The Frontal Cortex

Oliver Sacks and Lullabies

For a wonderful example of Oliver Sacks’ “romantic scientific method” at work – a method he borrowed, at least in part, from the great Russian neurologist A.R. Luria – listen to this NPR piece, by Robert Krulwich.

It’s a beautiful story about the power of stories to help us make sense of our ourselves. Here’s how I summarized this romantic method in my recent profile of Sacks:

In his writings, he [Sacks] uses music as a metaphor for his unusual approach to medicine. He cites a Novalis aphorism–“Every disease is a musical problem; every cure is a musical solution”–in several books, usually when discussing the therapeutic powers of music. But it’s clear that Sacks also believes in a deeper, less literal connection between medicine and music, which is why Musicophilia reads like a retrospective. Music encapsulates two of the most essential aspects of his work: listening and feeling. The art form is the model for his method. As a doctor, Sacks is exquisitely attentive, not just to the symptoms, but also to the person. He treats each patient like a piece of music, a complex creation that must be felt to be understood. Sacks listens intensely so that he can feel what it’s like, so that he can develop an “intuitive sympathy” with the individual. It is this basic connection, a connection that defies explanation, that allows Sacks to heal his patients, letting them recover what has been lost: their sense of self.


  1. #1 freds
    December 17, 2007

    You’re right. It’s not just his neurology but his humanity. I’m really enjoying his new book.

  2. #2 p&pp
    December 18, 2007

    Sacks is wonderful! I went to one of his lectures and during the question-answer time a man with a stutter got up to ask a question. He was nervous so his stutter was strongly pronounced and Sacks coached him to sing what he wanted to say. He did it almost flawlessly!

  3. #3 Dave Briggs
    December 18, 2007

    so that he can develop an “intuitive sympathy” with the individual.

    I think this is an ethereal characteristic that the best practitioners in any field attain to. One that comes from genuine caring, and the determination to persist at resonating at the same frequency as the others involved.
    Dave Briggs :~)

  4. #4 DrSteve
    December 19, 2007

    A mensch.

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