Mental Pioneers Shared a Belief in Human Potential

One spent his life investigating how we think, and the other taught us how what we think can improve our lives. This weekend we lost two major non-fiction authors, both pioneers in their respective fields, neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks and self-help guru Dr. Wayne Dyer.

Dyer was a passionate extrovert, a regular on the talk show circuit in the 1970s and 80s, and close friends with celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey, Deepak Chopra and Ellen DeGeneres. After a childhood spent in an orphanage, he became a guidance counselor, and then went on to earn a doctorate of education in counseling. His first book was Your Erroneous Zones (initially published by Funk & Wagnalls, 1976), and originally, Dyer sold copies of the book out of the back of his station wagon across the country. Eventually, however, it would go on to become one of the bestselling books of all time, and is still in print.

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Dr. Dyer officiating at the wedding of Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi

Your-Erroneous-ZonesPower of Intention covreI Can See coverAmong his body of work, which numbers more than 30 titles, was The Power of Intention (Hay House, 2005), Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life: Living the Wisdom of the Tao (2009) and Inspiration: Your Ultimate Calling (Hay House, 2007). His long-awaited memoir, I Can See Clearly Now, was published this year by Hay House.

“I write because writing is something that I have to do,” he said when critics accused him of writing just for profit. “And it doesn’t matter whether people like it or not.”

In contrast, Sacks was an introvert, plagued throughout his life with shyness.

“He’s an amazing man,” said actor Robin Williams while promoting the movie Awakenings, in which Williams portrayed Sacks. “He’s about 6 foot 4 inches. He’s like a combination of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Albert Schweitzer. And he also looks like Santa Claus, ’cause he’s got this big beard. … And the amazing thing is, as big as he is and as strong as he is, he is this very gentle and compassionate man who is brilliant.”

Awakenings coverThe son of doctors, Sacks became famous after the release of his second book, Awakenings (Pelican, 1973). That book detailed his work with the victims of a 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic. Sacks treated them with a new drug, L-dopa, which helped them wake up 40 years later. Playwright Harold Pinter thought the book was a masterpiece and a 1982 stage adaptation was followed by the 1990 movie, which was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

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Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of Awakenings

Sacks’ explorations into the mind and brain were detailed in subsequent books, including Migraine: Evolution of a Common Disorder (Vintage Books, 1970), The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Summit Books, 1985), An Anthropologist on Mars (Alfred A. Knopf, 1995), and his memoirs—Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Vintage Books, 2001) and On the Move: A Life (Knopf, 2015).

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Oliver Sacks during his days in San Francisco.

It wasn’t until On the Move that Sacks revealed his homosexuality, discussed his early years in California when he indulged in drugs, motorcycles and weight lifting (he held the California power lifting record for a time) and revealed the 30 years he spent alone “married to my work” before he fell in love in 2008.

In the end, Dyer and Sacks shared a belief in human potential, and both shared the end of their life journeys with the same sense of inquiry, inspiration and discovery that made their writing such a pleasure to read. They each leave legacies of countless lives improved, and, through their work, countless lives still to be touched in the future.

 

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