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Awakening the Mind: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Oliver Sacks

Awakening the Mind is a tribute to the remarkable life and work of Dr. Oliver Sacks. A physician, best-selling author, professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, and regular contributor to the World Science Festival, The New York Times called him “a poet laureate of contemporary medicine” and “one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century.” With stories from friends, colleagues, patients, admirers, and Dr. Sacks himself, this multi-media memory piece of music, image, and language brings to life this extraordinary man who had an incalculable impact on the worlds of medicine and storytelling. Produced in partnership with the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

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When I was at boarding school sent away during the war as a little boy, I had a sense of imprisonment and powerlessness and I longed for movement and power, superhuman power and ease of movement. I enjoyed these briefly, and dreams of flying and in a different way when I went horse riding in the village near school. I love the power and subtleness of my horse and I can still evoked it’s easy, joyous movement. It’s warmth. And sweet hay smell. Most of all, I love motorbikes. My father had one before the war a Scott Flying Squirrel with a big water-cooled engine and an exhaust like a scream. And I wanted a powerful bike too. By the time I was 14, it was understood that I was going to be a doctor.

My mother and father were both physicians and so were my two older brothers. I was not sure however, that I wanted to be a doctor. I could no longer nourish ambitions to be a chemist. Chemistry itself had advanced beyond the 18th and 19th century in organic chemistry, I love so much. But at 14 or 15, inspired by my school biology teacher and by Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, I thought I would like to become a marine biologist. When I got my scholarship to Oxford, I faced a choice. Should I stick to zoology or become a pre-med student and do anatomy, biochemistry, and physiology? It was especially the physiology of the senses that fascinated me. How did we see color, depth, movement? How did we recognize anything? How did we make sense of the world? I have developed these interests from an early age through having visible migraines. For beside the brilliant zigzags, which held attack,  I might during an attack, lose the sense of color. Or depth. Or movement. Or even the ability to recognize anything. My vision could be unmade, deconstructed in front of me, and then be remade, reconstructed all in the space of a few minutes. Incidentally I think this is why I wrote my first book on migraine and devoted a third of it to visual migraine. I knew well of what I wrote.

I’m Robert Krulwich. I’m a reporter, cover lots of science things. I met Oliver because he was lying down and I was standing up. He had broken his leg after having missed his leg for a long period. The guy was like a mess. He had lost his leg to his brain. He’d found his leg and then broken it again and now he was lying in a room in Einstein Medical Center in the Bronx. And a friend of mine said, I was working at the time for All Things Considered for NPR. So there’s this older guy up in the Bronx who’s like the best storyteller ever. He had- had, I find it strikingly hard to speak in the past tense, and he had a talent for beauty that I’ve rarely run into. There is beauty all over in the world, even in the most troubled places. But it takes a special kind of person to see the beauty here and there and there and to write it down and then somehow, in translation, it becomes more beautiful. And that, that’s the essence of it. For me,  is that he took- he found the beauty and then rendered it even more beautiful.

The listening act was an empathic act almost always. If you just parade the people that he chose to look at, people who are autistic, people who are colorblind, people who couldn’t hear, people who had lost their sight, gained their sight and lost it again. People who were Touretters, people who were hallucinating all the time. You parade these people and then you add Oliver and all Oliver does is he makes them so real and so familiar that you lose the sense of them being other. And then, if a Harold Pinter or a Robin Williams or another great artist reads these accounts and decides to make a movie or a play about what Oliver has written about, then more people hear about these folks and the narrative just moves out from Oliver into the world and the end result is, and this is rare to say about anyone, any doctor, any artist, that the world gains new friends through the act of intimately sitting with these people and making them your friend. Then the friendship expands because poets do it. Playwrights do it. Then all of a sudden everybody can do it.

My name is Robert Klitzman and I’m a professor of psychiatry here at Columbia University. I, at one point here in New York, saw Oliver at a party and introduced myself and we talked and I mentioned I’d just written a book called In a House of Dreams and Glass becoming a psychiatrist and Oliver said, “I’d love to see it.” I sent him a copy of the book thinking, well that’s very nice. He’s a big name, I’ll never hear from him, but that’s okay. And then I received a long handwritten letter from him in- looked like blue crayon. And he said he loved the book and said that, “Your writing is quote both ‘light and deep at the same time.'” Well Oliver affected my work and my life in several ways. Perhaps the most important is that he created a precedent for things that I and others have then later done that was much easier to do because Oliver had paved the way. It’s one of the works I read was Oliver’s work, A Leg To Stand On, which came out before The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. It’s not one of the books that Oliver is most known for. It’s probably his least known book or one of his two or three least known books, but was about his own experience as a patient. And I always felt that that was important for Oliver’s development. So it’s not just that he had a gift for use of words, for use of language, for being able to tell the story of someone’s life, of someone dealing with whatever kind of neurologic problem, for lack of a better term, they may have. If it were a patient for instance, but he had this wonderful sensibility to look at not just the brain and the neurology of it, but the anthropology of it, the whole human-ness of it.

I’m Brian Greene. Here in the flesh. I first met Oliver Sacks about 17 years ago. It was when my first book, The Elegant Universe, had just come out and I was invited to what you might call my first literary gathering. So there were a lot of writers in the room at this dinner. I recognized a lot of science writers, books that I had read, but then I spotted Oliver across the room. And it was he who I really wanted to meet because, look I have and had great respect for science writers. That’s a very important thing to do. But to write about the afflicted, those who society for so long has kept under the radar, those who can make us uncomfortable and to find the beauty, and the humanity, and the grace in their stories and make us care about these individuals, want to know about these individuals, feel compelled to read about these individuals, and allow us to catch our breath at the surprising, sometimes debilitating, wondrous, poetic qualities that can emerge from but a small variation in the same handful of grey matter that we all have inside our heads.

