow language itself; we did not invent it,” and frequently looks to the idea that all thought and perception comes from somewhere.

Sacks explores the notion of the “perceptual moment” and how our perceptions are stitched together by the brain from many snapshots or stills of sensory detail, as well as why those specific stills are seized upon “out of a thousand possible perceptions” in a given moment. As Sacks explains: “consciousness is always active and selective—charged with feelings and meanings uniquely our own, informing our choices and interfusing our perceptions. So it’s not just Seventh Avenue that I see but my Seventh Avenue, marked by my own selfhood and identity...We are the directors of the film we are making—but we are its subjects too: every frame, every moment, is us, is ours.” It’s a reciprocal experience between one’s consciousness and their surroundings.

Like many of his books, Sacks’ writing style is so accessible and personal, so peppered with anecdotal narratives, that the scientific merit could be called into question. However, to those suspicious of his approach, it remains difficult to deny the care he puts into his research. His is a unique form of science writing that is truly pleasurable to read, and the anecdotal evidence invites readers to understand the subjects, often on a more empathetic and personal level. Just as the selected individuals portrayed throughout the book “secured their effects by demonstration, not argument,” Sacks, too, clearly presents information—the picture is painted and one easily sees the outcome without further persuasion or hand holding.

Throughout the book, Sacks explores scientific discoveries that were ahead of their time. Discoveries written about, only to be buried in the depths of libraries and not dug up again until many decades later. Of our readiness to accept new knowledge he writes: “The first barrier lies in allowing oneself to encounter new ideas, to create a mental space, a category with potential connection—and then to bring these ideas into full and stable consciousness, to give them conceptual form, holding them in mind even if they contradict one’s existing concepts, beliefs, or categories.” The passage reads almost autobiographically, as a reflection on his own life and discoveries as a scientist. It’s as if he suggests that the reader is the one “determining whether an idea or discovery will take hold and bear fruit or whether it will be forgotten, fade, and die without issue.” Perhaps in these final publications, he wanted to assure a place in the present for some of these beautiful stories from the depths.