55 pages 1 hour read

Oliver Sacks

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales is a narrative nonfiction essay collection by Oliver Sacks originally published in 1995. Sacks documents and comments upon seven patients with neurological conditions that challenge preconceived notions about illness, disorder, adaptation, and self-perception. This collection builds upon Sacks’s previous works featuring neurological case studies, including the critically acclaimed The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Oliver Sacks, M.D. was an author, medical historian, neurologist, and professor of neurology at NYU School of Medicine; he passed away in 2005 but remains known for his profound and passionate writing about medicine and neurological case studies. His bestselling books include The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia: Tales of Music, Awakenings, The Mind’s Eye, On the Move: A Life, and more. In 1990, Awakenings was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film of the same name, while many of his other texts have inspired other writers, filmmakers, playwrights, and musicians. Sacks was a contributor to the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and NPR. The New York Times once called him “the poet laureate of contemporary medicine.”

Summary

Sacks begins the book with a preface detailing his recovery after a recent shoulder surgery. He marvels at how his body and mind adapted quickly and efficiently. Although his surgeon had given him a rough idea of what his recovery might look like, he told Sacks that the particular ways he would need to adapt would become apparent over time; no two patients have the same experience. Sacks considers the intersubjectivity of illness, disease, and disorder, remarking that perhaps our understanding of health is too rigid and static. Invoking the human brain’s plasticity, he says he wishes to learn from patients with neurological and psychiatric differences to see how they have adapted to living in the real world outside of a hospital setting. He tells the reader that his mission is to act as a “neuroanthropologist,” reporting on and analyzing patients as they navigate their lives to see what we can learn about the adaptability of the human mind.

Sacks’s first case study is of an artist in his sixties named Jonathan I., who suddenly becomes color-blind after an accident. Jonathan is greatly distressed by this change and falls into a deep depression, trying to convey his new dulled view of the world by constructing an all-gray room. Sacks and his colleague Robert Wasserman visit Jonathan and run tests on his eyes and brain to figure out if his color blindness is a form of cerebral achromatopsia or merely a psychosomatic result of the accident. Neither Sacks nor Wasserman can fix his color blindness, yet Jonathan begins to embrace this development, changing the way he creates his art in order to correspond to his new way of seeing.

Sacks then presents the story of Greg F., a hippie who joined the Hare Krishnas in the late 1960s. Self-isolated from family and friends, he began to lose his eyesight, which his swami told him was due to his newfound enlightenment. Eventually, Greg’s family visited him and, barely recognizing him, realized he was in urgent need of medical care; a brain tumor had permanently blinded him as well as damaged his memory and pituitary gland. Sacks meets Greg while working at Williamsbridge Hospital, where he grows fascinated by his ability to live fully in the present, with no memory of what occurred after the 1960s. Hoping to connect with his patient, Sacks arranges for him to attend a Grateful Dead concert in the early 1990s, yet Greg does not remember the concert the next day.

In the essay “A Surgeon’s Life,” Sacks meets and observes Dr. Carl Bennett, a well-respected Canadian surgeon with Tourette syndrome. Despite his many tics, Bennett has defied expectations and found a way to adapt his surgical practice to help him enter a “flow” state of concentration in the operating room. Sacks finds himself in awe of the power of Bennett’s flow state, as well as his ability to earn his pilot’s license and safely fly a small aircraft.

Sacks also investigates the case of Virgil, a man in his fifties who has suffered from cataracts and retinitis pigmentosa since he was three years old. His fiancée encourages him to undergo cataract removal surgeries, which are ostensibly successful. Virgil, however, is disturbed by his newfound vision and unable to take in the world around him—particularly the visual relationships between people, objects, shapes, and colors. Sacks documents his difficulty adapting to sight and the ways in which it unsettles him. Virgil was in poor health to begin with, and he often finds himself “acting” blind when he feels overwhelmed. When he suffers through a severe bout of pneumonia, he loses most of his new vision and eventually his job and home.

“The Landscape of His Dreams” follows the story of Franco Magnani, an eccentric Italian artist living outside of San Francisco who is singularly obsessed with his home village of Pontito. He feels a strong, unyielding drive to paint Pontito, using his near photographic memory to render the village of his youth. Sacks wonders if perhaps this strong sense of memory and the past rob Magnani of his ability to stay in the present. Despite his reluctance, Magnani eventually revisits Pontito, which initially confuses his memories and sense of himself; however, he later returns for a longer visit, dedicated to relearning the place he has loved from afar.

Sacks also devotes two essays to exploring autism, identity, and adaptation: The first, “Prodigies,” follows the adolescence of Stephen Wiltshire, a British child with autism who displays prodigious talent for architectural drawing. Though he struggles with verbal and nonverbal communication, Stephen challenges Sacks’s preconceived notions about art, identity, and what constitutes an emotional and inner life.

Sacks explores these themes further in the final, titular essay of the collection, “An Anthropologist on Mars.” Here, Sacks documents the everyday world of Temple Grandin, an acclaimed writer and animal behavioral scientist with Asperger syndrome. Her singular focus on engineering humane farm buildings and slaughterhouses consumes her, leaving no room for a social, sexual, or personal life. Sacks finds her engaging and wishes to learn more about her feelings, but she can only understand the world intellectually rather than emotionally. As Grandin drives Sacks to the airport, they discuss faith and judgement, and she begins to weep. Sacks embraces her before flying home.

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