Above: Oliver Sacks swimming in Iceland (Photo: Bill Hayes)
If I could point to a mentor or guide through the years I've spent thinking about the human brain as it interacts with water, it would be Dr. Oliver Sacks. Not only did he think about water, it helped him think just as music did (which he spoke and wrote about prolifically). He was in water as much as possible. His early drafts of books were often blotted by drops of the lakes and pools he swam in. As it does for many of us, water gave him life. He swam until the day he died, like his father. When I asked him to write a book about the "brain on water" he replied: "that's a fine idea, you do it." I did and gave hime a copy of Blue Mind shortly before he died.
- Oliver Sacks interviewed in New York Magazine
"Oliver loved movement. He said his best conversations with Robin Williams were on Lake Tahoe, as he swam the backstroke while Robin kayaked alongside. Their eyes never met, but the words flowed. "
- From A Year Without Oliver Sacks by Orrin Devinsky
"It was observed, and is observed by many Parkinsonian patients themselves, that rigidity can be loosened to a remarkable degree if the patient is suspended in water or swimming. The same is true, to some extent, of other forms of stiffness and "clench" -- spasticity, athetosis, torticollis, etc."
- from Awakenings (p 6)
"Schaller compares Ildefonso's "cat" with Helen Keller's "water" - the first word, the first sign, that leads to all others, that opens the imprisoned mind and intelligence."
- from Seeing Voices (p 44)
"Jerome Bruiser tells me that when he sailed the Atlantic solo and there were calm days with little to do, he sometimes "heard" classical music "stealing across the water..."
- from Musicophilia (p 81)
"Total visual deprivation is not necessary to produce hallucinations-visual monotony can have much the same effect. Thus sailors have long reported seeing things (and perhaps hearing them, too) when they spent days gazing at a becalmed sea. It is similar for travelers riding across a featureless desert or polar explorers in a vast, unvarying icescape."
"Prolonged silence or auditory monotony may also cause auditory hallucinations; I have had patients report experiencing these while on meditation retreats or on a long sea voyage. Jessica K., a young woman with no hearing loss, wrote to me that her hallucinations come with auditory monotony:
In the presence of white noise such as running water or a central air conditioning system, I frequently hear music or voices. I hear it distinctly (and in the early days, often went searching for the radio that must have been left on in another room), but in the instance of music with lyrics or voices (which always sound like a talk radio program or something, not real conversation) I never hear it well enough to distinguish the words. I never hear these things unless they are "embedded," so to speak, in white noise, and only if there are not other competing sounds."
- from Hallucinations (p 32 and p 68)
"And then, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, there appeared a huge, trembling, pear-shaped blob of the purest indigo. Luminous, numinous, it filled me with rapture: it was the color of heaven, the color, I thought, that Giotto spent a lifetime trying to get but never achieved—never achieved, perhaps, because the color of heaven is not to be seen on earth.
I leaned toward it in a sort of ecstasy. And then it suddenly disappeared, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of loss and sadness that it had been snatched away. But I consoled myself: yes, indigo exists, and it can be conjured up in the brain."
- from The New Yorker
PERSONAL HISTORY about swimming...
Writer was reminded of this in the Caroline Islands. Magellan and other navigators, reaching Micronesia in the sixteenth century, were astounded at the swimming skills of the islanders... (It was from the Pacific Islanders that, early in this century, we Westerners learned the crawl, the beautiful, powerful ocean stroke that they had perfected--so much better, so much more fitted to the human form than the froglike breaststroke chiefly used until that time.) Writer has no memory of being taught to swim...
During adolescence the writer developed a strange skin disease which left him covered in weeping sores. Looking like a leper, he dared not strip at a beach or a pool... At Oxford University his skin cleared up. Swimming became a dominant passion...
When writer came to New York, in the mid-sixties, he started to swim at Orchard Beach, in the Bronx, and would sometimes make the circuit of City Island--a swim that took him several hours. Tells how he sighted and bought a house on City Island in mid-swim.... He also would travel to a dilapidated old hotel on Lake Jefferson in upstate New York and swim all weekend. ...
He was Top Distance Swimmer at the Mount Vernon Y, in Westchester: He swam six miles in the contest and would have continued, but the judges said, "Enough! Please go home." "I never knew anything so powerfully, so healthily euphoriant--and I was addicted to it, am still addicted, fretful when I cannot swim. Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century, spoke of 'condelectari sibi,' the will finding delight in its own exercise; and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in our own time, speaks about "flow."
There is an essential lightness about swimming, as about all such flowing and, so to speak, musical activities.... My father...swam daily, slowing down only slightly with time, until the grand age of ninety four. I hope I can follow him, and swim till I die."
He did. RIP Oliver.
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