Oliver Sacks and Creative Arts Therapies

Oliver Sacks says farewell, but he leaves a creative legacy.

Posted Feb 23, 2015

Oliver Sacks Website | Official Photo

Many colleagues in the fields of creative arts therapies were sad to read Oliver Sacks’ recent and poignant essay in the Op-Ed section of The New York Times about the return of his cancer and his thoughts about death. Sacks writes, “A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.”

Sacks’ work has sometimes garnered criticism from the medical and disability communities. His well-known book on the "awakenings" patients was questioned on the grounds that the work was not based on accepted research methods and his writings on autistic savants has also been questioned. Still, on the morning I read the op-ed, I could not help but feel grateful for Sacks’ body of work and how each of his books has reverberated throughout my professional life. The classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat not only challenged my thinking about the human brain while also expanding the definition of the human spirit. Musicophilia introduced me to the vast terrain of music and the brain, including its numerous possibilities in therapy, rehabilitation and medicine. It helped to bring to light that music can help individuals with Parkinson’s Disease, aphasia, and dementia, among other disorders, because as Sacks says, “musical perception, musical sensibility, musical emotion and musical memory can survive long after other forms of memory have disappeared.” In other volumes, Sacks explores the nature of creativity, enlightening readers with tales about people who develop surprising artistic abilities after left-hemisphere strokes or other neurological events. These clinical narratives continue to support the growing body of knowledge on creativity and aging and inspire new applications of creative arts therapies with older adults.

Sacks often uses himself as the subject of his writing. In Migraine he writes, “In my own migraine auras, I would sometimes see — vividly with closed eyes, more faintly and transparently if I kept my eyes open — tiny branching lines, like twigs, or geometrical structures covering the entire visual field: lattices, checkerboards, cobwebs, and honeycombs. Sometimes there were more elaborate patterns, like Turkish carpets or complex mosaics; sometimes I saw scrolls and spirals, swirls and eddies; sometimes three-dimensional shapes like tiny pine cones or sea urchins.” And then there is the unforgettable In The Mind’s Eye, in which he relates stories of people who are able to communicate with others despite losing various senses and abilities such as speech, facial recognition, or sight. Sacks himself relates the story of his own eye cancer and his loss of vision as a result of medical intervention

I have been inspired by so much of what Sacks has written. His body of work takes us into the world of our clients by providing what are often deeply moving and complex portraits of individuals with complicated challenges. In his latest public essay, Sacks observes that he is not finished with life. Like so many others, I am not ready to be finished with Sacks either.

Be well,

Cathy A. Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT

Oliver Sacks website http://www.oliversacks.com/