That wasn’t science writing. That was a ferocious talent and a rare gift. So I’m in this room sort of in this awestruck, starstruck state and Oliver, over cocktails, turned to me and said that that very day, he’d finished reading my book. And I kept my composure. But inside, I was like, “Shit that’s amazing, right? And then he goes on and said how he was so thrilled to learn about what’s happening at the cutting edge of unified theory. Again, I was like wow this is amazing. And then he said, but the book itself is a little slippery. And I was like whoa, you know, so I was about to kind of launch into, “Well you know, even we professional physicists, we find quantum mechanics slippery too, you know.” And he said, “No, no. Brian, Brian, what I mean is the book is literally slippery. I- I was reading it in the tub and the hardcover just slipped right out of the jacket into- and he says, “I’m- I’m probably the first person to have already bought two copies of your book.” No. So the next the- next time we crossed paths, Oliver and I crossed paths. It was actually in May of 2008 at the first World Science Festival. Because as -as Tracy said, Oliver was a great friend of the festival. You know he, year after year would sit in a chair just like this, oftentimes on this very stage. But the encounter that really sticks in my mind did happen at that first inaugural festival. And it wasn’t an event that took place here. It was an event that took place at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th street. And was anyone at that event? Anyone here? Two people, that’s very good. Yes excellent. There were actually 2000 people at this event, up there in 2008. I mean Tracy Day and I were absolutely intent on creating different kinds of science programming, putting together unusual pieces to create an interesting experience and we spoke to Oliver about this and he got very excited about one idea we had, which was to pair him with the Abyssinian Baptist Church Choir. And do a program on music and the brain. So we’re up there at the church, it’s filling in. The people were just squeezing into the pews. Every seat was taken and I’m about to go up on stage to introduce the program. And Oliver turns to me and he says,  “Two Jewish boys. About to give a tag team sermon on science at a Baptist church.” He says, “You know, the Lord does work in mysterious ways.”

Oliver Sacks, you’ve written somewhat about the fact that the increments of things we see in the moments of time could change. The speed of them could change. I mean, I don’t quite understand that. Well, theoretically anyway.

Well certainly. Well William James thought they could change theoretically, depending on how many events one could perceive in a second.

How many events. By that you mean anything at all, like I see that spotlight there’s whatever, it may and doesn’t have to be a theater or a concert, just anything.

Could be flashes of light. In- H.G. Wells deals with this in a fictional way in the time machine and in stories he writes where he imagines that people can be accelerated and then they will move with great speed through the world and the world will seem to be almost frozen or in slow motion and vice versa. And I’ve seen something similar I think in some of my patients, who may overlap with- with yours. In particular, people with Tourette’s Syndrome who make sudden movements and sometimes sudden noises can be very accelerated. So accelerated, they can easily catch a fly in midair.

Can they really do that?

They can really do it. And if you ask them, they don’t feel that they are very fast. They feel the flies are rather slow. And so with the rest of us. And again,

Wait a moment, so they’re fast but the time is the same, but they’re just speedier.

They do more and experience more in a particular time. William James wrote, in an allied context, he said monkeys these people seem to us, whilst we seem to them reptilian. Now the term reptilian, while the unpleasant word, is sometimes used for the relative lack or slowness of facial expression and of movement generally in people with Parkinsonism. And Parkinsonism, is almost physiologically, the opposite of Tourettes. Both of these depend on what one has been looking at, the amount of a transmitter called dopamine in the brain. So people with Parkinson’s- Parkinsonism may move very slowly and feel that the rest of us, and the clocks are going while the fast.

I’m Jay Neugeboren and I met Oliver in 1996 when I had written a book about me and my brother. My brother had been a mental patient most of his adult life. And I thought it would be a book Oliver would find of interest if I could get it to him. I didn’t know him, so I sent it to him care of the Bronx Psychiatric Center. And a few weeks later, I got a wonderful letter back from him that he’d read my book, said some very kind things about it, and then he said, I too have a brother like your brother, Robert. And he’s been through a lot of the things your brother has been through. I’m wondering if I should show him your book. And that’s- he gave me his phone number. We talked and we became- we’ve been friends ever since. I loved the fact that from the very first letter he wrote me about the book I’d written, about me and my brother, imagining Robert, that he didn’t send an email. I never had an email from him at all. Twenty years we knew another. But he wrote letters and he wrote them by hand. They weren’t typed. They would have editing within it. There’d be words crossed out and he’d put a different word on top of it. Clearly, he re-read them, wanted to make sure that he said what he wanted. Oliver had a very large effect on the way I saw my brother, the way I saw myself, where I saw myself in relation to my brother, and I believe he had a great effect on anyone who read him, because he wrote about people who were in effect, “the other.” He wrote about people who are not like you and me. I think Oliver’s great distinction was his ability to join the sciences to the humanities, per se, that is to say not that they are different, the sciences are part of the humanities. But to be able as a writer, to make us understand how wondrous and complicated the workings of any human mind are. The meanest of us has something here that is more complicated than anything in the known universe. And he enabled us to understand the ways that difference and individuality could show themselves forth.

