Oliver Sacks - The Twins
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
The Man who mistook his wife for a hat – Oliver Sacks
The twins, who were then twenty six years old, had been in institutions since the age of seven, variously diagnosed as autistic, psychotic or severely retarded…
The facts [about them] are established to monotony. The twins say ‘Give us a date – any time in the last or next forty thousand years’. You give them a date and almost instantly they will tell you what day of the week it would be. ‘Another date’ they cry, and the performance is repeated.
They will also tell you the date of Easter during the same period of eighty thousand years. One may observe, though this is not usually mentioned in the reports, that their eyes move and fix in a peculiar way as they do this – as if they were unrolling or scrutinising an inner landscape a mental calendar. They have a look of seeing, of intense visualisation………….
They can tell one the weather, and the events of any day in their lives – any day from about their fourth year on. Their way of talking … is at once childlike, detailed, without emotion. Give them a date and their eyes roll for a moment and then fixate and in a flat monotonous voice they tell you of the weather, the bare political events they would have heard of and the events in their own lives – this list often including the painful or poignant anguish of childhood, the contempt, the jeers, the mortifications they endured, but all delivered in an even and unvarying tone, without the least hint of any personal inflection or emotion.
Here clearly one is dealing with memories that seem of a documentary kind in which there is no personal reference, no personal relation, no living centre whatever……..
But what needs to be stressed – and this is insufficiently remarked on by their studiers, though perfectly obvious to a naïve listener prepared to be amazed – is the magnitude of the twins’ memory, its apparent limitless if childish and commonplace extent, and with this, the way in which memories are retrieved. And if you ask them how they can hold so much in their minds – a three hundred figure digit, or the trillion events of four decades – they say, very simply,
‘We see it’.
And seeing, visualising – of extraordinary intensity, limitless range and perfect fidelity, seems to be the key to this. It seems a native physiological capacity to their minds, in a way which has some analogies to that by which A R Luria’s famous patient, described in The Mind of a Mnemonist, ‘saw’, though perhaps the twins lack the rich synthesia and conscious organisation of the Mnemonist’s memories.
But there is no doubt, in my mind at least, that there is available to the twins a prodigious panorama, a sort of landscape or physiognomy of all they have ever heard, or seen, or thought, or done and that in the blink of an eye, externally obvious as a brief rolling and fixation of the eyes, they are able with the mind’s eye to retrieve and ‘see’ nearly anything that lies in this vast landscape.