By: Raeya Maswood
I remember the day I went to Borders with my parents in high school and got “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” It was my first introduction to the world of neurology and cognitive neuroscience. So when I found out that I was scheduled to volunteer for the World Science Festival‘s opening night event, “Awakening the Mind” a tribute event celebrating Dr. Oliver Sacks, I was so excited.
“The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” is a collection of case studies from early in Dr. Oliver Sack’s career as a neurologist. It received its title from Sacks’s experience with a patient with visual agnosia who had special difficulty recognizing faces. When I later revisited this case in my cognitive neuroscience class, I was fascinated to learn that prosopagnosia, a type of visual agnosia that Sacks suffered from himself, involved the impairment of a specific region in the brain that responds to faces.[i]
Oliver Sacks was as much an artist as a scientist. He shared the untold stories of those with cognitive impairment in the realms of language, memory and visual perception. His patients were vibrant, their stories strange and extraordinary, and Sacks’s interactions with them full of kindness. He wrote of their experiences with intrigue and respect. Unusual for his time, Sacks’s writing brought life and personality to his patients’ experiences, rather than simply listing their symptoms. Sacks’s work is able to evoke both an interest in the scientific observations he wrote about, as well as in the elegance of his prose. His case studies exemplify a union of science and literary art.
Backstage at the World Science Festival event, I had the opportunity to meet with one of Oliver Sacks’s close friends. Their friendship started long before the publication of his book and lasted for over 35 years. I learned that early on in Sacks’s career, the case studies that he published in the New Yorker were rejected from the scientific community. His case studies were not considered to be research, and no academic science journals would publish them.
Some readers from the general public even accused him of making up the experiences.
I understand and respect the standards of scientific journals as it’s necessary to produce high quality, impactful research. But, I wonder how progress would be if Sacks did not choose to publish his work elsewhere. Patients with neurological disorders may have remained misunderstood a while longer, research may not have advanced as quickly, and the public would not have yet been informed about these exceptional neurological experiences.
Thankfully though, Sacks continued to write. He shared his science through telling creatively written artful stories of unique experiences. His choice of presenting his research through storytelling grasped the attention of the literary and arts community, later the scientific community, and most importantly reached wider society.
Science does not progress without creativity.
From the start of making observations, choosing our IVs and DVs to designing experiments, creativity is embedded in the scientific method and how we do research.
Throughout his career, Oliver Sacks conducted his research in such a fashion. His work continued to gain a wide audience, and this audience grew more interested and informed. As scientists, the impact of our work and research is dependent not only on our scientific advances, but also on how far we reach people through accessible knowledge and education. Sacks’s storytelling was able to connect people with science through compelling stories, dispelling the idea that reason and creativity have opposing goals, working oppositely in the brain.