In the 1990 film “Awakenings,” based on Oliver Sacks’s memoir of the same name, a patient named Lucy Fishman (Alice Drummond), although in a catatonic state, suddenly catches a ball when it’s thrown to her. But contrary to speculation, it’s not the “will” of the ball she’s borrowing; it’s its time signature. The ball, as it accelerates through space, is speeding up time, which is what Lucy needs.
Lucy’s experience of time is askew. For her, the speed of time is too fast and the speed of light is too slow. Her M/E (matter to energy) ratio is correct, but her c’s are inversely deranged.
Later in the film, in a heartbreaking scene, Leonard Lowe (Robert De Niro) stares into the camera after his tremors have begun to return—because the drugs are wearing off, as the drugs always do—and time is speeding up for him again. Dr. Malcolm Sayer (a fictional Sacks, played by Robin Williams) wants to put the camera away, but Lowe won’t let him.
“Watch watch watch watch watch watch watch,” Leonard implores, barely able to talk. “Learn learn learn learn learn—Learn from me.”
I speak now not just for the beautiful minds of Oliver Sacks and all those who belong to our tribe of physicians, but for the thousands of citizen-scientists who’ve been toiling in the trenches with me when I say: We didn’t give up on you, Leonard. We watched, we studied—we never stopped studying. We studied our own pain, and by God, we learned.
In these pages, I hope to present a unified theory of human illness that has its roots in the way human beings experience time.