I’m Dr. Mark Homonoff. I first saw Oliver when I was a medical student. This was in the period 1970 to 1974 at Albert Einstein College of Medicine up in the Bronx and it was pointed out that he was an eccentric member of the faculty. He rode a motorcycle. He wore a leather jacket. He rode a motorcycle to rounds. But it was in an era of eccentricity where amongst other things, psychiatric clinics were set up in pool halls in the South Bronx. And he was only contemplating some mode of expression for himself. But it hadn’t come about. He would submit many of these articles to major American medical journals and they would just be rejected as being too journalistic, too descriptive. Some of the some of the review pieces he got packed said we don’t agree with your statistics. There were no statistics of what he did. It- it was his discussion, and his perception of the patient, and the world of the patient and how the patient functioned within the realm of disease he suffered from. Oliver was able to take in almost any kind of information and for Oliver, extraneous information, what most physicians would consider to be extraneous information. And for anyone we consider to be extraneous information in any number of capacities in which Oliver worked, operated, was really just fodder for his imagination. He could see the heroism in patients overcoming their illness, in ways in which patients worked around problems, whether it was a patient’s obsessive thoughts, or whether it was difficulty with gait, or whether it was difficulty with movement. How they could fit this into their world and lead—lead- lead a creative and productive life despite what other impediments they ran across. And he attempted to assist them. And he tried to assist them in that process and in many cases did.

My name is John Hockenberry. I’ve been an acquaintance of Oliver Sacks exclusively through the domain of journalism. But we were friends, because I have a disability. And that’s because his particular curiosity about the details of my life made him instantly interested in the actually interesting things about me. We were friends from the first moment we met. Oliver Sacks talks, as you’ve heard tonight, about flying, about being freed, unburdened, being able to fly. And indeed, it is the case that Oliver Sacks could go places that normal humans could not go. And here’s an example from a moment at the World Science Festival in front of a live audience a few years ago.

I mean you- you have had many hallucinatory experiences, some of which were an accidental consequence of substances that you were working with, and others more deliberate.

Well there are many different motives. And it was and it was all a long time ago. Was all between ’63 and ’67. But- but certainly one of them. I’d-I’d been puzzling about indigo. Indigo was inserted into the spectrum by Newton so was orange. He felt there should be seven colors, as there’s seven notes in the musical scale. But it seemed to me that no two people agreed as to what indigo was like. And it was in fact felt that the pigment derived from the indigo plant was not really indigo. And I decided I wanted to see indigo. I couldn’t imagine it, but I thought I might be able to hallucinate it. So I built a sort of pharmacological launch pad. A sort of-

That- that’s different from controlled substance, ok? Pharmacological launch pad. I love that. As a writer here, it’s what we got.

So a base of amphetamine and then some LSD and a little a little cannabis on top.

So I’ll take a shot of amphetamine with a LSD chaser and a spot of cannabis. And that gets you-

Well, it got me fairly pickled. I think stoned is the right word anyhow. When- when I felt ready, I said I want to see indigo now. And as if thrown by a paint brush, a trembling pear shaped blob of the most wonderful color appeared on the wall. Indigo. And it not be seemed wonderfully luminous, but it filled me with a sort of mystical, almost religious joy. I felt it was numinous as well as luminous and although I’m an old Jewish atheist, I thought this is the color of heaven.

So as you can see, Oliver Sacks had a scientist’s “I’ll try anything once” spirit of adventure and “I’ll try some things a few times” spirit of mischief all rolled into one. Like most people, I first met Oliver Sacks in the pages of his many wonderful books. There his storytelling voice seemed so unlike that of other writers. This methodical and reverential voice could explain the miracles of the brain by careful observations of its deficits. I could gasp and sigh to hear his stories of what the brain could still do, even when it couldn’t. His was a voice clear and exceptional, like a French horn soloing above an orchestra, deliberate and beautiful complex and full of warmth. But the actual voice of Dr. Oliver Sacks was almost a whisper. Deliberate and clear, this softer voice conveyed not only his powers of observations, but also his empathy for his patients and one of the most eloquent writers to ever speak of the brain in person would say, blain. Almost an impediment, spoken like a child, but brilliant in its own way. After his hearing loss became more pronounced, the whisper became deeper, sometimes with the touch of impatience. He wanted us all to listen closely and not just to him. In this moment of change in science and medicine he was saying, “Don’t miss this. Listen up.” He most of all celebrated his patients. He constantly wondered what it would feel like to be them, to feel their incompleteness, and to feel what it might be like to have their brain function restored was a dream of Oliver Sacks. It was another dream of seeing indigo I suppose. When he became a patient, he showed us all how the journey to death need not diminish our curiosity. One time in an event in the streets, the skies opened up. Oliver and I were on our way to some panel discussion and while I paid most attention to the roads and puddles in front of my wheelchair, Oliver was silently staring at my necktie. Eventually he said, “How did you know that I love octopus? Your tie is full of octopus.” I noticed for the very first time that indeed, my tie was full of little line drawn cephalopods. I said, “Happy to oblige.” Being with Oliver was to experience moments like this, always. He would discover something in front of your nose. I invited him to a conference 10 years ago at MIT, all about technology and disability. It was a wonderful, wonderful event. Presenters were all disabled. Amputees, brain injured scientists working to make their limbs and brains work better, double leg amputee actress and model Aimee Mullins brought a whole crate of different legs that she was showing off. Oliver loved that. A young man with cerebral palsy played his own music that he’d composed. Oliver couldn’t have been happy- happier to have been a part of it. He was for me at the end, that he felt like one of the gang. I’ve always believed he said that patients always do the best research, you know. The trick is getting them to show it to you. Oliver Sacks. Doctor, patient. Did he see a difference?

