Oliver Sacks



Transcripts, Parts 188 - 191

Source: Web of STORIES

188 - Isolation, feeling unique and visual neuroscience

I had been pretty isolated until 1986, partly perhaps because I... I wanted to be [books published until 1986]. I think I partly left England feeling that... that I was perhaps eccentric or would not fit well into the rigid... into the sort of rigid medical hierarchies in England, anymore than I would fit into the military. This was one of my reasons for leaving England.

And after my training was complete in neurology in California, I... I wanted to move into a, sort of, hiding place. I... well, that's not a good way to put it. I hoped there might be interstices in medicine which I could occupy, untroubled by ... and also by... by collegial criticism or contact.

This was very much my situation at Beth Abraham Hospital. This was a... a poor, unknown chronic disease hospital, beneath the notice of neurologists, but in Beth Abraham I found my Awakenings patients and treasures galore, and I could spend as long as I liked with a patient. But I... I saw a few patients outside, the first one was Witty Ticcy Ray, and there were a few others.

But then after 1986 I had much more contact with... with colleagues, and Ralph introduced me to various visual colleagues of his, and I got a sense of the neuroscientific community. I didn't even know the word neuroscience in 1986, and obviously there had been a huge transformation since my physiology days at Oxford in the early '50s.

At that time one knew almost nothing about the brain. Physiology stopped very much at the level of the spinal cord and the brain stem. People had no idea, for example, how perceptions were constructed, or the very sentence, 'perceptions are constructs', would have been meaningless... would not have conveyed anything in the 1950s.

So, the whole... Ralph himself embodied a new neuroscientific reality and vision. As Crick did, of course, and he introduced me to many others, perhaps very especially a visual neuroscientist called Charles Gross, Charlie Gross, who was the first man to find cells in a monkey's brain which could respond specifically to the [sight of a] monkey's paw.

It had been demonstrated before by Hubel and Wiesel in the early 1960s, that the brain had receptors which might respond to the orientation of lines and to angles and to elementary geometrical things like this. But when Charlie Gross found, in 1969, that there might be cells specific for the recognition of hands, or of faces, well, it's... it's very interesting.

He himself was incredulous of his own findings, and embedded them almost invisibly, almost in parenthesis, in a paper. And people didn't respond, or they didn't see this, and more than 10 years went past before there was a huge explosion to do with the recognition of specific parts of the brain, and even specific cells or cell clusters which were crucial in the recognition of face cells and... and all sorts of specific perceptual features.

There was another... so visual neuroscience occupied, and still occupies, a considerable part of my life. My last book was called The Mind's Eye, my current book is about hallucinations, and predominantly visual hallucinations. But there were other interests as well.

189. Gerald Edelman's work: reinventions and Neural Darwinism

Axioms of model
Gerald Edelman on youtube
"Making up the Mind", Oliver Sacks, The New York Review of Books, 1993

I... I felt very honoured and very excited by meeting Crick and by the correspondence... I... this was really my first encounter with a major scientist of that calibre, but our correspondence and our sharing of interests were all in the visual realm, including that of visual consciousness.

I met another figure, who was and remains crucial to me, and this was Gerald Edelman. Gerald Edelman is a neurobiologist, a great neurobiologist, who is in La Jolla. Edelman had got a Nobel Prize for his work in immunology, really showing how... how immunological identity was formed. There had been the notion that one might have a sort of rack of preformed antibodies, but Edelman showed that this was not the case, but that the immune system learned and... and responded appropriately. And after Edelman had achieved that, he then looked at the nervous system and wondered whether there was a similar selective action with populations of nerve cells, and whether personal identity could be built up in the same way as immunological identity.

One can... a book has recently been published in Holland, I think it'll be published generally, it's been a big hit, saying: my brain is me. Well, in a sense your heart and your liver and your lungs are you, but they are only immunologically specific, and if you do something to damp down reactions, then you can get a heart transplant or a liver transplant. You can't have a brain transplant because a brain is someone else, although it's conceivable that... that little bits of the brain might be transplanted one day.

There had been an astonishing article in The New York Review of Books [in 1986] (in cache), by a man called Israel Rosenfield, about Edelman's work. I'd never heard of Edelman, and when I read this article, I... I don't know what... all the phrases, like, I was awestruck, I dropped dead, blew my mind... and... because clearly Edelman had a theory of... of the nervous system and of how one became an individual, unlike anything which had existed before. About six months later, I met Edelman, Israel was there, plus a friend from Italy. I couldn't follow the conversation, because Edelman talked at great speed and without interruption - he is a monologist - and then when he left us and walked away, I saw that he was walking very rapidly, and looking at the ground and paying no attention to people around him, and this... this increased my awestruck feeling of total absorption and powers of concentration.

But for me, the real epiphany came in '88, when Edelman and I had been invited to a conference in the Vatican. It was a very strange conference because it was about brain and mind, and brain and spirit. It was opened by Edelman, it was concluded by the Pope, and I was somewhere a very small contributor in the middle. But after the conference finished, I had dinner with Edelman. We were in a restaurant with... with paper tablecloths, and Edelman talked, and how he talked and the tablecloth became covered with diagrams, and I could stop him, and asked him to go back over things. And as I walked back from the restaurant I... I sort of, thanked God that I had lived to this day. I thought it must have been similar for people in 1859, when the Origin of Species came out - a completely different, wonderful world picture. Edelman's book was called Neural Darwinism, and... and I saw him as sort of, as... and he sees himself, as the Darwin of the... of the nervous system. Crick cracked a joke or so, and used to call neural Darwinism, neural Edelmanism, and Edelman would both smile and feel slightly prickly whenever he heard that.

190. Gerald Edelman's theory of neural Darwinism

Edelman thinks in terms of populations of cells and... and repertoires of cells, and of selective powers, and for the first... in the foetus at one point there is a huge, superabundance of nerve cells, and these are pruned to a considerable extent, even by birth. So already, selective processes have been going on before there has been any experience.

And Edelman likes to say that in identical twins, the brains are not identical, the... the fine features of brains are quite different. But, given the brain one has at birth, then further shaping of the brain will be the result of experience. Experience will strengthen certain connections and perhaps other ones will be weakened. And one way and another one becomes a match for the world, and the world matches one, through this... through this sort of selection.

A simple example of this occurs in babies as they learn to reach. The details of reaching are not programmed, perhaps something about the general structure of reaching, but the baby has to experiment, and from the baby's experiments, an optimal of... or idiosyncratic and unique and individual way or reaching is... is arrived at. So, reaching is 'evolved', it is not just programmed.

191 - Where is the individual amongst analogies for the brain?

There had often been a notion that brain structure was fixed and would develop in a... in a certain way. The term, dedicated or pre-dedicated, was often used, that there would be dedicated modules for... for this and that, whereas Edelman showed very much how... how representations were made on... on the basis of experience.

I'm sorry, there's a thought which was... yes. Implicit in Edelman's view of the brain is that we are individuals, that we have to do things in an individual way, that we must all forge an individual path, and that we are not automata with programmes.

I have been increasingly distressed, I think, over the years, by various analogies for the nervous system. Originally these were telephone analogies, then there were computer analogies, and people would speak of the brain as... as hardware and various programmes in the brain as software, and I wanted to say, yes, but where is the person?

I... I don't think there was the beginnings of a biology of the person, of the individual, whether that's the individual animal or the individual human being, before Edelman. And this... and this individuation in human beings, of course, extends to the highest level of consciousness, to seeing ourselves, seeing our own autobiographies and our... and where we're going.

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Version: Oct. 8, 2012

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