An Anthropologist on Mars, by Oliver Sacks

An Anthropologist on Mars

I’ve read multiple of Oliver Sacks’s books and always enjoy them. His style is very readable, and the substance is consistently thought-provoking.

His book on deaf culture was quite good and informative, but I think the books I enjoy the most are his case histories of people with neurological problems that manifest in really bizarre ways of thinking and behaving.

I always have in the back of my mind now though when I read one of his books that his choice of subject matter has been criticized by some as an exploitation of people, in a circus sideshow kind of way. That is, he puts this medical gloss on it, but really he’s just winning popularity with his readership by finding people they can gawk at, pity or laugh at as freaks.

I’m not going to say there’s zero element of that, but looking at it as objectively as I can, I don’t think the criticism carries much weight. I don’t see what he’s doing as exploitative or harmful, and I don’t feel that as a reader I’m guilty of some kind of inappropriate curiosity that’s somehow hurting anyone.

I don’t see that he could be much more supportive and sympathetic toward the people he writes about, and not in a paternalistic or pitying way. His work makes it less, not more, likely that people will disrespect or fear the kind of people he writes about, or assume they’re inferior or miserable because they’re not “normal.”

But anyway, freak show or not, it’s interesting stuff.

The stories I find most compelling are the ones that remind me that what’s going on inside other people can be almost unimaginably foreign to me. That is, the ones where what it’s like to be them is most different from what it’s like to be me.

The autistic people, for instance. (Which isn’t very “freaky” by the way, at least numerically. For some of the cases he writes about in his books there’s probably one or very few people with that person’s set of quirks and oddities in the whole world, but autism isn’t uncommon at all. Especially if you count the lesser forms of it, and the conditions that are vaguely in the same family.)

The way he explains it, if a truly autistic person becomes functional and can get by socially, it’s not because they’ve developed the capacity to experience the emotions and such that they previously lacked, but just that they’ve observed what other people do in certain situations and in effect mimicked that. They’re still as–I almost want to say “empty” but I know that would be offensive, so I guess “different”–inside as ever.

But then I think about it a little more and I wonder how different that really is from people in general. I suspect a lot of what everyone does is playacting like that.

I remember reading a George Plimpton piece many years ago about some grade school sporting event, and chuckling at the interview with one of the players, wherein he uttered the same clichés we’ve heard thousands of times from pro athletes, including some that had no applicability whatsoever to his situation. The words didn’t correspond to any ideas or emotions inside him; he had just picked up on the fact that this is what you’re supposed to say if you’re an athlete being interviewed.

Well, by high school he’ll be a little smoother in his delivery, but it’ll still sound just a little off. Then by college or at the latest the pros, even that degree of artificiality will have dropped away as he gets more and more experience giving interviews and such.

But I don’t know that he ever acquires the emotions and the internal stuff to match what he’s saying. Maybe what started as laughably clumsy mindless mimicry, through habit gradually becomes smooth and sophisticated mindless mimicry. Maybe he grows into the role, rather than growing as a person.

I think a lot of life is like that. When people do and say things that supposedly express something from inside them, typically they’re really just unconsciously mimicking their peers, people they’ve seen in movies, etc.

Maybe the difference is non-autistic people eventually talk themselves into believing and feeling things to match their words and behavior (not the other way around, as everyone thinks they’re doing), whereas autistic people don’t develop certain of the inside stuff to make those matches. Or maybe the playacting is the same, but non-autistic people learn it a lot easier–starting younger, picking it up intuitively without having to think about it, etc.

Or maybe I have some autistic-like traits and don’t know it, and that’s why I’m agnostic about whether non-autistic people are playing games at a certain level too. Sacks marvels at the fact that one of his autistic subjects is unable to fully appreciate the beauty and grandeur of great art and of nature. “Well, I think it’s pretty,” she says, but to him there’s enormously more going on when you contemplate mountainous Colorado scenery or whatever that she evidently just doesn’t get.

