Oliver Sacks New York Times Essay

After the publication of Freud’s “Psychopathology of Everyday Life” in 1901, such mishearings, along with a range of misreadings, misspeakings, misdoings and slips of the tongue were seen as “Freudian,” an expression of deeply repressed feelings and conflicts.

But although there are occasional, unprintable mishearings that make me blush, a vast majority do not admit any simple Freudian interpretation. In almost all of my mishearings, however, there is a similar overall sound, a similar acoustic gestalt, linking what is said and what is heard. Syntax is always preserved, but this does not help; mishearings are likely to capsize meaning, to overwhelm it with phonologically similar but meaningless or absurd sound forms, even though the general form of a sentence is preserved.

Lack of clear enunciation, unusual accents or poor electronic transmission can all serve to mislead one’s own perceptions. Most mishearings substitute one real word for another, however absurd or out of context, but sometimes the brain comes up with a neologism. When a friend told me on the phone that her child was sick, I misheard “tonsillitis” as “pontillitis,” and I was puzzled. Was this some unusual clinical syndrome, an inflammation I had never heard of? It did not occur to me that I had invented a nonexistent word — indeed, a nonexistent condition.

Every mishearing is a novel concoction. The hundredth mishearing is as fresh and as surprising as the first. I am often strangely slow to realize that I have misheard, and I may entertain the most far-fetched ideas to explain my mishearings, when it would seem that I should spot them straight away. If a mishearing seems plausible, one may not think that one has misheard; it is only if the mishearing is sufficiently implausible, or entirely out of context, that one thinks, “This can’t be right,” and (perhaps with some embarrassment) asks the speaker to repeat himself, as I often do, or even to spell out the misheard words or phrases.

When Kate spoke of going to choir practice, I accepted this: She could have been going to choir practice. But when a friend spoke one day about “a big-time cuttlefish diagnosed with A.L.S.,” I felt I must be mishearing. Cephalopods have elaborate nervous systems, it is true, and perhaps, I thought for a split second, a cuttlefish could have A.L.S. But the idea of a “big-time” cuttlefish was ridiculous. (It turned out to be “a big-time publicist diagnosed with A.L.S.”)

While mishearings may seem to be of little special interest, they can cast an unexpected light on the nature of perception — the perception of speech, in particular. What is extraordinary, first, is that they present themselves as clearly articulated words or phrases, not as jumbles of sound. One mishears rather than just fails to hear.

Mishearings are not hallucinations, but like hallucinations they utilize the usual pathways of perception and pose as reality — it does not occur to one to question them. But since all of our perceptions must be constructed by the brain, from often meager and ambiguous sensory data, the possibility of error or deception is always present. Indeed, it is a marvel that our perceptions are so often correct, given the rapidity, the near instantaneity, with which they are constructed.

One’s surroundings, one’s wishes and expectations, conscious and unconscious, can certainly be co-determinants in mishearing, but the real mischief lies at lower levels, in those parts of the brain involved in phonological analysis and decoding. Doing what they can with distorted or deficient signals from our ears, these parts of the brain manage to construct real words or phrases, even if they are absurd.

While I often mishear words, I seldom mishear music: notes, melodies, harmonies, phrasings remain as clear and rich as they have been all my life (though I often mishear lyrics). There is clearly something about the way the brain processes music that makes it robust, even in the face of imperfect hearing; and, conversely, something about the nature of spoken language that makes it much more vulnerable to deficiencies or distortions.

Playing or even hearing music (at least traditional scored music) involves not just the analysis of tone and rhythm — it also engages one’s procedural memory and emotional centers in the brain; musical pieces are held in memory and allow anticipation.

But speech must be decoded by other systems in the brain as well, including systems for semantic memory and syntax. Speech is open, inventive, improvised; it is rich in ambiguity and meaning. There is a huge freedom in this, making spoken language almost infinitely flexible and adaptable — but also vulnerable to mishearing.

Was Freud entirely wrong then about slips and mishearings? Of course not. He advanced fundamental considerations about wishes, fears, motives and conflicts not present in consciousness, or thrust out of consciousness, which could color slips of the tongue, mishearings or misreadings. But he was, perhaps, too insistent that misperceptions are wholly a result of unconscious motivation.

Collecting mishearings over the past few years without any explicit selection or bias, I am forced to think that Freud underestimated the power of neural mechanisms, combined with the open and unpredictable nature of language, to sabotage meaning, to generate mishearings that are irrelevant both in terms of context and of subconscious motivation.

