Friday, July 20, 2007

A happy cat, a joyologist

It's not available online (here's the abstract), but Oliver Sacks has a most compelling essay in this week's New Yorker about two cases in which patients who suffered a catastrophic injury or illness (one is struck by lightning, the other has a large malignant brain tumor surgically removed) were afterwards visited with a passion and gift for music unlike anything in their previous lives. Obviously cases like this are incredibly unusual, more often a devastating injury involves straight-up losses rather than this kind of strange trade-off, but both stories are mesmerizing:

In 2002, Salimah started to have brief episodes, lasting a minute or less, in which she would get "a strange feeling"--sometimes a sense that she was on a beach that she had once known while at the same time being perfectly conscious of her current surroundings and able to continue a conversation, or drive a car, or do whatever she had been doing. Occasionally, the episodes were accompanied by a "sour taste" in her mouth. She noticed these strange occurrencecs, but did not think of them as having any neurological significance. It was only when she had a grand-mal seizure, in the summer of 2003, that she went to a neurologist and was given brain scans, which revealed a large tumor in her right temporal lobe--the cause of her peculiar episodes. The tumor, her doctors felt, was malignant (though it was probably an oligodendroglioma, of relatively low malignancy) and needed to be removed. Salimah wondered if she had been given a death sentence and was fearful of the operation and its possible consequences; she and her husband had been told that it might cause some "personality changes." But, in the event, the surgery went well, most of the tumor was removed, and, after a period of convalescence, Salimah was able to return to her work as a chemist.

Before the surgery, Salimah had been a fairly reserved woman, who would occasionally be annoyed or preoccupied by small things like dust or untidiness; her husband said that she was sometimes "obsessive" about jobs that needed to be done around the house. But now, after the surgery, she seemed unperturbed by such domestic matters. She had become, in the idiosyncratic words of her husband (English was not their first langage), a "happy cat." She was, he declared, a "joyologist."

Salimah's new cheerfulness was apparent at work. She had worked in the same laboratory for fifteen years and had always been admired for her intelligence and dedication. Yet, while losing none of this professional competence, she seemed a much warmer person, keenly sympathetic and interested in the lives and feelings of her co-workers. Where before, in a colleague's words, she had been "much more into herself," she now became the confidante and social center of the entire lab.

At home, too, she shed some of her Marie Curie-like, work-oriented personality. She permitted herself time off from her thinking, her equations, and became more interested in going to movies and parties, living it up a bit. And a new love, a new passion, entered her life. As a girl, she had been, in her own words, "vaguely musical," had played the piano a little, but music had never played any great part in her life. Now it was different. She longed to go to concerts, to listen to classical music on the radio or on CDs. She could be moved to rapture or tears by music which had carried "no special feeling" for her before. She became "addicted" to her car radio, which she would listen to while driving to work. A colleague who happened to pass Salimah in her convertible on the road said that the music on her radio was "incredibly loud"--he could hear it a quarter of a mile away. Salimah was "entertaining the whole freeway."

Like Tony Cicoria, Salimah showed a drastic transformation from being only vaguely interested in music to being passionately excited by it and in continual need of it. And with both of them there were other, more general changes, too--a surge of emotionality, as if emotions of every sort were being stimulated or released. In Salmiah's words, "What happened after the surgery--I felt reborn. That changed my outlook on life and made me appreciate every minute of it."

I find this piece especially moving because I heard Sacks read it at Columbia this spring. The week before the lecture I was talking with my late lamented swimming teacher Doug Stern about Sacks, who was a good friend of his (I think I mentioned it because I had to come to a different swim clinic because of the lecture). I rhapsodized about my long-time passion for the writing of Oliver Sacks and how much I hoped to talk to him sometime, and Doug said (in very characteristic form!), "Well, go up to him and tell him Doug Stern says hello. Then he'll talk to you. If you don't, he won't talk to you."

In the event, I didn't have the heart to, the talk was really mesmerizing (especially the introductory ruminations with which Sacks preceded the reading--he has a quality that I like very much and that you don't see too often, of being able to think out loud with freshness and striking originality in an entirely unselfconscious manner) but afterwards he was thronged with people, and he looked so tired that I could not imagine it would be humane for me to force my way into the queue!

(Though I did have the temptation to tell him, because I thought he would think it was funny, that I had had a strange near-hallucination in the corner of my mind's eye for the preceding week, which was that though I knew he was going to talk about music and the brain, I was secretly convinced that at the last minute he would change his topic and talk about swimming instead!)

Not long afterwards, Doug was diagnosed with cancer, and the next time I saw Oliver Sacks speak, it was at Doug's funeral. That's a melodramatic note to end on, but really I have nothing more to say. One of my alternate-universe selves is a neurologist, one of these days my actual self is going to look into neurology more extensively rather than just reading about it in a dilettantish kind of way.

(The metaphor of grace comes back in with these lightning-and-brain-tumor stories, in a way that recapitulates certain points of the ongoing conversation in my head about striving and talents--in a sense, we have no non-theological language for these things, so that although I am not a believer in any religious sense it is hard not to think of a special talent as "God-given"--is there another term that has the same force? "Innate" or "natural" are weak in contrast.)

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