But I don’t know that I do either. I’m like her: I think it’s pretty. I mean I know you learn to say other things and treat it as a much bigger deal, but what really corresponds to that stuff you learn to say? Is there really some objective quality to a sunset or a Picasso that she (and perhaps I) can’t perceive and non-autistic people can? Or is it just that we’ve been socially conditioned to affirm the higher aesthetic quality, the greater majesty, of certain things, but really none of us can see it any more than people could see the emperor’s new clothes?

I’m not sure. I’m going back and forth on a lot of this stuff as I think about it, as I write.

By the way, I would love to be a patient of Sacks or someone like him. I want someone maximally skilled and intuitive neurologically, psychologically, and humanistically to talk to me at length and give me every imaginable test, and then explain to me in detail how my perceptions, thought processes, emotions, etc. compare to those of other folks. How am I wired differently?

Because I feel like all I really do is haphazardly guess at such things as I go through life. I’m almost sure I differ quite a lot from the vast majority of people (though maybe everybody thinks that), but I’m mostly vague on just how.

Some stuff I can maybe put my finger on. I mean, there’s pretty strong evidence that just in terms of raw intellect, of ability to reason, I’m in the top small fraction of people. But that’s an easy one, that’s one I’ve been told all my life.

As far as more quirky stuff, I’m almost sure my facial recognition ability is very low. My visualization in general is likely different from or weaker than that of most people. Certain visual things just don’t register with me, or I don’t care.

One that I’ve often told people as an example is if someone were to ask me what color the walls were in my home, I would have to look or I’d have no idea, no matter how many years I’ve lived there. I mean, it would be different if, say, I’d painted the walls myself. But even then, I’d be remembering the act of painting them, and the day I picked out the color, and all that, not really knowing from observing.

I’d be horrible describing someone to a police sketch artist. Unless there’s something really distinctive, visual stuff like that doesn’t stick with me. A lot of times I couldn’t tell you even in the case of people I know fairly well if they wear glasses, or what color shirt they had on yesterday, or what color their eyes are, etc.

But then again, maybe little or none of that is neurological, but instead is social conditioning and my own values and preferences and such. As I’ve said, to some extent I just don’t care about a lot of that. For example, people whose self-image and opinions of others depend significantly on fashion automatically acquire and assess relevant data on the color and style of clothing a person is wearing, their hairstyle, their shoes, all that stuff. They know if it’s in style or not, they know roughly the price range, etc.

But I don’t give a shit about that. I virtually never look in a mirror; it matters not one iota to me in judging a person whether they’re wearing the “right” width of tie, or if they’re wearing white in the wrong month. Maybe I don’t notice because it’s not information that I value.

Because I’m plenty perceptive about the things that matter to me. The ideas the person expresses, their character, their sense of humor, their kindness, the size and shape of their breasts–the really important stuff like that certainly registers.

But again, reading Sacks really makes “the problem of other minds” real. How much can we truly know about what’s going on inside others? To what extent can an autistic and a non-autistic person really empathize with each other, really understand what it would be like to walk in the other person’s shoes? Or leave aside autism and just say any two individuals. Do we trick ourselves into thinking we connect and communicate and really know each other, because the truth of our isolation is too horrible to contemplate?

Sartre said “Hell is other people.” I don’t know quite what he meant by that (there’s a fair chance he meant nothing at all and it’s one of those things that sounds profound and really is the opposite), but I think “Hell is the absence of other people” is more accurate–to perceive oneself as living in a world where everyone else is an automaton, or potentially has some kind of consciousness that you can never know to what extent overlaps with your own.

That reminds me (as I continue along in stream-of-consciousness fashion) of the time a few years ago when someone asked me what kind of bizarre or supernatural ability I’d like to have–invisibility, the ability to fly, psychokinetic ability, whatever–and I said I’d most want to be able to experience what it’s like to be another person and have them be able to experience what it’s like to be me.

And I’m talking physical, emotional, everything. Is this persistent pain I have in my knee something other people would be stunned is so bad, or is it utterly trivial compared to the aches and pains others have? What does intercourse feel like when you have a vagina? Does what’s going on inside other people when they say they’re in love feel even remotely like what I’ve experienced in that situation?

Of course that raises all kinds of personal identity problems and such, like how could I still be “I” if I’m thinking and feeling all that some other person is? Would I somehow be simultaneously aware I’m this other consciousness experiencing what he or she is experiencing? If so, wouldn’t I then not be experiencing precisely what they are (since they don’t have this additional awareness that they’re me)?

