OLIVER SACKS & MY BRAIN
JoAnna Bennett, O’Brien Communications Group
November 3, 2022
I recently finished reading Insomniac City by Bill Hayes. It’s a memoir of his life in New York City when he was dating the brilliant writer and neurologist, Oliver Sacks. I love reading memoirs and finding out more about the human experience from varying points of view. Memoirs are so raw and emotional. I’ve never met Bill Hayes but, I feel like I know him. And I feel honored to have been let into such private parts of his life.
One quote from Oliver Sacks that Bill writes in this memoir is, “Are you conscious of your thoughts before language embodies them?”
This quote stopped me in my tracks. Am I conscious of my thoughts before language embodies them? I don’t know. But I love thinking about it.
Before we develop language, we’re babies. The experiences that happen around us shape us. We don’t have control over our environments, and we’re dependent on our caretakers. But if I take Oliver’s thought further, I imagine we do quite a bit of thinking as babies. Perhaps not about things we haven’t learned, such as science and history. But I do imagine we think about things we do know or have experienced.
For instance, I like to imagine a child living in a warm and loving home. The child knows the smell, feel, and sight of her favorite caregiver. When that child lies in bed quietly or is held by a stranger, I imagine she longs for her favorite caregiver. That’s a thought, a longing. But she doesn’t have the language yet to describe it.
As an adult, I have language. But that may be distracting to some of my thoughts. I still think before I define. And I’d like to be more conscious of that. I know I have a wide spectrum of feelings that can bubble up at any time, and those certainly come without language. I imagine thoughts to be a similar dynamic to feelings. Thoughts can also bubble up at any time, without language.
Here’s another Oliver quote from Insomniac City, “The most we can do is to write — intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively — about what it is like living in the world at this time.”
I’m certainly with you on that one Oliver. Mission accepted.