Showing 1 - 10 of 79 annotations in the genre "Essay"

The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Last Updated: Mar-01-2018

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Two weeks before his death in 2015, Sacks oversaw this collection of essays and charged Kate Edgar, Daniel Frank, and Bill Hayes to arrange its publication. The essays touch on various fields—evolution, botany, chemistry, medicine, neuroscience, and the arts, and focus on major figures such as Darwin, Freud, and William James. The major theme—as indicated by the volume’s title—is how minds (of humans, chimps, even jellyfish) interpret and remember what the senses perceive in normal and in limited states. While we read in the Foreword that “a number” of the pieces originally appeared in The New York Review of Books, there are no citations for dates and places.  

“Darwin and the Meaning of Flowers”: Sacks describes Darwin’s research with flowers that support evolution; flowing plants display qualities of sensitivity to “contact, pressure moisture, chemical gradients, etc” (p. 19). Sacks recalls the pleasures of investigating flowers as a youth in his London garden.  

“Speed” : Drawing on personal experience and a wide variety of anecdotes (including his encephalitic patients described in Awakenings), Sacks muses about mental perceptions, slow and fast, normal and drug-enhanced, dreams, and our ability to imagine “all speeds, all time” (p. 59).  

“Sentience: The Mental Lives of Plants and Worms”: Starting with Darwin and coming forward, Sacks discuss how worms, jellyfish, and even trees may be considered to exhibit “mind.” Near the end, we read, “if one allows that a dog may have consciousness of a significant and individual sort, one has to allow it for an octopus too” (p. 76).  
   
“The Other Road: Freud as Neurologist”: The opening paragraph ably sums up the essay. “Everyone knows Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, but relatively few know about the twenty years (from 1876 to 1896) when he was primarily a neurologist and anatomist; Freud himself rarely referred to them in later life. Yet his neurological life was the precursor to his psychoanalytic one, and perhaps an essential key to it (p. 79).   
   
The next three may be considered as a group because they deal with lapses or outright failures in perception, memory, or health. Because Sacks reports on his own life experience, these are the most personal.
“The Fallibility of Memory” describes Sacks’s memories of the bombing of London in the winter of 1940-41. It turns out that one memory, according to family members, is right, but the other is actually a version of a letter describing a bombing.

The essay continues to discuss such topics as false memories, auto-plagiarism, unconscious plagiarism, and fabulation. He concludes, “Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories we tell each other and ourselves—the stories we continually recategorize and refine” (p. 121). In a short piece, “Mishearings,” Sacks reports how his increasing deafness makes new (and sometimes hilarious) perceptions of spoken words.  

Surely the last written—and in many ways the most poignant—“A General Feeling of Disorder” discusses feelings of being ill. Sacks, at age 81, describes his metastatic liver cancer and, in detail, an arduous treatment. Although warned of weakness and pain, he writes of “a sort of negative orgasm of pain” and other disturbing side effects (pp. 155-59) in vivid detail.  

“The Creative Self” discusses forms of creativity including play, scholarship, unconscious borrowing, and subconscious insight. Sacks is less interested in a Freudian model than an evocation of “an entire hidden, creative self” (p. 144).            

The final two, “The River of Consciousness” and “Scotoma: Forgetting and Neglect in Science” deal with theories of how the mind works and, more collectively, how scientific breakthroughs occur. The former essay explores cinematic models for perception in James and Bergson and much later models of the 100 billion neurons of the brain working on networks, coalitions, or populations. He finds that a specific mechanism is unlikely to be found and, “Even the highest powers of art—whether in film or theater, or literary narrative—can only convey the faintest intimation of what human consciousness is really like” (p. 174).

In “Scotoma” (or “memory hole”), he looks at discoveries that were over-looked for many years . Later they were rediscovered as important for understanding various phenomena: Tourette’s syndrome, phantom limbs, and, his specialty, migraines.

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Annotated by:
McClelland, Spencer

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

An extended essay on the experience of child immigrants woven around the forty questions that author Valeria Luiselli asks in her work as a translator for children seeking entry into the United States.

