Imagine being an artist whose world is suddenly drained of color following an auto accident. Or a man able to see for the first time in 45 years. Or a surgeon who performs the most delicate operations, yet is unable to stop his own body from the convulsive, twitching dance of Tourette's syndrome. Disoriented in an alien universe, you might feel, as one autistic woman puts it, "like an anthropologist on Mars."
That description applies equally well to Oliver Sacks, the neurologist-author who has explored the brain's terra incognita in books including Awakenings (made into a movie starring Robin Williams) and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. In this eye-opening collection of essays, illustrated with his patients' artwork, Sacks probes lives radically transformed by neurological conditions yet "no less human for being so different." He argues, in fact, that the altered states caused by the disorders may even prompt creativity—as in the cases of Dostoyevsky (epilepsy), Van Gogh (possible temporal lobe seizures) and Samuel Johnson (potential Tourette's syndrome). After reading Sacks's compelling stories, you may well experience an awakening of your own. (Knopf, $24)