The Book in Three Sentences

Oliver Sacks was a brilliant physician and a fantastic writer. He lived a full life that included dealing with criticism over being gay, attending medical school at Oxford University, experimenting with heavy drug use, traveling the United States and Canada by motorcycle, suffering life threatening injuries, squatting a California state record of 600 pounds, and being honored by the Queen of England for his many books and storied career as a physician. Sacks is a symbol of the importance of writing, the power of exploration and inquisitiveness, and the need for empathy.

On the Move summary

This is my book summary of On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks. My notes are informal and often contain quotes from the book as well as my own thoughts. This summary also includes key lessons and important passages from the book.

  • Sacks makes a brilliant point when talking about the treatment of his schizophrenic brother: medicine should not merely be about treating symptoms, but also about the meaning and freedom and social well being of the patient.
  • On his tendency to eat a lot whenever food was around: “In the absence of internal controls, I have to have external ones. I have fixed routines for eating.”
  • During his weightlifting days, he favored stiff-legged deadlifts to improve his back strength.
  • Sacks believes that the history and human elements of science are important to our knowledge and understanding. So often researchers and experts will ignore anything older than five years because it is “outdated.” But Sacks loves learning about the inspiring discoveries of old researchers and the history of chemistry or physics or biology. These stories increase his overall sense of understanding and perspective.
  • Sacks once abducted a patient from the neurology ward and took her on a motorcycle ride to honor the final request of her dying life. He probably should have been fired, but wasn't because he was also incredibly valuable to the department. His experience shows the importance of possessing rare and valuable skills. “In general, I was something of an embarrassment to the neurology department, but also something of an ornament: the only resident who had published papers and I think this might have saved my neck on several occasions.”
  • Sacks created such muscular imbalances with his squatting that he tore both quadriceps tendons. Make sure you take proper care to build a strong, but balanced body.
  • Sacks took many drugs during his twenties and during one hallucination he called his friend Carol to say he was about to die. She asked, “What have you just taken?” He responded, “Nothing! That's why I'm so scared.” She paused then asked, “What have you stopped taking?” And they got to the bottom of the problem. I thought Carol's line of questioning was brilliant. She inverted the question, during a tense and emotional moment, and got a totally different answer.
  • Sacks was an incredibly multidisciplinary thinker and physician. I love that. The greatest thinkers see the relatedness between concepts.
  • “It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing — in the act of writing.”
  • Sacks calls himself a “physician, teacher and storyteller.” I like those descriptions.
  • Sacks had an incredible book editor who once phoned him in Australia to ask how he felt about replacing a comma with a semicolon.
  • Ludwig Wittgenstein said a book should consist of examples. And Sacks used this method in his books. The examples of the patients in his books really connected with readers. (You should do the same in your own writing.)
  • While working with deaf students Sacks referred to them as “hearing impaired ” and one of the students signed back to say maybe he was “sign impaired.”
  • Like many fantastic writers, Sacks has no throttle on his writing tendency. He often behins with the intention of adding a footnote or penning a few paragraphs and suddenly that small idea expands into the biggest section of the book. I see this over and over with top artists. Once the faucet starts flowing they can't turn it off. Instead, the act of writing unleashes a fire hose of thoughts and inspiration. I think it is a sign they love their work beyond measure.
  • Sacks says that in the 70s and 80s everyone was talking about Skinner's stimulus and response theory, but not many people thought about what came between stimulus and response. That is, the mind and how it processes those stimuli and responses.
  • Sacks would get obsessed with one or two pieces of music and play them again and again. (So do I!)
  • Neural Darwinism, Gerald Edelman's theory of consciousness, is essentially experiential natural selection. In other words, just as natural selection gradually leads the species in a particular direction so do our personal experiments and experiences lead us in a particular direction. We discover what we like, what we don't like, what works for us, how to walk, and so on through a series of experiences and experiments. It's like natural selection, but on an individual scale. It's natural selection in our own brains and lives.
  • Each baby learns how to walk and how to pick things up in their own way. We do not each follow the same motor patterns. Instead, we experiment with various motor patterns and, over the course of weeks and months, select the ones that work best for us. In this way and in many others, we make our own individual paths through life.
  • Hearing about the extensive writing and personal notetaking that Sacks did throughout his life makes me feel even stronger about the importance of writing. We need to observe and record the experiences that happen to us. The things we live through can teach us an incredible amount, but only if we are willing to investigate and learn lessons from them. Keeping a journal and writing about your life is a fantastic way to make sense of the world and leave lessons for others to build upon.
  • “The act of writing is itself enough. It serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life. Ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.”

Reading Suggestions

This is a list of authors, books, and concepts mentioned in On the Move, which might be useful for future reading.

  • The Divided Self by Lang
  • Writing on the creative process by Arthur Kessler
  • Karl Norberg's weightlifting feats
  • Darwin's autobiography
  • Oliver Sacks other writing: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, Uncle Tungsten, etc.
  • Writings by Sacks student Jonathan, who has written at least four books.
  • Mind of the Mnemonist
  • Interpretation of Dreams by Freud
  • In Search of Mind by Bruner
  • Wonderful Life by Stephen Jay Gould
  • Writings by Luria
  • Of Molecules and Men, Astonishing Hypothesis, and Life Itself by Francis Crick

Additional Thoughts

This is a list of interesting notes, side stories, or additional thoughts that were sparked as a I read the book.

  • Oliver Sacks loved landscape photography. Try to find the pictures.
  • William James studied under Louis Aggasiz. I find it fascinating that the man who revealed so much about human behavior was trained by a master teacher of observation.

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

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