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Summary:

Dr. Monika Renz’s work with dying patients is unusual if not unique in the way she appropriates and applies insights from Jungian depth psychology, practices available in patients’ faith traditions, and musically guided meditation to invite and support the spiritual experiences that so often come, bidden or unbidden, near the end of life.  An experienced oncologist, Dr. Renz offers carefully amassed data to support her advocacy of focused practices of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care, but is also quite comfortable with the fact that “neither the frequency nor the visible effects of experiences of the transcendent prove that such experience is an expression of grace” because “unverifiability is intrinsic to grace.”  Still, her long experience leads her to assert not only that “grace” can be a useful, practical, operative word for what professional caregivers may witness and mediate but also that affirmation and support of patients’ spiritual, religious, or transcendent experiences in the course of dying can amplify and multiply moments of grace, which manifest as sudden, deep peace in the very midst of pain, profound acceptance, openness to reconciliations, or significant awakenings from torpor that allow needed moments of closure with loved ones.  Describing herself as “an open-minded religious person and a practicing Christian,” she reminds readers that God is a loanword, whose basic form in Germanic was gaudam, a neutral participle.  Depending on the Indo-Germanic root, the word means “the called upon” or “the one sacrificed to . . . .”  Openness to the divine in both patients and caregivers, Dr. Renz argues, can and does make end-of-life care a shared journey of discovery and offer everyone involved a valuable reminder that medicine is practiced, always, at the threshold of mystery.

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Is It All in Your Head?

O'Sullivan, Suzanne

Last Updated: Mar-17-2017
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Suzanne O’Sullivan is a neurologist in the British National Health Service. She has a particular interest in psychosomatic illnesses, and in this book, she covers what she has learned about them. O’Sullivan provides these learnings mostly from clinical experience rather than as findings from empiric studies on psychosomatic illnesses.   

Each chapter is built around one or more case studies that focus on particular psychosomatic illnesses, and include historical perspectives and various theories that might explain why they occur.  

The cases O’Sullivan uses presented themselves as seizures, paralysis, urinary tract troubles, generalized and localized pain, gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, blindness, and dystonia. Patients sometimes came to her with pre-determined diagnoses such as epilepsy, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue syndrome, myalgic encephalomyelitis, and fibromyalgia among others. O’Sullivan is emphatic that psychosomatic illnesses are not just any presentation of illness that cannot be linked to a pathological basis. Psychosomatic illnesses arise from “the subconscious mind [that] reproduces symptoms that make sense to the individual’s understanding of how a disease behaves.” (p. 83) Illness presentations that are feigned or self-inflicted (e.g., Munchausen’s syndrome) are not psychosomatic illnesses in O’Sullivan’s view.
 

Each chapter delves into some particular aspect of psychosomatic illness relevant to the case study. These include history (e.g., role of the uterus in hysteria), mechanisms at work (e.g., conversion reactions, dissociation), triggers (e.g., stress, loss, personality traits), factors (e.g., previous illness experiences), illness behavior disorders (e.g., associating illness to benign physical sensations), and the higher incidence seen among females. Though O’Sullivan teases out various characteristics and workings of psychosomatic illnesses, she admits that they remain vexing to clinicians because, “almost any function of the body can be affected in almost any way.” (p. 170)

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My Father's Brain

Franzen, Jonathan

Last Updated: Apr-12-2016
Annotated by:
Teagarden, J. Russell

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Jonathan Franzen tells the story of his father’s slow and inexorable decline from Alzheimer’s disease. His story is a familiar one, and one that millions of people can now tell: at first the initial odd behaviors and memory failures attributed to various causes other than dementia, then the diagnosis and medical interventions to stem the inevitable, and finally the inevitable. While Franzen also describes the toll his father’s dementia exacts on the immediate family—as well as some truths it uncovers about his parents’ marriage—he does not put a significant emphasis on family effects.  

Interwoven in Franzen’s recounting of his father’s plight are a few digressions on Alzheimer’s disease. In one he wonders, as many others have, about whether Alzheimer’s disease is more a medicalization of certain behaviors than the result of brain pathology, or otherwise just “ordinary mental illness being trendily misdiagnosed as Alzheimer’s.” (p. 19) In others, he briefly summarizes the well-known theory involving plaques and neurofibril tangles as a cause of Alzheimer’s, and thoughts on how memories form and work in the brain. In yet one other digression, Franzen reminds us that Alzheimer’s disease as originally described in 1906 was a rare type of dementia characterized by early onset in middle age and rapid progression. He further notes that it was not until the latter part of the 20th century when Alzheimer’s disease was tagged as the fifth leading cause of death and the disease of the century, and only through the efforts of a coalition comprising clinical scientists, politicians, and patient advocates. 