But I still want to do it, conceptual incoherence or not.

One of the weirdest things about some of Sacks’s cases is when they not only lack something, but lack the awareness that they lack it.

Like if you woke up tomorrow, you’d probably notice if you couldn’t see any more, and one assumes you’d be rather concerned. Well, not if what took away your ability to see also took away any memory, any knowledge, any understanding of what vision even is like.

And that’s what happens with some of the folks in his books. They don’t know they’re blind, or they don’t know their short term memory is shot, or they don’t know they’ve lost the concept of “left” and are incapable of moving or looking or directing their attention to anything in that direction.

A lot of times, the way he describes it, they’re not even troubled that they don’t know these things. Like if I woke up totally unaware of being the least bit different, but doctors and everyone in my life told me with great alarm that I had lost an entire sense that just about everyone else in the human race has, and that as a result my life would be severely limited compared to what it was, then even if I couldn’t imagine what this sense was (like a blind from birth person trying to imagine sight), presumably I’d know and care that I’m screwed. I’d grasp the fact that other people can do lots of things I can’t, that I’m dependent on others in a way most people aren’t, etc.

But even that sort of higher level ability to know that you don’t know seems to be lacking with certain kinds of neurological damage.

As a friend of mine pointed out a long time ago after we’d both read an earlier Sacks book, what an intriguing and alarming set of possibilities that raises! How could I rule out that I as an individual, or the human race in general, used to have some additional sense–telepathy or whatever–but it (and all related second and third order awareness or memory of it, as described above–the whole concept of it) was wiped away due to a reaction to some industrial chemical or whatever?

Jumping to another point, I think sometimes Sacks overstates the positive side of his patients, the compensations they’ve developed, etc.

Like he’s really impressed in this book by the extraordinary memory of the teenage autistic artist he meets, the way he’ll glance around for a few seconds seemingly not even paying attention, and then go away and paint exactly what he’d seen.

Except he doesn’t. He gets plenty of details wrong. In painting a house, he puts a window in the wrong place, he draws a flagpole that wasn’t there, etc. Sacks insists no, no, he didn’t make any mistakes, he was just being playful, allowing himself some artistic license, improving what was there instead of boring himself by functioning as a camera.

OK, maybe. But I don’t know how he knows that. It’s not like he’s putting this person through strict, controlled, scientific tests, where the subject understands he’s supposed to draw exactly what he saw to the best of his ability. It’s all very informal, and on top of that, the communication between them is very limited and uncertain, so he can’t know what the autistic fellow is or isn’t trying to do. I’d have to think it’s at least as likely he has a very good rather than a superhuman memory about such things, and the differences between what he draws and reality are simply errors.

Anyway, I could talk at length about many of these cases, since a lot of them are fascinating. Granted, I have my preferences. Like I suppose the ticcy Tourette folks aren’t quite as interesting to me as, say, the guy trying (and mostly failing) to learn how to see after having his vision restored late in life after decades of blindness. But they’re all at least somewhat thought-provoking, and some are very much so.

Kind of related to what I said about the author’s comments on the autistic artist, I really like the ending of the book, because there he’s more humble about his assessment.

The last chapter is one of the ones on an autistic person, a woman who is far more communicative than most autistic people and therefore a very valuable source of information about the condition (albeit with the caveat that you’re kind of speaking different languages with this whole “problem of other minds” thing, where you can’t really interpret each other’s words with a high degree of confidence).

The whole chapter makes obvious that it really matters to Sacks to understand this person, and to make an emotional connection. He cares about her, and he wants to understand what she cares about, if anything, and to what extent her emotions overlap with how other people experience life.

He gets to the end of their encounter, and he still doesn’t know how much they’ve really connected, still doesn’t know how much he really knows her, still doesn’t know to what extent–if any–there has been a breakthrough. He asks if he can hug her (since autistic people commonly have major aversions to physical affection or connection of that kind), and she allows it.

I hugged her–and (I think) she hugged me back.

That’s the last line of the book. That parenthetical addition really nails it.


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