Oliver Sacks and the Comforts of Metal

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of Awakenings (brainpickings.org)

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of the film Awakenings

I was first aware of Oliver Sacks with the publication in 1985 of his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The descriptions of his mentally ill patients were as intriguing as the title. A few years later, Robin Williams played Sacks in Awakenings, the story of the kind and idealistic doctor who finds a drug that revives his catatonic patients at a hospital in the Bronx.

Sacks died of cancer in 2015. He had been writing for a few months for the New York Times about his struggle. One of these wrenching and beautiful pieces is “My Periodic Table.” In it, Sacks describes three aspects of nature in which he sees different sides of himself.

“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.” With death approaching, “I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.” These include element 81, Thalium, a souvenir of last year’s 81st birthday; Lead, 82, for the birthday just celebrated; and Bismuth, 83. “I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having ‘83’ around.”

(Reading this touched off my own memory of how, as a boy, I tried with my father’s help to collect all 92 natural elements. In a display case on the wall over my bed I placed some sulfur and carbon from my chemistry set, small bottles of hydrogen, nitrogen and other gases that I had made, and bits of lead, iron, and other metals. Bringing together in my room the building blocks of nature felt like a commanding achievement, though the final display came to only about 20 items.)

While Sacks finds consolation in the basic metals, he responds differently to the stars. About viewing the starry sky one night, he writes that “It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience—and death.”

Lastly, when he “wanted to have a little fun” before beginning immunotherapy, he visited the lemur research center in North Carolina. “Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”

A lively ancestor, mortality among the stars, deathless birthday metals—a sacred trinity of sorts, Sacks’ selection of holy companions. We select from nature according to our joys and fears. The chemical elements mean little to me now and I don’t have thoughts one way or the other about metals and their durability. But I share sometimes Sacks’ sense of feeling belittled by the stars; they do inspire awe, but in contemplating my life and death, I’m in need of something friendlier. For me, Sacks’ lemurs are on a better track. I find consolation by including myself among the mass of organisms of all kinds—not just humans—living and dying now, the wave of rising and falling life as the current of beings sweeps on, out of its billion-year past.

Michael Graziano on How the Brain Creates Consciousness and Spirituality

Psychologist Michael Graziano proposes that our consciousness is more mechanical and less mysterious than we think. But he argues as well that this theory does not diminish the validity of our spiritual experiences.

Graziano, in Consciousness and the Social Brain, fully appreciates what our consciousness, our awareness, means to us. It is “the spark that make us us. Something lovely apparently buried inside us is aware of ourselves and of our world” (Kindle location 66). And many of us believe this lovely spark to be our spirit, even our soul.



But how does it work? Despite all that neuroscientists know about the brain, what remains elusive is how it goes about giving us the experience of being aware, awake, taking it all in. Theories suggest that the brain’s signals are “boosted, improved, maintained, or integrated” in some way that creates the sensation of awareness. But they don’t say how.

Graziano’s explanation is not really complicated, but it is so different from our everyday experience that it helps to understand first the main concept that it is built on, one that is well-established in neuroscience. This concept is that the brain recognizes things because it makes simplified models of them, shorthand versions that are similar to codes or diagrams. Examples of these schema include the formula a child’s brain will store away for identifying a dog (four legs, fur, friendly) and the sequence that adults know for entering a restaurant and ordering food. The brain stores such schemas and uses them to identify and even to imagine.

Schema theory is popular in early education. (4.bp.blogspot.com)

Schema theory applied in early education.

The twist that Graziano adds to the schema idea is that our consciousness itself is a schema, the brain’s shorthand version of the act of paying attention. “In the present theory, awareness is an attention schema. It is not attention but rather a simplified, useful description of attention” (377). As for attention itself, it is an actual, physical activity; it “lights up” sections of the brain in ways we can take pictures of. The attention schema, on the other hand, is a simplified model of that activity as it is stored by the brain.

Here is Graziano’s proposal in a nutshell. Take the example of a moment when we look at the bright green of spring and think, perhaps wordlessly, wow, what a bright, lovely green.

Suppose that you are looking at a green object and have a conscious experience of greenness. In the view that I am suggesting, the brain contains a chunk of information that describes the state of experiencing, and it contains a chunk of information that describes spectral green. Those two chunks are bound together. In that way, the brain computes a larger, composite description of experiencing green. (317)

Once that description is in place, other parts of our brain can verbalize it. We can say, “The green on this leaf is beautiful.” We are not experiencing green directly; a “color” is physically only electric and magnetic waves. We are experiencing the brain’s combination of two of its descriptions, the schema of greenness and of conscious attention.

Such a view has prompted me to experience my own conscious awareness a little differently. I think it is like a camera that clicks twice every time it takes a picture. One click is the picture of the object in front of it, the second click is the camera recording that it took a picture. When I think to myself, like the man in the cartoon above, “I’m standing here” or some other self-aware thought, there is a click of noticing what’s around me and a click of noticing my noticing.