I’m Isabelle Rapin. I’m a child neurologist retired from Albert Einstein College of Medicine. I met Oliver Sacks probably the first month that he came to Einstein in the fall of 1965. And we’ve been friends ever since. I think that’s it was his interest in the individual patient and the concerned about the individual consequences of neurologic illness rather than an neurologic illness per se that led him into the direction that his career took and into his writings, which of course, have turned up because of his talent have turned out to be so dramatic. Oliver was very helpful to patients with Parkinsonism. He made observations that no neurologist had ever seen. He observed, when he gave it to his Post-encephalitic Parkinsonism patients, that they developed. Yes, some of them woke up after years of being barely communicative, frozen in place, suddenly were able to move and become lively again.


Does he ever speak to you?

Of course not. Not in words. No change for the 91145.

Your patients, doctor, haven’t moved in decades.

What I believe, what I know, is these people are alive inside.

How do you know that doctor?

I know it. With 200 milligrams, he showed no response.

Maybe he needs more.

Maybe he needs less.  

Oliver went from a person than people sort of looked and didn’t take too seriously, as to what neurology ended up realizing was the best ambassador it ever had.

My name is Tobias Picker. I met Oliver for the first time in my own apartment, actually. I gave a dinner party for Oliver, which was arranged for him by a mutual friend of ours, Ed Weinberg’s. And  that was about 25 years ago or so. And I was interested in meeting Oliver because I had been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome very late. I guess I was in my mid 30s. So because at that- when I was a child when the symptoms started, there was there was no way it could be diagnosed so it was swept under the rug. And also- the big elephant in the room through my whole life until I became aware of Oliver’s writings about it. So as we moved in similar circles, he knew writers that I knew as a composer. I wanted to talk to him so. He came to dinner. He was very helpful to me, because he could talk about what he what- he was observing in in a way that that made me understand how I was being perceived by the by the outside world in a way that reassured me that I am- wasn’t- that I didn’t have to be ashamed of- of having this- this thing as- as I had been as a child growing up with it It-I think-I think Oliver said months, not to me, but I read this about a quote of his, “The question is not what disease does the person have. The question is what person does the disease have.” I had a very difficult childhood and stayed with me. It stayed with me for

a- well, it will stay with me forever. But knowing Oliver being able to-to be- to spend time with Oliver and to be just to be in the presence of his greatness made me feel better about myself. In rereading the book, it dawned on me that this this material is- is- is a terrific- terrific inspiration for dance, because it’s all it can be all that can be read as a- as a study in movement and the absence of movement.  

I try and live with my patients in a way. I lived next door to the hospital at that time, and sort of share their experiences and joys and griefs. But it was it was horrible to see Leonard lose what he had. And his- his desperation and his hopelessness. And I -I felt guilty in a sense. I thought, could I have known that this would happen? Should- should one have animated him, have awakened him in the first place?

And your answer was?

My answer, or the patient’s answer, in general was yes. And they would go ahead and say further, if only this had been available 20 years ago before we’d lost so much of life and lost and had so much damage on our brains. And indeed, had this occurred 20 years ago, the things wouldn’t have been so tantalizing. People with ordinary Parkinson’s disease get- get a far longer good period on the drug.

I’m Daniel Frank. I’m the editorial director of Pantheon Books. The way Oliver worked was unique and yes, it was completely different than anything I’d seen before. The other aspect of Oliver was that, not only would there be the pages posted on a bulletin board, there would be a chalkboard or a magic marker board with all the possible subjects or topics, possible ordering, possible organization, and even when I saw those had already been revised two or three times and it was a matter of like, where are we now. And so the conversation, I always felt like when I would arrive there, this is what we’re thinking now. And so I quickly learned. All right. This is now. It could be different by the end of our visit. It could be different tomorrow. But it was always, for me, was always this chance to hear Oliver thinking out loud about a subject, about how he was moving through a book. What made that subject work for him. And I mean what you discovered in editing is that there isn’t necessarily a right or wrong way. There is a way of telling a story that’s compelling and that’s what you wanted to do each time.

It’s sort of fun if you’re in the creative business. It’s fun to play with fast horses. Maybe it will be one thing if you were good at something and you found people who are as good as you or less good as you and you mentor them or whatever. And that would be like clippidy klop, clippidy klop. But if you find friends who are better than you, and Oliver was smarter. I mean, really smart. Just almost effortless. He could consume all kinds of information just very- very easily and he remembered it, and then he could weigh it, and measure it, and balance it, and he could listen, and he could write, and he had a sense- that he had crazy eyes for seeing, and have pretty big heart. And I think when you when you pile up with somebody who’s so much better than you are in every category and you kind of know that you’ll never be-You could never get there. It makes you as good as you can possibly be. And so the cool part for me was getting to keep company with the fastest. One of the fastest horses I’d ever met.


I’m addicted to patients. I can’t do without them. I need to have the feeling of these other lives, which are, which become a part of my own. Empathy isn’t enough. I wish I could be in their shoes or know more exactly what it’s like.


There’s tremendous emotion in all your animal paintings and sculptures too. It’s a sort of energized state in which there is a sort of convulsive energy which especially takes the form of excessive movement, of sudden movement, of compulsive tics of touching, of compulsive noises, sometimes of compulsive thoughts. I think with Shane, I have never seen on the one hand, such severity and maybe intensity of Tourette’s, but with such with such a sort of- of- of living and accepting and sort of using it. I mean I think it’s sort of inspiring to see him. You feel your Tourette’s sometimes bullies or uses you. Do you feel you have ways of using it?