And yet there is often a sort of style or wit — a “dash ”— in these instantaneous inventions; they reflect, to some extent, one’s own interests and experiences, and I rather enjoy them. Only in the realm of mishearing — at least, my mishearings — can a biography of cancer become a biography of Cantor (one of my favorite mathematicians), tarot cards turn into pteropods, a grocery bag into a poetry bag, all-or-noneness into oral numbness, a porch into a Porsche, and a mere mention of Christmas Eve a command to “Kiss my feet!”

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The Second World War decimated our Jewish community in Cricklewood, and the Jewish community in England as a whole was to lose thousands of people in the postwar years. Many Jews, including cousins of mine, emigrated to Israel; others went to Australia, Canada or the States; my eldest brother, Marcus, went to Australia in 1950. Many of those who stayed assimilated and adopted diluted, attenuated forms of Judaism. Our synagogue, which would be packed to capacity when I was a child, grew emptier by the year.

I chanted my bar mitzvah portion in 1946 to a relatively full synagogue, including several dozen of my relatives, but this, for me, was the end of formal Jewish practice. I did not embrace the ritual duties of a Jewish adult — praying every day, putting on tefillin before prayer each weekday morning — and I gradually became more indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents, though there was no particular point of rupture until I was 18. It was then that my father, inquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.

“I haven’t done anything,” I said, “it’s just a feeling — but don’t tell Ma, she won’t be able to take it.”

He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” (She was no doubt thinking of the verse in Leviticus that read, “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: They shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.”)

The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.

After I qualified as a doctor in 1960, I removed myself abruptly from England and what family and community I had there, and went to the New World, where I knew nobody. When I moved to Los Angeles, I found a sort of community among the weight lifters on Muscle Beach, and with my fellow neurology residents at U.C.L.A., but I craved some deeper connection — “meaning” — in my life, and it was the absence of this, I think, that drew me into near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines in the 1960s.

Recovery started, slowly, as I found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx (the “Mount Carmel” I wrote about in “Awakenings”). I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly, with little encouragement from my colleagues. Almost unconsciously, I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct. This did not dissuade me, for I felt my roots lay in the great neurological case histories of the 19th century (and I was encouraged here by the great Russian neuropsychologist A. R. Luria). It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years.

During the 1990s, I came to know a cousin and contemporary of mine, Robert John Aumann, a man of remarkable appearance with his robust, athletic build and long white beard that made him, even at 60, look like an ancient sage. He is a man of great intellectual power but also of great human warmth and tenderness, and deep religious commitment — “commitment,” indeed, is one of his favorite words. Although, in his work, he stands for rationality in economics and human affairs, there is no conflict for him between reason and faith.

He insisted I have a mezuza on my door, and brought me one from Israel. “I know you don’t believe,” he said, “but you should have one anyhow.” I didn’t argue.

In a remarkable 2004 interview, Robert John spoke of his lifelong work in mathematics and game theory, but also of his family — how he would go skiing and mountaineering with some of his nearly 30 children and grandchildren (a kosher cook, carrying saucepans, would accompany them), and the importance of the Sabbath to him.

“The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful,” he said, “and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society — it is about improving one’s own quality of life.”

In December of 2005, Robert John received a Nobel Prize for his 50 years of fundamental work in economics. He was not entirely an easy guest for the Nobel Committee, for he went to Stockholm with his family, including many of those children and grandchildren, and all had to have special kosher plates, utensils and food, and special formal clothes, with no biblically forbidden admixture of wool and linen.

THAT same month, I was found to have cancer in one eye, and while I was in the hospital for treatment the following month, Robert John visited. He was full of entertaining stories about the Nobel Prize and the ceremony in Stockholm, but made a point of saying that, had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.

In 1955, as a 22-year-old, I went to Israel for several months to work on a kibbutz, and though I enjoyed it, I decided not to go again. Even though so many of my cousins had moved there, the politics of the Middle East disturbed me, and I suspected I would be out of place in a deeply religious society. But in the spring of 2014, hearing that my cousin Marjorie — a physician who had been a protégée of my mother’s and had worked in the field of medicine till the age of 98 — was nearing death, I phoned her in Jerusalem to say farewell. Her voice was unexpectedly strong and resonant, with an accent very much like my mother’s. “I don’t intend to die now,” she said, “I will be having my 100th birthday on June 18th. Will you come?”

I said, “Yes, of course!” When I hung up, I realized that in a few seconds I had reversed a decision of almost 60 years. It was purely a family visit. I celebrated Marjorie’s 100th with her and extended family. I saw two other cousins dear to me in my London days, innumerable second and removed cousins, and, of course, Robert John. I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood.

I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy — my mother’s words still echoed in my mind — but Billy, too, was warmly received. How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.

The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?

In December 2014, I completed my memoir, “On the Move,” and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

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