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Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This is a collection of essays by (mostly British) artists, performers, and academics on the intersection between medicine and theater.  It appears in a series entitled “Performance and Science: Interdisciplinary Dialogues” put out by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.  The introduction makes it clear there are many points of convergence beyond the scope of this volume, such as how medicine is depicted in plays and therapeutic uses of theater (e.g. drama therapy).  The focus here, then, is on “the ways in which the body is understood, displayed and represented in performance” (p. 11).  And the “medical body” of the title refers to one that is ’acted upon’ by illness or disability and/or by the diagnostic and therapeutic activities of the medical profession” (Ibid).  

The book is divided into three sections: “Performing the Medical,” “Performing Patients,” and “Performing Body Parts.”  The first section includes an essay by Roger Kneebone, a surgeon, who explores the parallels between his field and theatrical performance.  Kneebone has devised simulations that enable laypersons to get a sense of what it is like to participate in surgery.  In his view, this encourages cross-fertilization of ideas.  For example, his collaboration with a jazz pianist has demonstrated to him that musical improvisation, in its spontaneity, is somewhat like emergency surgery.  And his work with a choreographer led to the development of a dance piece depicting the movements of a surgical team during a procedure.   
 

In the second section we read about Brian Lobel, a theater artist who has used his experience with testicular cancer to create a solo performance piece entitled “BALL.”  This not only allowed Lobel to “regain a sense of mastery over the illness experience” (p. 88), but has also earned him a niche within the theater community.  Lobel now works with other cancer sufferers helping them develop their own narratives in a project called “Fun with Cancer Patients.”  

The final section of the book includes a description of “Under Glass,” a forty-minute performance piece consisting of eight specimen jars each containing a solo performer, said to be “at once museum exhibit, gallery and medical laboratory” (p. 141), which also provides the book's front cover image. "Under Glass" was devised by Clod Ensemble, whose Performing Medicine project is known for its teaching programs in numerous London medical schools.  Meant to provoke discourse about the public display of specimens, it brings to mind the Victorian “freak show” as well as the more recent controversial touring Body Worlds exhibition of plastinated cadavers and body parts.

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Annotated by:
Kohn, Martin

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

Brian Dolan has done a great service for the field of medical humanities through his efforts in putting together this volume. Its 19 reprinted articles cover the spectrum of disciplines/fields/methodologies that anchor our work:  history, literature, film, theater, arts, narrative, storytelling, critical (disability) studies, human values, and professionalism. His opening essay, “One Hundred Years of Medical Humanities: A Thematic Overview” very pertinently and extremely ably sets the stage for the remainder of the book. Quite helpfully, authors of “recently published articles,” in this instance from 1987 on, were asked “to reflect on their piece and add introductory comments that would help frame it, or enable them to address issues raised since its original publication” (p.167).  To the reader’s benefit, almost all of those contemporary authors did so.  As cited on the book’s  back cover, the work of some of our field’s most important educators are in this volume, including contributions from Erwin Ackernecht, Gretchen Case, Rita Charon, Jack Coulehan, Thomas Couser, Lester Friedman, Kathryn Montgomery Hunter, Paul Ulhaus Macneill, Guy Micco, Martha Montello, Edmund Pellegrino, Suzanne Poirier, Johanna Shapiro, Abraham Verghese, and Delese Wear. 

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Annotated by:
Miksanek, Tony

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This thoughtful essay from the author of The Emperor of All Maladies expounds on information, uncertainty, and imperfection in the medical setting. The author recalls witnessing a difficult operation when he was a medical student. The attending surgeon admonished the operating room team, "Medicine asks you to make perfect decisions with imperfect information" (p.5). This essay is constructed around that idea as the author shares three personal principles that have guided him throughout his medical career.
     Law One: A strong intuition is much more powerful than a weak test. (p. 22)
     Law Two: "Normals" teach us rules; "outliers" teach us laws. (p. 38)
     Law Three: For every perfect medical experiment, there is a perfect human bias. (p.54)

He views the medical world as a "lawless, uncertain" place and stresses that biomedicine is a "softer science" than chemistry or physics. Clinical wisdom, in his opinion, is imperfect, fluid, and abstract whereas the knowledge base of other basic sciences is concrete, fixed, and certain. He laments, "My medical education had taught me plenty of facts, but little about the spaces that live between facts" (p. 6).

His own "laws" of medicine are actually laws of imperfection. Clinical diagnosis can be thought of as a "probability game" where human bias creeps into the process. And ultimately common sense trumps pure statistical reasoning. Woven into the discussion are considerations on a variety of topics - children with autism, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, genomics, radical masectomy, and randomized, double-blind studies. Nods to Lewis Thomas (The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher), Thomas Bayes (Bayes' Theorem), and Johannes Kepler (Kepler's Laws of planetary motion) fit in nicely with the thrust of the treatise.