I think in my art, my sculptures, my paintings.

In which sort of ways?

You know I can make. I don’t know because I- I- I -I like because- because I know I like all the things that I can I can feed that our unleash it. Unleash it is the word. I know I know that when I found sculpture, I found I found that I was hurt. That was my- my world. I felt at home.

My name is Maria Popova. I read and I write and I write about what I read on a website called Brain Pickings. I came to Dr. Sacks’ work fairly late. Late both in my life and late in his career. I grew up very far away and his books didn’t make it to the other side of the iron curtain where I grew up. And I found them as an adult and I just fell in love with the way that he sees the world and he’s able to articulate what he sees well beyond science. I think Dr. Sacks figured himself out in the act of writing, and there was something contagious about that, there was kind of intense curiosity with which he examined what was on his mind and the nature of the mind. All at once and pulled you into that so that you would then examine your own mind and its nature in the act of reading. You know, it’s interesting to consider how he saw people, the people that he worked with, the so-called patients in a way that’s increasingly countered to how they’re seen by the medical and scientific culture of today where patients are very often reduced to data points and yet here he was, telling us that the interior lives of people matter and that they are singular and dignified indifferent and the humanity that sprang from each interaction that he had with a person, not just a patient. That’s something that is so important to preserve and he’s kind of the patron saint of this way of treating human beings.

My name is Steve SILBERMAN and I met Oliver originally because Kate Edgar, his assistant, got in touch with me to tell me that Oliver had really enjoyed an article that I wrote called The Geek Syndrome in Wired magazine, which was one of the first articles to look at autism in high tech communities like Silicon Valley. What made Oliver’s work on autism so important was that for decades, autistic people had been identified as not having the essential qualities that make us human. So they were defined by clinicians and psychiatrists, as for instance, lacking empathy or lacking the capacity for humor, or lacking the capacity to love their own parents. And all of that is wrong. His portrait of Temple Grandin, An Anthropologist on Mars, was the most humane and deep portrait of an autistic adult that had ever been written in history. And believe me, I read all the stuff that came before it and so Oliver simply by being open to being surprised by Temple, was able to pick up on her humanity in such a way that he could render this fully human portrait.

My name is Temple Grandin. I am a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. Now of course, I have known about Oliver Sacks his work long before I ever met him. And then one day, I got a call that he wanted to come out and talk to me about autism. He just wanted to research some things about autism with me and I set it up and he came out. And it was very fun talking with Oliver, and one of the things I remember the most is he wanted to go up to the National Park and I had to stop him from jumping in the river and said, “Oliver, you’re going to go over a dam if you jump in that river. No, you absolutely cannot go with that river.” And I stopped him from doing that. Well I think Oliver gave the-the neurotypical world insight and how different kinds of minds perceive the world. He was a great observer. Although some people in the medical community that criticized them because what he was doing is observation, but observation is part of science. I used to fight with my major professor when I was getting my Ph.D. all the time he’d say, “Well you got to do a controlled experiment, otherwise it’s not science.” And I’d go, “OK what’s astronomy.?” But in order to have a hypothesis. you’ve got to observe first and Oliver was a great observer. He definitely did not- he definitely did not write like a scientist. One of the big fights he got in science is some hardcore scientists say,  “Well unless you’ve got a control group an experimental group, it’s not science.” Oliver was an observer an observation is a very important part of science. There’s no way that you’re going to have a hypothesis until you have an observation to make the hypothesis so you do the other controlled experiments. The observers actually are the leaders. Well I think this book suggests going- you know, a lot of young doctors are going to read us books. I mean a lot of family members read his books. I’m- people, parents of autistic children have read the article did about me. You know, he’s a- he’s going to live on in his writings.  And he wrote down everything before he died. He was writing right up until he died.

Hi I’m Connie Tomaino and the friend of Oliver’s for over 35 years. How does music affect the brain? That was actually the question that started our friendship so many years ago. In 1998, I was working in a small nursing home with people with end stages of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. People I was told had no recognition of themselves or anything around them. For all intents and purposes, they had no brains at all. At least that’s what the doctors would tell me. And yet each one of those individuals, I could find this song, a piece of music that could bring them to life, to make a connection, to have them interact with me and the world around them. In 1980, I was offered the full time position at Beth Abraham Hospital and within the first week there, I received the manila envelope in- into office mail addressed to the music therapist and inside that envelope was a torn piece of loose leaf paper with words scribbled on it in magic marker. Every sickness is a musical problem. Every cure, a musical solution. No volus. Welcome. Ollie. I soon discovered that Ollie was the neurologist’s the staff neurologist at Beth Abraham and of course started stalking his- his office just for the chance to meet him in person. One day I saw a patient that I had started working with, a woman who was rigid, pretty much non-responsive, nonverbal, at least. We were told she was non-verbal, but she did respond to gospel music. And when I sang those songs, not only did she sing along, but she became animated and started talking. So I told Oliver I said, “Dr. Sacks, you have to see her sing. You have to see her speak.” And he says, “Come show me come show me.” And I sat next to him and he gently held her hand and I sang and she came to life and he was amazed. How is this possible? So immediately he reached over to his desk. He had a stack of EEG’s and he pulled out one. Then he says, “Look at this. Look at this irregularly EEG’s. This is Ed. He has Parkinson’s.” He says, “Look at this. This is Ed. This is Ed thinking about music. Look how beautiful the EEG is. “From then on, I started getting notes into all of his medical referrals. For me to look at how the person responded when I played. Did they tap their foot? Could they sing? Could they initiate a word? What did it look like? Again I started to observe every single thing I did to the music. What was it about music that enabled these people to come to life, to become whole again and he with I would try to talk as much as possible. but that work was really difficult. He lived on City island, he had just bought the home back then, and I live very close by.

