An Anthropologist on Mars

Seven Paradoxical Tales

by Oliver Sacks

An Anthropologist on Mars is an anthology of seven non-fiction stories about real people with neurological disorders and their lifestyle. This national bestseller includes a colorblind painter, a hippie stuck in the past, a Tourettic surgeon, a blind man who can now see, an obsessed painter, multiple prodigies, and a successful autistic biologist and engineer.

A Surgeon's Life

This chapter in Mr. Sacks' book includes the life of a surgeon who has Tourette's syndrome and how he progresses through his successful life. Mr. Sacks accompanies Dr. Carl Bennett in his day-to-day life and how he keeps his business alive. To Mr. Sacks surprise, Dr. Bennett has a flourishing doctor's office with multiple patients a day. The reason Dr. Bennett can keep his organization alive is how he can concentrate on the surgery with rarely any mistakes. Although everywhere else in his life, he is bouncing off walls and expressing his tics freely. At home, there are dents in his walls and battered furniture due to how Dr. Bennett might fling things when he gets provoked. This surgeon will also randomly shoot his arms and legs outward because of impulses he has due to Tourette's. Even in the doctor's office, Dr. Carl Bennett releases his tics without hesitation and his co-workers don't seem to notice. The only time Dr. Bennett is not affected by Tourette's at work, is in the surgery room. Even when talking to potential patients, he may blurt out random words and tap them on the shoulder a few times. Although, the patients still trust him, because they know that he is a highly skilled professional at his job.

Anatomy and biology are two subjects Dr. Carl Bennett is particularly fascinated about, and he seems to be completely dedicated and motivated to know more about them. Although studying for these subjects has always been an issue for him due to his lack of concentration. Although, Dr. Bennett can suppress his Tourette's by concentrating on a task which has a "flow" and a rhythm to it. For example, when trying to study for anatomy or biology, Dr. Bennett may ride a bike while reading to suppress the Tourette's and focus on the reading. The "flow" of riding a bike helps him concentrate on what he is studying. This method of studying is what he said got him through college. Similarly to riding a bike, surgery has the same "flow" to it. Dr. Bennett gets fully absorbed into the procedure and is constantly performing tasks with perfection. Although, if Dr. Bennett gets interrupted by an outside source (such as a nurse informing him of an urgent call), this concentration is broken and he begins to express his tics agian. That's why Dr. Bennett now has a rule to not interrupt him during surgery anymore. This is how the Tourettic surgeon can perfect his practice and gain trust from his future patients.

To See and Not See

This chapter in Mr. Sacks An Anthropologist on Mars, Virgil has been blind since early childhood and is said to have retinitis pigmentosa (a condition that eats away at the retinas) and thick cataracts in his eyes. Recently, his wife, Amy, had taken Virgil to an ophthalmologist, Dr. Hamlin, and he said that he could remove the cataracts and possibly restore Virgil's sight. Therefore, Amy convinced Virgil and his family to go through with this procedure. The ophthalmologist removed Virgil's cataracts and they discovered he could see! The only problem was that Virgil had no remote idea what he was seeing. Virgil knows what a face is and that a mouth is on a face. He knows a mouth can talk but he doesn't know what it looks like. He may hear someone talking and look at the source of the sound. Although, he doesn't connect the mouth with the face or the face to the person. He is seeing a two dimensional picture with no idea on how to interpret it. He can see movement, but he doesn't know what's moving. He describes it as a blur although he can see quite clearly. His brain hasn't had time to develop the connections and cues of sight. Depth is difficult for him because he doesn't know any of the depth cues. He may see a door, but he doesn't know what's happening when it is being opened because the door is changing shape. It may be a whole other object for him. Virgil must learn to see which means that he is still virtually blind. He has to navigate with his hands just like a blind man even though he can see. Gradually, Virgil has been getting better and can separate an object from its background with other improvements. His cat and dog can now be recognized by sight and not by touching and feeling. In the end, Virgil disliked the confusing blurs and landscape of sight. He didn't enjoy the new sense and perception training. His regular life was much easier for him than being constantly pushed to the limit and tested. Unfortunately, Virgil had relapsed and lost his sight occasionally and have blind spells. They went to a hospital and he passed away due to many medical conditions earlier in his life. These blind spells could be a lack of oxygen or a brain malfunction which both can be lead to these earlier health issues. They haven't confirmed what exactly happened but now Virgil now doesn't have to struggle with sight and deal with its confusing perception.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist, author, and professor at NYU School of Medicine and has many books become best-sellers such as Awakenings and The Man who Mistake his Wife for a Hat. He was born in London, England in 1933 and moved to New York in 1965. Oxford University is where he attended college for his medical degree. Mr. Sacks has taught as a professor at Columbia University Medical Center, NYU School of Medicine, and the University of Warwick. He also worked for Beth Abraham Hospital where he wrote his book Awakenings. This book has a become a movie with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro as the stars. Mr. Sacks has traveled to many places to study different neurological disorders and has written many books which has earned him respect from the New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, and the New York Times. The Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University was given to him 2002 and has multiple degrees from universities such as Georgetown and the Karolinska Institute.

Text-to-World Connection

This book reminds me that people world-wide have struggled with neurological disorders from depression to schizophrenia. It is more common than the average person might think and An Anthropologist on Mars helps me to understand that disorders affect many more people than what meets the eye. While similarly to the book, these common people with disorders struggle to understand what is happening in their mind and to adjust to those circumstances. The book describes how the people go throughout their daily lives and how they adjust accordingly. Although Mr. Sacks' book only describes rare and special cases. Unlike the book, the people who are affected by more common disorders still face the same difficulty that the people with unlikely cases may have. The book doesn't describe the common cases but focuses on the unique one of the patient Mr. Sacks is studying. This has shown me that the more likely cases still struggle the same as any unique case out there. Mr. Sacks needs to focus on more common scenarios instead of the unique cases, because he needs to help the people who are affected by these more common disorders to learn to adjust better to the everyday life of a busy world.


"About Oliver Sacks." Oliver Sacks MD. N.p., 2015. Web. 30 Apr. 2015

Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995. Print.