Oliver Sacks Magnificent at AMNH Tonight

Just got back from Oliver Sacks’s lecture at the American Museum of Natural History tonight.  It was a packed house at 77th and Columbus, and Oliver did not disappoint.  First of all, I have to tell you that this is the first time we attended a lecture of this nature in the Museum’s auditorium, and it is drop dead gorgeous with great acoustics.

Oliver began with brief personal background, but I daresay that everyone in attendance was already well aware of his resume.  He quickly got into the substance of The Mind’s Eye.  He noted at the outset that it’s generally not a good idea for a doctor to take on friends as patients, but it’s very rewarding for doctors to become friends with patients that they care for.  This is a particularly luxury that a celebrated neurologist has, who takes on a limited number of patients.  Yet Sacks was clear that he never accepts seeing a patient with the idea that they are going to going to become an interesting case study to write about.

I was particularly pleased that Oliver spent a significant portion of his talk on the experiences of  Stereo Sue.  As many times as we’ve been exposed to Sue Barry’s story, it’s still a joy to think of the significance of the collaboration that she first undertook with her developmental optometrist, Dr. Theresa Ruggiero, and subsequently with Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Wish I had known that there was going to be a live steam of the video tonight, but I can tell you now that the AMNH is going to put the video on its YouTube channel later this week.  I’ll give you a heads-up on that when that’s posted.  Bottom line is that Oliver was clear that the key to Sue’s outcome was that she saw a behavioral optometrist, and that her experience was so compelling that they agreed that there must be thousands of other people out there like her who should be given the option of undertaking vision therapy.

Oliver was struggling with his vision (he shared with the audience that he is now totally blind in his right eye), his hearing, and his gait, but his mind is as sharp as ever and his message remains a strong counterbalance to misinformation about vision therapy.

– Leonard J. Press, O.D., FCOVD, FAAO

2 thoughts on “Oliver Sacks Magnificent at AMNH Tonight

  1. My husband and I also attended the lecture last evening at the museum. We were somewhat astonished by the apparent lack of preparation on the part of Dr. Sacks. We are familiar with his previous publications and have been inspired by his case studies. We drove a distance to attend this lecture and were left feeling confused (at best). I would assume that many in the audience were accomplished in some aspect of neuro psychology or neurology. If that was the case certainly no one was enlightened by Dr. Sacks or anything he shared…I felt sad that this was the case and hope that he is priivy to similar feedback, so as to either discontinue his lecture circuit or to better prepare.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Kim, and sorry to learn you feel that way. When I go to a lecture of this nature, I feel that if I come away with a nugget or two that wasn’t in the book that he was promoting, then it was worth the trip. And there were several nuggets that you might agree on after I mention them. Before highlighting them however, I want to give you a reason for why it may have appeared that Dr. Sacks was less prepared than you thought. On several occasions he paused to read something from his book, and couldn’t find it. This made it seem as if he was searching for thought, or direction, when to my eyes it was his visual problem getting the better of him. They dimmed the hall lights before he began, and the lighting was such that the lectern was bathed in light from below, but not from above. Given that Oliver has not lost the vision entirely in his right eye, and given that he is 78 years old and may very well have age related changes in his left eye, it appeared that his visual search was faulty rather than his preparation being poor. Having said that, I do believe he could have had a “Plan B” in which his assistant would be ready to guide him on which passages he was trying to locate,, much as she came out to assist him with the Q & A (which did not go very well because of his hearing issues).

      Now for the nuggets:
      1) Oliver made a great point of how he didn’t feel that losing a relatively small residual peripheral of his right eye would make much difference in his function, since he has lost so much central vision in that eye. The complete loss however disoriented him considerably. His description of being surprised by items appearing on his right side, and his overlaying of the concept of visual neglect on top of a field loss, was insightful. Though many in attendance may have read about or experienced patients with these conditions, hearing it directly from him brings the point home, I thought.

      2) He made a point which I hadn’t fully thought about before. He guided the audience on covering one eye or the other, and comparing their difference in sensation of depth when using only one eye or the other. While this difference may be relatively trivial for the “average” person, Oliver noted that when he does this with members of the NY Stereoscopic Society, they all experience a profound difference between using one or two eyes in viewing natural scenes. He suggested that these individuals have in a sense “hyper-stereopsis”. That bolsters my thinking that a good way to condition our brains to register a greater sense of stereopsis, or at least a reflex component of this, is to do these comparisons of one eye vs. two eyes under a very broad variety of conditions – some static and some dynamic; some more central and others more peripheral, some under stationary body conditions and others while engaged in balance; etc.

      3) He did a beautiful job of relating the story of “Stereo Sue”. Even if you knew the story beforehand, just hearing him describe it and read from her excerpts was enchanting, was it not? And he clearly made the point of how pleasantly change-of-pace this was for him, to be contacted by someone celebrating neuro-gain and joy rather than painful loss.

      4) Oliver’s discussion of prosopagnosia was elegant, I thought, again because you’re hearing about it straight from someone who experiences it. I don’t fault him for not using the technical term, but referring to “face blindness”, because he laid out the continuum on which this condition lies. I thought his point about how dyslexia commands attention, but prosopagnosia is written off as a curiosity without realizing the potentially devastating social consequences was a very good point.

      5) His description of Howard Engel, the Canadian writer, and how he wound up using a form of sensory substitution in forming letters first in the air, and then with his tongue behind his teeth, was riveting – even though I knew the story well already. It was quintessential medical detective work.

      If you watch the video when it comes out on the AMNH YouTube channel in these lights, I suspect you might judge his performance less harshly.

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