So he started to invite me over in the evening for dinner just to talk with whether we know about music. What does it look like? How did the patients respond? And for every question I had, and I was loaded with them, he would pull a book from one of his shelves. Henry Head. Hughlings Jackson. Every single question I had, he had a quote from some book that he had the first edition of. We tried- We knew that there was something about music in the brain. We knew that there was some networks elements that arouse fundamental function in these individuals who seemed otherwise unreachable. And in the early 80s, we actually try to meet with scientists to see if we can encourage them to study music in the brain. But they said the field of neurosciences is way too new and music is so complex. How can we possibly study that? But Oliver started writing these case studies and he started pulling them out in the London Review of Books in the New York Review of Books and the literary world as you know started to take notice. And I remember a time when Susan Sontag invited him to speak at Cooper Union then. Oliver wasn’t yet ready for prime time public speaker and he said Connie please come along with me, please come along with me. And we- we went there and I spent an hour before him of course, this was pre Kate days so he would drag me along on all these talks and he said, “Please, let’s go over the patients. What do they look like? What should I say? What- what’s going on? And of course he wrote all of his notes on his arm. And my only, my only job he told me, was to sit in the front so he could see me and any time he started to stammer just go like this. So he would look at his arm and get back on track.

His work, the movies started to gain much recognition and though the administration started to recognize the importance of the work that we were trying to do. To understand how to reach people who seemed otherwise unreachable and for whom many medical science and the medical community had deemed at the end stages of life. Yet these people were still very much full with life and we could animate them and bring them into the present. So the administration helped found the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function in 1995 as a bridge between the worlds of neuroscience and clinical music therapy to form dialogues across these disciplines to not only advance the scientific knowledge about how music affects human function, but also to help clinical music therapists apply it in more efficacious ways. There were no words that I can say right now that can tell you the depths of my gratitude and love for Oliver. Not only for what he has given me as a clinician and in our friendship, but what he has given the world as we’ve heard about bringing the humanness back to the individuals that we take care of. To recognizing the potential in- in those people as well. And also bringing the face and knowledge about the field of music therapy and the importance of that work to help so many people. And it’s very appropriate and they can demonstrate, or you’ll get the chance to actually witness the importance of music. Especially how music affects the brain. As I welcome and you hear and listen to Eric Jordan, Metropolitan Opera singer, who’s also a stroke survivor who regained his speech and the ability to talk through the extraordinary power of music.

Thank you.

Yeah, absolutely.  

Yes I’m a stroke survivor and a friend of mine lent me the book called The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat and thought myself- myself should be an opera. And it is. It’s a chamber opera and my character Dr. P, suffers from visual agnosia. He has hallucinations without needing drugs. And this is a dream come true. Thank you Connie for reaching out to me to sing for everybody here. You are all observers, right? And I’ve had a quick story to share before I sing. In a deli somewhere by the net the Met, I couldn’t speak my order. So I sang it. I said, “I’d like a whole wheat footlong with roast beef with mustard sauce with lettuce and tomatoes please.” And the dude across the counter is like, “Who’s wackado is singing- is singing- singing his order. Okay we’ll give this guy some horseradish please.” And this is New York City, right? So wackado central. In a good way. So before I keep on jibber jabbering, let’s make some music.


I’m Fay Wright and I had the great pleasure to be Oliver’s piano teacher for about seven years. When we met, Oliver was about 75 and he had had his last piano lesson when he was 12.He had adored his childhood teacher and was really hesitant even after all those decades to study with anyone else. This is just an example of the depth of his loyalty to the people in his life. And I was soon to feel that loyalty myself. We became fast friends very quickly and he was a lot of fun. His playing style was pretty unique. When I first met him, he would raise his arms high and proceed to bounce off the keys as though they were on fire. He would clamp the pedal down and play everything staccato and forte. If he ran out of fingers, he would simply flip his hand over in a sort of Chico Marx maneuver and use his index finger. He played with a lot of elan. He was not crazy about music after 1920 or so. He was very fond of Debussy, but that was about as modern as he was willing to get. I convinced him to play some Bartók Romanian dances. I think that was partly because he’d heard his father playing them. He had a very personal association with many pieces of music and he always expressed interest in Liszt, because he remembered his brother David playing Liszt. I was always amazed at his perseverance with the piano in face of great physical obstacles. His back was in terrible pain, he had bad insomnia. And h is thumbs were distorted by arthritis and he was blind in one eye. So he had to have many, many cushions sitting on the bench in order to be comfortable. And he had to enlarge every page of his music for the pieces that we worked on. Even then, he often had to resort to a magnifying glass that he kept on the side of the piano to peer at the score. So it was very difficult for him. But he didn’t lead and he didn’t let that slow him down at all.

