Making Research “Infinitely More Interesting” | October Editor’s Choice

By Mikaella Evaristo | Senior Editor

Illustration by: Michelle Shi | Director of Art & Layout

One truth that comes from being a part of a STEM field is the challenge brought upon by scientific papers. Many readers fall into confusion as they try to trek through empirically dense reading. This poses a problem in the universal understanding of a breakthrough in research, and thus it becomes important to make research “infinitely more interesting,” as Oliver Sacks, renowned neurologist and English writer, would have said. In his Fall 2015 article, “Oliver Sacks’ Human Vision,” student author Mark Robles-Long highlights the importance of approaching medicine in an interdisciplinary, multifaceted way. In his article, Long discusses the brilliance that Sacks brought to the field of medicine.

Long introduces Sacks as a “progressive neurologist who expanded the [medical] field’s focuses, creating a body of work that introduced not only science to creative literature, but also poetry to medicine”. 1 Sacks is referred to as the “poet laureate of medicine,” because he was able to bridge the gap between a subject as objective as medicine and at the opposite side of the spectrum, the field of the written word. He used writing as “a medium by which he could transcend the density of empirical, scientific papers and reach those looking for meditation upon the human brain as it related to the human condition”. 1 Sacks is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, such as The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, and Awakenings, to name a few. He was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books, and inspired the movie “Awakenings,” starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. 2

Sacks was a brilliant man who not only contributed to two entirely distinct fields, but also somehow merged them together through his pure passion for the two disciplines. In 2009, Sacks gave a TED talk on hallucinations, an underreported phenomenon. He had asked the question, “What do hallucinations reveal about our minds?” In his talk, he elaborated on his experiences in a nursing home with elderly people who were having hallucinations. 3 What was interesting about these cases was the fact that the elderly people were either hearing- or sight- impaired, and so had auditory or visual hallucinations. This is referred to as the Charles Bonnet Syndrome, who first described the condition in 1760. 2 Sacks opens his talk by immediately capturing his audience’s attention by saying that we “see with the eyes, but we also see with the brain. And seeing with the brain is often called imagination.”

In his very lyrical way of speaking, stemming from his perfected craft of the English language, Sacks was able to capture his audience’s attention. He then begins to tell us, in vivid detail, about his encounters in the nursing home. He tells us how a blind woman was seeing Kermit the Frog and how a deaf person was hearing a symphony. 3 Sacks’ main purpose for giving his talk was not revealed until towards the end, where he states that such a disorder needs to be brought out into the public. He says that the phenomenon is “infinitely interesting, and valuable as to giving insight on how the brain works”. 3 He notes that there are thousands of hearing- or visually- impaired people too scared to report their visual or auditory hallucinations for fear of being labeled “insane,” but Sacks hoped that he was shifting the focus more on the “infinitely interesting” phenomenon. 3 He closes his talk by quoting Charles Bonnet: “The theater of the mind could be generated by the machinery of the brain”. 3 By pinning the mind as a complex stage of artistic movement, Bonnett was able to presuppose an integral “backstage” element to producing the show of the mind, implying a duality between brain (the physical) and mind (nonphysical). By detailing his experiences in such a vivid manner and drawing from history, Sacks was able to make his cause heard.

A core attribute to Oliver Sacks’ success lay in his merging of two polar passions. Sacks was able to make his causes heard by not only the STEM field, but also those in other disciplines. He was able to detail every encounter he had with his patients in a way that made it interesting to the average avid reader. He touched not only the world of science, but also the realm of writing and those that belong in them. His audience was varied because of his efficient mode of delivery when he elaborated on things that he deemed mattered. In zooming in on the collegiate life, where the campus is as diverse as the ambitions it sees, it would be smart to apply Sacks’ way of garnering attention on important matters in the medical world. As a student within the STEM field, it is too easy to get lost amidst the sometimes labeled “boring” papers of new research studies. How do we make research “infinitely more interesting”? How do we merge our individual, polar passions to be heard? How do we bring other disciplines into the STEM world?

References:
1. Robles-Long, Mark. “Oliver Sacks’ Human Vision .” Medical Dialogue Review, 2015.
2. Cowles, Gregory. “Oliver Sacks, Neurologist Who Wrote About the Brain’s Quirks, Dies at 82.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 30 Aug. 2015.
3. Staff, NPR/TED. “What Do Hallucinations Reveal About Our Minds?” NPR, NPR, 6 Feb. 2013.

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