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On Being a Subject of Oliver Sacks

How Oliver Sacks taught me how to listen.

When I was 48 years old, I learned through vision therapy how to see in 3D, an achievement once considered impossible. I had been cross-eyed and stereoblind since infancy, and it was thought, at the time, that stereovision could develop only during a “critical period” in early childhood. So, when my story became public, many scientists and doctors wanted to examine my vision. As a result, I’ve taken part in lots of perceptual tests, had myself wired up for studies of my eye movements, and even had my brain imaged. Every scientist had his own pet theory or experiment he wanted to test on me so that I couldn’t help but feel a little like an oddity, an “other,” or a laboratory rat. I wanted them to think more broadly, beyond their particular experiment or theory, to what I tried to tell them: that the acquisition of stereovision changed the whole way I saw space and experienced my surroundings. Indeed, there was only one investigator with whom I felt perfectly comfortable and from whom I learned the most, and that was Oliver Sacks.

Dr. Sacks was the first person, outside of close family and friends, to whom I told my vision story, which burst out of me in one very long letter written during a single evening in December, 2004. Although Dr. Sacks was intrigued by my experience, he didn’t ask me to come to his office for tests. Instead, he asked if he could come visit me. If he was going to understand how I acquired stereovision and its impact on me, he needed to see me in my own surroundings.

So Oliver Sacks got in his car, drove for three hours, and came for lunch. As we chatted over his favorite foods (smoked salmon and bananas), we got to know each other. But this folksy introduction didn’t compromise his clinical investigation for Dr. Sacks brought with him, not only vision testing equipment, but also an ophthalmologist and vision scientist. After we cleared away the lunch dishes, they set up the equipment on my dining room table, and a long vision testing session followed. Then we drove over to my optometrist’s office so that Dr. Sacks and his colleagues could talk with my doctor and try out the vision therapy procedures that I had used in the place where I had practiced them. After more letters and visits as well as consultations with several vision scientists, including David Hubel and Richard Gregory, Dr. Sacks wrote “Stereo Sue” as an article for The New Yorker and then later as a chapter in his book, The Mind’s Eye.

Oliver Sacks has just published his autobiography, titled On the Move: A Life, which picks up where his memoir of childhood, Uncle Tungsten, leaves off. One of my favorite quotes from the book occurs in a footnote on page 173. It's the late 1960’s, and Dr. Sacks had just started giving L-dopa to his severely parkinsonian patients (the Awakenings patients). When he told his chief that he was treating three patients with the drug, the senior doctor responded sarcastically that he had three hundred patients on L-dopa. “Yes, but I learn a hundred times as much about each patient as you do,” Dr. Sacks retorted.

Oliver Sacks changed my life – and not just because he wrote “Stereo Sue” and, subsequently, the foreword to my book. Because of his influence, I became less judgmental and more open. I began to read more widely, including books and articles far outside my own scientific discipline. At the same time, I started to put more trust in my own sensory impressions, rather than accepting the opinion of experts (most of whom had no personal knowledge of the visual changes I experienced.) I became a better teacher, listening more intently to my students and reminding them never to shortchange themselves or let others tell them what it is they cannot do.

What gives Dr. Sacks the humility, curiosity, empathy, and patience to spend so much time listening to his patients and other subjects? You may find some answers by reading On the Move. The book may surprise, even shock, you. But to me, it is quintessentially Oliver, quintessentially optimistic. Although Oliver Sacks experienced heart-breaking struggles, torments, and regrets throughout his life, he emerged with a deep sense of gratitude, and we, the readers, learn of a life that was and continues to be well-lived.