A Tribute to Oliver Sacks

“Every act of perception, is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree, an act of imagination.”

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks, a renowned writer and neurologist passed away yesterday at the age of 82 due to his ocular melanoma, as many of us may know by now. Not only was Sacks a physician, but he was also a brilliant writer, polymath, humanist, musician, and a weight-lifter. Perhaps one of the most interesting qualities Oliver Sacks possessed was his intellectual curiosity that really sparked a light through which everyone realized his profound insight on subjects such as psychology or cognitive science. He ultimately took medicine to the next level, by melding science into the art of storytelling!

“Music can lift us out of depression or move us to tears- it is a remedy, a tonic, orange juice for the ear. But for many of my neurological patients, music is even more – it can provide access, even when no medication can, to movement, to speech, to life. For them, music is not a luxury, but a necessity.”

Check out these books by Oliver Sacks:

  1. Musicophilia
  2. Hallucinations
  3. Awakenings
  4. On the Move
  5. The Mind’s Eye
  6. An Anthropologist on Mars
  7. The Island of the Colorblind
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The Old and New Brain Phenomena

Recently, I was reading a book called, “Quiet-The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain and was very interested in how the brain’s biological processes can impact our behavior or personalities. The book was basically about how the extrovert ideal of this generation really suggested for quiet people to step out of their comfort zone, which isn’t necessarily bad. However, it talked about some of the rewarding aspects introverts, and highly-reactive or sensitive people had, based on scientific research.

This whole concept of neuroscience really struck me and I wanted to go deeper and deeper. Of course, I can’t go that deep into it because I would have to be a neuroscientist or an M.D. to understand certain things. Regardless, there are some things that are just so interesting about the human brain!

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So, the book referred to the limbic system of our brain, which we share with the most primitive animals, to be the “old brain.” Now, this “old brain” is emotional and instinctive. It includes various structures, including the amygdala, which is our fear and emotional response center, and that is connected to our nucleus accumbens (a.k.a. the brain’s pleasure center.) There is also a part of the old brain that plays a huge role in reward-seeking and pleasure.

The “new brain,” on the other hand, is the neocortex, which evolved many thousands of years after the limbic system. The new brain was described to be responsible for thinking, planning, language and decision-making- some of the very faculties that make us human. So what is the correlation between the old brain and the new brain?

The old brain, as mentioned before is instinctive, and is interested only in survival, whereas the new brain is where our feelings are stored. So, if the old brain senses some danger, it may send a message to your new brain, making you in turn, fearful to that situation… Isn’t that wicked?! The brain works in amazing ways that we sometimes can’t even seem to comprehend.

Going back to the “pleasure center” of the brain, including the orbitofrontal cortex, the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, we can really get excited about potential goodies like money or pictures of attractive people. It’s amazing to see that there is a certain part of the brain that lights up during an fMRI for a particular rewarding feeling! In fact, research has now proven that the more dopamine your brain releases, the more likely you are to go after rewards like sex, chocolate, money and status.. Isn’t that crazy?! That’s why cocaine and heroin make you euphoric, but that shouldn’t convince you to go risk your life on these drugs. However, going out to experience positive rewarding experiences are amazing, and there is simply no way that could go wrong for you..

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With that being said, this book has made me realize that there is a neuroscientific explanation for almost every single activity you perform, and that certainly impacts your personality. If you seek status or money, then you are likely to be using your old brain, but if you value family relationships and love more than you do money and status, then you may be using your neocortex or your new brain. If you think about this from an evolutionary aspect, we don’t have to fight so hard now to get food and shelter. Don’t get me wrong. There are millions of people struggling through poverty today but it would make sense to say that we are using more of our new brains now, because this is a new era. That’s why evolution makes SO MUCH sense! There is a need to emphasize that!…