Sacks’ Appearance in Campbell Lacks Charisma
by Melissa Nilles


On Wednesday, April 22, renowned author, psychologist, and neuroscientist Oliver Sacks delivered a much anticipated lecture to a sold-out crowd in Campbell Hall. I jumped at the chance to get tickets for such a lecture, primarily because I had read Sacks’ most recent novel, Musicophilia, regarding music and its various associations with humanity, psychology, and the brain. Curious about the anecdotes this captivating author would reveal to us about his work with patients through the years, I took my assigned seat and waited patiently. Though I sat close to the back door, row X in fact, I was excited for the chance to finally hear and see such an influential man in person.
Looking around Campbell before the lecture begun, I noticed a sea of white and gray hair rippling throughout the theater. I began to feel like a youth minority in the audience. I knew I wasn’t the only student interested in such a lecture; many friends spoke to me previously of their frustration in arriving too late to purchase tickets for the sold-out show. Had older adults, with their careful planning and real-world jobs, robbed us of the chance to see such an important figure in the field of psychology?

For a brief moment, it seemed they had, but ultimately I considered the lecture to not be worth attending after experiencing it myself. To all you disgruntled students who didn’t attend: Do not regret waking up late, forgetting to bike to the Associated Students Ticket Office with the correct amount of change, and ending up with a window slammed in your face Wednesday morning labeled “SOLD OUT.” You lucky bastards did not waste your Wednesday night like I did.
The night began with two introductions from the Arts and Lectures staff, giving an overview of Sacks’ work for those unfamiliar with his prestige. Apparently, Sacks is considered such a unique and ground-breaking figure in academia that Columbia University employs him as a cross-departmental professor “artist.”Afterward, Sacks took the stage to uproarious applause. His famous white beard and glasses framed a mostly expressionless face.
Sacks began to talk, his voice marked with a soft British accent and slight sonorous tone. He said he would focus on visual hallucinations, particularly those of blind patients. As expected, he began to reveal details about a patient of his, Rosalie, who starting having visions. The intriguing aspect of this case was the reality of her long-term blindness. Sacks stated that she was not psychotic, or delirious; rather parts of her brain were projecting visual hallucinations of strange and atypical scenes where people would walk around in “eastern dress.” He described her condition as Charles Bonnet Syndrome. In Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which was recently discovered, blind patients experience frequent visual hallucinations, as if watching a movie inside their heads.
Sacks referenced another patient with similar hallucinations and symptoms. And another. And another. And here is where I began to nod off. Seriously.
One of the potential reasons for my disinterest was that the lecture was supposed to focus on music and its powerful link to the human experience, at least according to promotional fliers and several other people who attended the show. Did this visual hallucinations theme pop out from nowhere? I sympathize for those afflicted by the condition, but I’m certainly not as interested in the topic as I am in music, and I would not have attended the lecture had I known it would have been about such a subject.
Another reason I found myself drifting off to sleep was that Oliver Sacks just wasn’t very compelling, since he spoke without any vocal inflections. Despite possessing an arsenal of potentially fascinating material, Sacks managed to make his lecture mundane and monotonous. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Oliver Sacks bored me to sleep in a lecture I paid to be at, even though I’m a psychology major who has read his book.
After the lecture finished, there was a question-and-answer session with the audience. Unsurprisingly, many members of the audience asked questions about music, probably duped like me, into coming to a show that wasn’t actually focused on music. Sacks was generally disappointing and unscientific with his answers. He dismissed quite a few questions as pointless or beyond his expertise. To my surprised delight, he did answer a question about phantom limbs and reorganization of bodily spatial control very eloquently and knowledgeably.
To my overall disappointment, Sacks was a rather dull and disreputable speaker, with lots of anecdotes but little scientific basis or analysis backing up his statements. Though in my opinion he is lacking intrigue as a speaker, his novels are certainly much more fascinating than actually hearing him speak in person. Perhaps leaving that level of text between the author and the eager consumer is a necessary step in the process of marketing the famous Oliver Sacks and his treatment of various human psychological phenomena.