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The Theater of War

Doerries, Bryan

Last Updated: Oct-30-2015
Annotated by:
Glass, Guy

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Essay

Summary:

This is a book about the author's passionate love affair with ancient Greek plays, how he goes beyond merely making them relevant to our time by finding therapeutic benefit in them, and how he finds ways to adapt them for a variety of populations and uses.  

Doerries begins by telling us about two formative relationships, representing opposite extremes, that have influenced his worldview.  In the first case, we learn how his father, a diabetic, effectively commits suicide over a period of decades by gorging himself on sweets. He rationalizes his behavior to his son by suggesting that, no matter what he does, his life is destined to end in disaster anyway like "those Greek plays." (p. 17) In contrast, we hear of the author's relationship with a young woman, doomed by cystic fibrosis, who manages to make every moment of her all-too-brief life matter. She goes on to provide an object lesson in how to die with grace and dignity.  These experiences afford Doerries an insight into mortality beyond his years. He also gains insight into his own destiny, eschewing an academic career for a path of his own making.  He follows his intuition which tells him "If I could present readings...maybe something healing could happen." (p. 66) He then begins to devise his own translations from the original Greek which he directs in dramatic readings, and he seeks out the audiences that will benefit from them.

One of the plays that captures his imagination, Sophocles's "Ajax," tells of a warrior who loses his friend to war, becomes despondent, and takes his own life. Doerries discovers that this storyline is familiar territory to sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.   Consequently, when he presents it at military bases it produces an abreactive effect. Indeed, the pent-up emotion he elicits has no other outlet, and he and his performers become folk heroes.  Of course, there are detractors as well.

In the remainder of the book, Doerries finds additional applications for his method, from prisoners in Guantanamo Bay to hospice providers to victims of natural disasters.


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Welcome to Cancerland

Ehrenreich, Barbara

Last Updated: Sep-28-2015
Annotated by:
Duffin, Jacalyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

Summary:

A “drive-by mammogram” leads the writer, Barbara, to a biopsy of a suspicious breast lump. She awakes from the fog of anesthesia to hear the surgeon’s bland remark: “Unfortunately, there is a cancer.” Welcome to Cancerland, a place where her identity is displaced by the vast implications of the diagnosis, another operation, and arduous months of chemotherapy. What works for her own peace of mind has little to do with the trappings of pink-ribbon sentimentalism in the survivors groups.

Barbara resorts to her knowledge of cell biology, asks to see her own tumor under the microscope, and contemplates the meaning of visualizing the malignant cells even if she does not believe the exercise can help her. She dissects the rank commercialism and denial in the survivor movement: let me die of “anything but the sticky sentimentalism in that Teddy Bear.” She decries the claims that cancer therapy makes better skin, better hair, and better people, with better bodies, especially when an implant on one side subtends a cosmetic procedure on the other.

Posting these thoughts on a chat line, she discovers that most women berate her attitude and suggest she needs a psychiatrist. But one dying woman agrees with her distress, and writes of having cancer, “IT IS NOT OK.” Admitting feminists can be found in the “survivor” community, Barbara faults its underlying tone for being coercively optimistic, infantilizing, and insulting to the dying and the dead. She is angry. Very angry, and her “purifying rage” spares no one: doctors, support groups, feminists, drug companies, and the Cancer Society. Nevertheless--and in keeping with her earlier work--she credits the women’s movement with helping to rid the world of three medical evils: the radical Halsted mastectomy, the practice of proceeding to mastectomy from biopsy without waking up the patient, and high dose chemotherapy.

Two disturbing ironies bring the essay to a close. The first, is the possibility that mammograms may not be saving or even prolonging lives, even as they detect cancers; they make women dwell in Cancerland for longer and cause too many “unnecessary” biopsies. The mammogram is a ritual, she says. The second irony lies in the role of the pharmaceutical industry which fosters the pink power movement –the ribbons, the teddy bears, the marathons-- while manufacturing the expensive poisons that seem to have anticancer side effects. These same companies, she argues, have also manufactured carcinogenic pesticides that pollute the environment. Having profitably poisoned women into having breast cancers, they continue to profit from poisons of chemotherapy.
She faults both the “cult” of the survivors movement and the American Cancer Society for their “unquestioning faith” in these imperfect instruments of action.

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