I attribute my mother with being my first music teacher. She grew up in a farm in Pennsylvania and when she was a teenager, she was the rehearsal pianist at the Methodist Church in the town of Boothwyn.  My parents always felt that it was important to be surrounded by music. We all studied instruments. We all played instruments by being surrounded with music. It helped us become whole people. My mother used to gather us around the piano and she’d play from the Methodist hymnal and my brothers and sister and I would- would sing from the Methodist hymnal and we would be taught harmonies at a very early age. My mother was always the sharpest knife in the drawer. She was very funny, very smart, but she began to lose her memory when my father passed away 18 years ago. And one of the beautiful things about living with someone with dementia, is that it’s all about the present moment the past is history. The future has no frame of reference, so it’s really what’s in front of you. The clouds passing in the sky. The softness of a cat, a beautiful sunset. My mother three years ago when she had to have 24 hour care and could no longer live with us, moved to the actor’s home in Englewood New Jersey. And when I go and visit her, sometimes I can get her to sit at the piano and she’ll play from the Methodist hymnal. The very same Methodist hymnal that she taught me to sing from as a child. And when she plays the piano and we sing together in harmony, suddenly I’m a child again. And she’s a young mother, and we’re in the moment. And in the moment, it becomes transcendent. And I have a glimpse of that which is eternal. A glimpse of forever.


So my name is Slava Santoriello. And I know Oliver for many, many years. And actually my first experience with him was a little bit odd and funny at the same time. He approached me in the pool. He was waiting on the side. I was teaching, and he was waiting on the side. And when I stop, he approached me and he said, “I want you to be my coach.” So my first response was Why me? And he said, “Because you’re the best.” OK. The funny thing. Two months later, he done absolutely- he refuse to do anything I told him to do. So to get to the point when I said,” Oliver, if you think I’m the best why you’re not doing anything. And if you know everything, why you need me?” It’s not just I teach him how to swim. He actually teach me how to be a better coach, how to be a better instructor. And I find out- because I thought at the beginning that he’s very stubborn, doesn’t want to learn anything new. And that was so wrong. Really. I think he’s the most open person I ever met. And he’s really eager to learn something new. And with marvelous, wonderful job together. But every time, literally every single time when he will come for practicing, he’ll be excited. Excited that he will be in the water, that he will do again something. And he will feel very, very free. And it’s a very rare thing. Yes he definitely was in love with-with water. My name is Ian Sample and I was Oliver’s personal trainer. People say like what was Oliver like? And I say, he’s like a Renaissance man where you don’t really see too many people like that. You don’t see too many people that are a marathon swimmer, that could squat 600 pounds, which is still super impressive. I don’t know if anyone knows how much weight that really is but it’s insane. And also was a scientist and a published writer and author. He’s just such an amazing person. He could look at an element, whether it’s a rock, whether it’s I turn 33 or 32 and he gives me the element like gallium or something like that. He just looked at something that I think is really simple with such big fascination and such big eyes. I mean he’s looked at these things for over probably 70 years and he still is so fascinated by that.


Why is science important?

Why is science important? Because it gives one a picture of the world, I think, which one can get in any other way. Now it’s not the only picture. And it mustn’t be the only picture. I mean I think one-one needs to sort of read the poets, and listen to music, and maybe be religious. When one needs every sort of picture. But I think one has to have the scientific picture as well and one always did. And even if there are no formal laws, without science, people would never have made fire, would never have made clothes, would never build houses, would never discovered agriculture. Civilization is partly dependent on science.

My name is Laura Snider. I’m a writer and I’m a philosophy professor at St. John’s University. I later found that Oliver’s favorite philosopher was David Hume, who, the 18th century philosopher David Hume, who said that he wanted to be essentially the Newton of the moral realm. David Hume wanted to take the study of human nature and make it as important as the study of physics was in that period of time, which was so soon after Isaac Newton had revolutionized physics. And I always felt that Oliver’s work was like that. He wanted to elevate the study of the human elements of neurological disease. He wanted to look at the human dimension and make that a subject of interest to the physician as much as the physical dimension of the disease. And to me, that’s a very generous way of looking at neurological illness.


I sometimes felt that I had left England in an underhand way. I’d had the best of English educations. I’d absorbed the best of English diction and prose. The habits and traditions of a thousand years. And here I was taking this precious mental cargo, everything that had been invested in me, out of the country without so much as a thank you or goodbye. I did not seek American citizenship and was happy to have a green card to be a counted a resident alien. This accorded with how I felt, at least for much of the time. A friendly observant alien noting everything around me. But without civic responsibilities, such as voting or jury duty or need to affiliate myself with a country’s policies or politics, I often felt as Temple Grandin said of herself, that I was an anthropologist on Mars.

And then in June of 2008, to my surprise, I heard that my name was on the Queen’s Birthday honors list. That I was to become a commander of the British Empire. The term “commander” tickled me. I could not imagine myself as a commander on the bridge of a destroyer or a battleship. But I was curiously, and rather deeply moved by the honor. Though I am not given to formal clothes or other formalities, normally my clothes are sloppy and decrepit. And I have only one suit. I enjoy the formalities of Buckingham Palace. Being instructed how to bow, how to walk backwards before the Queen, how to await her and for addressing one. The royal person was not to be touched or spoken to unbidden. I was half afraid that I would do something awful. Like faint or fart right in front of the Queen. But all went well. During the ceremony, I was very impressed by the Queen’s stamina. By the time I was called up, she’d been standing erect without support for more than two hours. Two of 200 honorees that day. She spoke to me briefly but warmly asked me what I was working on. I had the feeling of a very decent friendly person with a sense of humor. It was as if she and England were saying, “You have done useful honorable work. Come home. All is forgiven.”

They called me “Inky” as a boy. And I still seem to get as ink stained as I did 70 years ago. I started keeping journals when I was 14. And at last count, had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones, which I carry around with me, to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts. And I try to have one by the swimming pool, or the lake side, or the seashore. Swimming too, is very productive of thoughts, which I must write, especially if they present themselves as they sometimes do in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs. While writing my next book, I drew heavily on the detailed journals I had kept as a patient in 1974. My journal too, relied on my handwritten note books. But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I’ve kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough.

It serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life. Ideas emerge are shaped in the act of writing. My journals are not written for others. Nor do I usually look at them myself. But they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself. I am a storyteller, for better and for worse. I suspect the feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition. Going without powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory. The act of writing when it goes well, gives me a pleasure or joy unlike any other. It takes me to another place. Whatever my subject where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed, the passage of time. In these rare heavenly states, in these rare heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come. And that I have been writing all day. Over a lifetime, I’ve written millions of words. But the act of writing seems as fresh and as much fun as when I started it nearly 70 years ago.

Needless to say, I’m an incredible admirer of all of his accomplishments. But- but that’s not been an obstacle in our friendship. You know, I haven’t you know people think of Oliver Sacks, Oliver Sacks, Oliver Sacks is my friend. I know very-very well who’s been in my house numerable times, knows all my kids, who knows my husband, and I know about his family. We’ve talked about all sorts of things about his family. I mean he’s my friend.

In my heart, I think Oliver was literally able to expand the reach of everybody’s neighbor and to include people who had been excluded. And that’s- you know, he was a complicated guy. But that’s an achievement.

It was just such a pleasure to work with Oliver via music. That we became such good friends through that medium and I learned so much from him and I was very grateful for that time with him.

Oh if I could talk with Oliver now or send him a letter, I would say, “Let’s go out and have some sushi. And I want to hear about your next book and what you working on.”

He was a presence in my life for 20 years. I learned so much from him. I go back and read his books. Dozens of letters he wrote to me. We would change exchange books and articles all the time. And I’m grateful for the example.

I think I would tell them that I’m excited to go to Mexico in three weeks. I’m going to go snorkeling and scuba diving and I’m going to take the wet suit that he let me have and I’ll take lots of pictures for him.

If I could say one thing to Oliver or write him a letter, Oliver wherever you are. I would say Thank you.

And I think I would also tell him that sitting under these lights, being filmed, talking about him had an oddly calming effect on my tics such that for the most part for most of the interview, I felt just like anybody else.

I just want to say that I love him. I love him not just as my students. I love him for who he is. And because it’s not just me. I think he touched so many hearts in so many ways. That’s a wonderful ability.

Thank you for teaching many a generation of writer that it was important to look at the human dimension of science. And it was important to bring science to a broader public, because that’s the only way that people will become scientifically literate, and be able to make the decisions that we need to make today.

I would say that last message that I would have written to Oliver would have just been thank you. And it’s very- very rare to watch a man grow closer and closer to death. And have his eyes get wider and wider open as he moves towards that place. I have never seen anything like it.

I would say Oliver was- was really one of the best of the physicians I’ve run across, ever and in any institutions. Treated his patients respectfully, and was able, from listening closely for pulling details of it with a patient had to say, and listening to things that many people would consider to be extraneous, was able to propel the science of medicine in great fashion in ways that one should try to replicate.

My last exchange was actually with the computer in my kitchen. Crying. Crying so hard I couldn’t figure out how to print it out. Reading the last piece that he wrote, I was crying so hard. That’s kind of what I feel is my last exchange. Reading the New York Times article on my computer and I just put my head on the desk and crying.

James Baldwin used to say that the poets, by which he meant, the artist is the only person who knows what it’s like for anybody who comes to this planet to survive it. What it’s like to die, to have somebody die, what it’s like to be glad. And in a way, Dr. Sacks was this kind of poet who was able to get to the innermost universal human experience through the very personal experience of his patients himself. And articulate what that’s like, what it’s like to be here, what it’s like to live and why.

(Piano performance)

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Awakening the Mind: A Celebration of the Life and Work of Oliver Sacks

Awakening the Mind is a tribute to the remarkable life and work of Dr. Oliver Sacks. A physician, best-selling author, professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, and regular contributor to the World Science Festival, The New York Times called him “a poet laureate of contemporary medicine” and “one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century.” With stories from friends, colleagues, patients, admirers, and Dr. Sacks himself, this multi-media memory piece of music, image, and language brings to life this extraordinary man who had an incalculable impact on the worlds of medicine and storytelling. Produced in partnership with the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

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Creative Team

John PlummerDirector

John Christian Plummer was head writer on all 3 seasons of Granite Flats, the cold war spy drama featuring Christopher Lloyd and Parker Posey, now on Netflix. He’s worked as a writer and producer for NBC, Fox, Bravo, Comedy Central, TBS, IFC, VH1, MTV, Discovery, and co-wrote the feature Knowing Me, Knowing You.

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59 ProductionsDesign

59 Productions combines technology and art to tell amazing stories. Whether creating stage productions, museum installations, live music shows, large-scale events, or films, 59’s team generates creative and technical ideas to help realize ambitious artistic projects.

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Timo AndresPianist

Timo Andres is a composer and pianist who studied at Yale University. A Nonesuch Records artist, his album, Home Stretch, has been hailed by The Guardian for its “playful intelligence and individuality.” Notable works include Strong Language, a string quartet for the Takacs Quartet, and The Blind Banister, a piano concerto for Jonathan Biss and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, which was a 2016 Pulitzer Prize Finalist.

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Concetta TomainoMusic Therapist, Psychologist

Concetta Tomaino is the executive director and co-founder of the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function. Dr. Tomaino is also the senior vice president for Music Therapy at CenterLight Health System where she has worked since 1980.

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