The River of Consciousness

Sacks, Oliver

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Essay

  • Date of entry: Feb-26-2018
  • Last revised: Mar-01-2018


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.


Readers of Sacks’ works will not be surprised by many pleasurable features to these essays: range of intelligence, clarity and felicity of style, evidence of broad learning, and humility while considering the complexity and mystery of the human mind.  

The latest piece, “A General Feeling of Disorder”, is especially touching in its description of Sacks’s last-ditch efforts for “a few extra months of life” (p. 155).  I hope it is anthologized and otherwise shared widely with students of medicine and healthcare. The essay’s title is from an 1860s description of a migraine attack, “I wake…with a general feeling of disorder.” In Sacks’s elaboration, there are two aspects of his genius and many contributions to emphasize: (1) his understanding of the riches of language to describe reality and to engage the mind and (2) the contradictory ranges of illness that are in some ways the same but in other ways infinitely varied. He writes (p. 153):          

"I cite du Bois-Reymond’s self-description, as I do at the very beginning of Migraine, partly for its precision and beauty (as are common in nineteenth-century neurological descriptions, but rare now), above all because it is exemplary—all cases of migraine vary, but they are, so to speak, permutations of his."


There is a 13-page Bibliography and a ten-page Index.  
The page facing the title page lists 14 books by Oliver Sacks, many of them not only memorable but, now, classic. 


Alfred A. Knopf

Place Published

New York



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