Oliver Sacks - Mrs O'C feels herself back in Ireland
Type of Spiritual Experience
They are not memories they are perceptions.
A description of the experience
The Man who mistook his wife for a hat – Oliver Sacks
Mrs O’C saw and heard me through the much profounder anamnestic seizure of her childhood in Ireland….
‘I know you’re there Dr Sacks, I know I’m an old woman with a stroke in an old people’s home, but I feel I’m a child in Ireland again – I fell my mothers arms, I see her, I hear her voice singing’.
Such epileptic hallucinations or dreams, Penfield showed, are never fantasies; they are always memories, and memories of the most precise and vivid kind, accompanied by the emotions which accompanied the original experience.
Their extraordinary and consistent detail, which was evoked each time the cortex was stimulated, and exceeded anything which could be recalled by ordinary memory, suggested to Penfield that the brain retained an almost perfect record of every lifetime’s experience, that the total stream of conscious ness was preserved in the brain, and , as such could always be evoked or called forth, whether by ordinary needs and circumstance of life, or the extraordinary circumstances of an epileptic or electrical stimulation…..
In Mrs O’C’s case the nostalgic need was more chronic and profound, for her father died before she was born and her mother before she was five. Orphaned, alone, she was sent to America, to live with a rather forbidding maiden aunt. Mrs O’C had no conscious memory of the first five years of her life – no memory of her mother, of Ireland, of ‘home’. She had always felt this as a keen and painful sadness – this lack, or forgetting of the earliest, most precious years of her life. She had often tried, but never succeeded, to recapture her lost and forgotten childhood memories. Now with her dream, and the long dreamy state which succeeded it, she recaptured a crucial sense of her forgotten lost childhood. The feeling she had was not just ‘ictal pleasure’, but a trembling, profound and poignant joy. It was, as she said, like the opening of a door – a door which had been stubbornly closed all her life…….
As she got better and recovered from her stroke, Mrs O’C had a period of wistfulness and fear. ‘The door is closing’ she said, ‘I’m losing it all again’. And indeed she did lose, by the middle of April, the sudden irruptions of childhood scenes and music and feeling, her sudden epileptic transports back to the world of early childhood – which were undoubtedly ‘reminiscences’ and authentic, for, as Penfield has shown beyond doubt, such seizures grasp and reproduce a reality – an experiential reality, and not a fantasy; actual segments of an individual’s lifetime and past experience.
But Penfield always speaks of consciousness in this regard of physical seizures as seizing and convulsively replaying part of the stream of consciousness, of conscious reality. What is peculiarly important and moving in the case of Mrs O’C, is that epileptic reminiscence here seized on something unconscious – very early childhood experiences, either faded, or repressed from consciousness – and restored them, convulsively to full memory and consciousness. And it is for this reason, one must suppose, that though, physiologically, the door did close, the experience itself was not forgotten, but left a profound and enduring impression, and was felt as a significant and healing experience.
‘I’m glad it happened’ she said when it was over. ‘It was the healthiest happiest experience of my life. There’s no longer a great chunk of childhood missing. I can’t remember the details now, but I know it’s all there. There’s a sort of completeness I never had before’.
The source of the experienceSacks, Oliver
Concepts, symbols and science items
Activities and commonsteps