Oliver Sacks may be the father of the popular neurological best-seller, but he’s distinctly different from the current crop of authors, be they as substantive as Daniel Kahneman (“Thinking Fast and Slow”) or as dodgy as Jonah Lehrer. The latest iteration of the genre usually makes generalizations about human behavior on the basis of quantitative studies. The particular histories of the unnamed subjects of those studies are irrelevant; all that matters is the aggregate, because only in writing about the average person can today’s neuroscience author claim that his book is about you, the average reader.
Sacks, on the other hand, has always been fascinated by outliers. It’s his professed belief that the underlying structures and functions of the brain can be most captivatingly glimpsed in the experiences of the man who mistook his wife for a hat and the man who kicked his own leg out of bed. This approach, not incidentally, also makes for much better stories than, say, descriptions of studies in which college students were asked to memorize numbers under trying circumstances. There’s an aura of self-help surrounding most popular neuroscience books today, with all the banality that term implies. What the Sacks style lacks in personal applicability it makes up for in marvels. So much so, in fact, that filmmaker Wes Anderson offered a parody version of Sacks in “The Royal Tenenbaums”: a shrink, played by Bill Murray, whose career is built on exhibiting his clients’ freakishness to the public.