The River of Consciousness


Oliver Sacks


For those of you have been intrigued by Oliver Sacks and his writing, The River of Consciousness has just been released. The essays reveal the depth and breadth of his scientific curiosity and explorations and was put together two years ago, just before he died. You can sense the enthusiasm he had as you read, and it is contagious. I have chosen paragraphs which I found to be particularly interesting. Your favorite paragraphs may differ.

In his essay Speed, he shares a remembrance from elementary school which reminds us of the perils of excessive explicit instruction. The hours and minutes still seem excruciatingly long when I am bored and all too short when I am engaged. As a boy, I hated school, being forced to listen passively to droning teachers. When I looked at my watch surreptitiously, counting the minutes to my liberation, the minute hand, and even the second hand, seemed to move with infinite slowness. There is an exaggerated consciousness of time in such situations; indeed, when one is bored, there may be no consciousness of anything but time.


In the same essay, he compares the speed of automatic actions with the speed of conscious actions. His example relates to athletes and their training, but the same holds true for visual skills and optometric vision training. The expertise of athletes, whatever their innate gifts, is only to be acquired by years of dedicated practice and training. At first, an intense conscious effort and attention are necessary to learn every nuance of technique and timing. But at some point, the basic skills and their neural representation become so ingrained in the nervous system as to be almost second nature, no longer in need of conscious effort or decision.


In his essay, The Fallibility of Memory, Oliver Sacks helps us to become more accepting of our mnemonic failings. Memories, like visual perceptions, are actively created. There is no way by which the events of the world can be directly transmitted or recorded in our brains; they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way, which is different in every individual to begin with, and is differently reinterpreted or reexperienced whenever they are recollected. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves – the stories we continually recategorize and refine. Such subjectivity is built into the very nature of memory and follows from its basis and mechanisms in the brains we have. The wonder is that aberrations of a gross sort are relatively rare and that for the most part our memories are so solid and reliable.


He elaborates this further in River of Consciousness. The idea began to develop that vision had components, that visual representations were in no sense “given”, like optical images or photographs, but were constructed by an enormously complex and intricate correlation of different processes. Perception was now seen as composite, as modular, the interaction of a huge number of components. The integration and seamlessness of perception had to be achieved in the brain.


Dr. Sacks took time. Not only was he extremely well-read, he took time to synthesize information from a wide representation of sources and life. Time to read and go back and reread. Time to think. Time to question and communicate. Time to write on a manual typewriter, not text or tweet. Many things in life can and should be done quickly, but some require special time. Our lives make it increasingly difficult to slow down, but enriched slowing down help us to find our meaning in life.


The Mind’s Eye: Oliver Sacks

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