One of Oliver Sack’s great unnoticed achievements was helping to bury Freud. By displaying in clear prose how behavior and thinking and observations are shaped by neurological processes, and not by subconscious fears and desires and the misdirected horniness that cannot be named, he undermined for millions of readers the entire basis of so called Freudian science. Freud’s work was mostly nonsense. It was highly imaginative, quite brilliant, and in a time when almost nothing was known of the actual workings of the brain (probably 99.99% of all of today’s knowledge of what the brain is, how it developed and how it functions has been uncovered in the past 25 years) Freud’s theories seemed plausible. Obsolete theories have a way of lasting in the public eye long after their scientific invalidation. People retain what they learned in school for life, and everyone took a psychology course or three. Sadly, just about everything we learned in those psychology courses prior to the 1980’s or ’90’s (depending on how hip your professor was) has turned out to be irrelevant if not flat out wrong. And we learned a lot of Freud. Of course we did. He was to psychology then what Charles Darwin was to biology. He was the big thinker.
But in all those Oliver Sacks best sellers, Freud never comes into the picture at all. Sacks lays out the neurology, the actual brain processes, making it all beautiful and real and utterly fascinating. And his observations were fact-based and scientifically proven, that is there was a rigorous testing procedure to establish those facts. Freud was guessing, fantasizing really. About as close as I remember anything being proven in psychology class was Pavlov’s salivating dogs and some of Skinner’s disturbing behavioral experiments with his own children. Otherwise we just took it all on faith. But Sack’s stories–case studies, really, beautifully written–were so factual and real they rendered Freudian theory for his readers as unplausible as any pseudo-science. He didn’t even have to tell us so. It’s just that for people who read Sacks–and millions did–Freudian theory just suddenly seemed kind of absurd. Shelf it with phrenology, physiognomy, eugenics and Lysenkoism. Freud was that wrong. There was simply no evidence of his theories in the brains of the people Sacks had treated. Of course not. These people were all neurons and brain regions and wiring gone synaptically, tragically wrong. He could explain his patients’ sometime bizarre conditions by showing us just what was wrong, neurologically. It might be weird and counter-intuitive, but it made sense. We can only imagine how a strict Freudian analyst would have diagnosed a man who mistook his wife for a hat.
Oliver Sacks was a key figure in changing the way people see the brain. His little true life stories allowed us to grasp the stunning complexity of neuroscience. The public’s image of what we fundamentally are shifted dramatically. Where once we were all Oedipal, it might now just be a few neurons shook loose. Sacks made the brain understandable to the layman, the real brain, full of flesh and blood and neurons and thought. We became us, the real us, and not a caricature with a fondness for Mom…and just in time, too. I mean the thought of a strictly Freudian Facebook is just too weird to think about.