Graziano adds that the attention schema comes with a GPS marker. The GPS usually locates the attention experience as “inside our head.”

But often it locates awareness inside someone else’s head, when we are imaging what other people might be thinking, saying, planning.

Or it might locate awareness in our dog, in thunderstorms, in luck, or in a god. Or floating above our body when our brain is compromised during surgery and we have a near-death experience. And Graziano,  a “passable” ventriloquist, notes how readily an audience will locate awareness and attention in a wooden dummy.

Finally, one might expect a prominent psychologist such as Graziano to take a dim view of religious and superstitious beliefs. But in fact he eloquently embraces spirituality in particular. It is, after all, a matter of consciousness.



To me personally, the most reasonable approach to spirituality is to accept two simultaneous truths. One, literally and objectively, there is no spirit world. Minds do not float independently of bodies and brains. Two, perceptually, there is a spirit world. We live in a perceptual world, a world simulated by the brain, in which consciousness inhabits many things around us, including sometimes empty space….The perceptual world and the objective world do not always match. We sometimes must live with both sets of knowledge. Neither side can be ignored. (2946)

In the present hypothesis, people intuitively understand consciousness to be spirit-like because the information representation in the brain encodes it in that manner. [The spirit concept,] the diaphanous invisible stuff that thinks and perceives and flows plasma-like through space and time,… that normally inhabits the human body but can sometimes flow outside of it, and that therefore ought to be able to survive the death of the body—this myth so ubiquitous in human culture is not a mistaken belief, a naïve theory, or the result of superstitious ignorance, as many scientists would claim. It is instead a verbalization of a naturally occurring informational model in the human brain. (1154)

For me, Graziano’s work affirms the spiritual value I find in the presence and the history of living things. This is not only because of his acceptance, just described, of people’s spiritual awareness. It is also because his analysis of consciousness helps me to see it as the work of natural selection. I see human consciousness as a unique elaboration of the capacities for perception and memory that are found in simpler forms in the brains of other and earlier animals.

The Purpose Problem

Years ago I heard about a book on the purpose-driven life. I rushed to a bookstore (ah, bookstores), only to find that it was mostly about God. But I realized then that I had uncertainties that had snuck up on me about my life’s purpose . Now, years later, I’m thinking that life is indeed purpose-driven but not at all in Rick Warren’s terms.

But let me back up and summarize some basic ideas about purpose.

A traditional view has been that things happen in order to achieve a final goal, a goal often involving God. Today we often think about goals on the more modest scale of strategic plans and personal targets. And yet the idea that everything is part of a grand plan remains very comforting. People seem calmer about bad news after saying that “everything happens for a reason.”

Over the last century, this traditional view has been largely dismantled. Things in nature and life happen for reasons—physical, social, psychological—that are rooted in the past and present more than in the future. A woman who is looking for a job might say that her purpose for doing so is to earn money so her young children will be able to go to college some day. The traditional analysis of her actions would be that she is “pulled along” through her job search by the final goal of college for her kids. But her friends today might tell you that while that distant goal may boost her spirits from time to time, her actions are more the result of her history, her personality, and her current debts.

god and purpose statement

People take comfort from viewing the world, including themselves, as full of purpose. (heartprintsofgod.com)

Now the pendulum is swinging again and a different perspective about purpose is getting attention. This is the observation that certain ordinary actions are indeed clearly purposeful. If you’re getting hungry and planning your dinner, your planning is purposeful. Maybe you need to drive to Subway to buy that sandwich; the drive is purposeful. Once you’ve eaten the sandwich, your digestive system will take up its own purposeful process. It turns out that most of what you and your body parts do—your stomach, your heart, your sleeping, your socializing—is purposeful in that it accomplishes some basic biological function or meets a biological need.

In other words, human organs and behaviors did not come into existence for a purpose but came into existence because they served a purpose. There is very little in us that is not purposeful in terms of functioning to keep us alive. 

Evolution of the heart

The heart evolved not for a purpose but because it served a purpose. (antibodyreview.com)

So back to the big question about the purpose-driven life. Are the purpose-serving activities of the organs that keep us alive related to that Purpose with a capital P that we look for in our  life as a whole? Do these biological functions and behaviors with their specific purposes make up part of  what we can think of as “the purpose of life”?

I think so. I think it would be surprising if they didn’t. We may each frame our Purpose in a different future-oriented way—to live happily, to be creative, to find peace, to achieve success. But each vision of a direction seems to me to be the work of our brain as it extends and embellishes the biological functionality that keeps us alive. We are indeed purpose-driven.



Note: A useful source has been a paper by Nathan Bourne, “Teleology as Evolutionary Etiology: An analysis of teleological explanations of biological phenomena,” at http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2011/bourne.pdf. Bourne draws on the work of Larry Wright, especially his book Teleological Explanations: An Etiological Analysis of Goals and Functions, UCal Press, 1976.