The Death of Oliver Sacks

1 minute read

September 1, 2015 by Bradley Voytek

Like many other neuroscientists, Dr. Sacks had a profound influence on my career path.

Wired asked me to give my thoughts on what Dr. Sacks meant to me personally and to the field as a whole. That's such a daunting undertaking, but below is my response. (Article on Wired here.)

Neuroscience is a funny field because on the one hand it's highly technical--dynamical systems analysis, computational complexity, and so on--but on the other hand it's profoundly human; most of us neuroscientists don't study fly brains or rat brains to learn how animals move and behave, we study them because we ultimately want to understand who we are, and how 3 gooey pounds of fat, water, and tissues in our head make us think, feel, create, and wonder.

The fact that I, a practicing neuroscientist, can openly admit to giving a shit about the human side of neuroscience without fearing "outing" myself as a soft thinker is in no small part due to artistry of Dr. Sacks' blend of scientific rationality and human empathy. That's an incredibly difficult line to walk when you're faced with the existential reality that the very thing that makes us who we are can be changed in some way--for example by neurological trauma or injury--and can therefore change basic aspects of our perception and personality.

Dr. Sacks, through sheer force of compassion, reminded us, as a scientific field, that the very thing that makes neuroscience most frightening--its ability to expose our humanness as being tied to our physical self--is also why it's so important for us to pursue it. The promise of neuroscientific advancement is the reduction of suffering, and in many ways Dr. Sacks was our empathic lighthouse in the scientific storm of advancement, guiding us toward that humanistic goal.