Monday, 15 September 2008

An Oliver Sacks case study brought to life on stage

Yesterday afternoon I had the pleasure of seeing the play Reminiscence at Jacksons Lane theatre in North London. It tells the story of Mrs O'Connor, an 88-year-old woman whose stroke-induced seizures caused her to hear music that wasn't there and relive childhood memories that may or may not have actually happened.

The lady was first described by Oliver Sacks in his collection of case studies entitled "The man who mistook his wife for a hat." But whereas Sacks describes the case from the perspective of a doctor, the play attempts to portray what Mrs O'Connor's experiences must have been like for her.

My favourite scene occurs towards the end of the play, when Mrs O'Connor is aware of her doctor's real presence, but is also experiencing the sensation of inhabiting a memory from her childhood. This sense of having two conscious experiences at once is known as mental diplopia.

As you can imagine, representing experiences like these on stage is no easy task, but it's a challenge risen to admirably by the small, multi-talented cast with the aid of some ingenious props and effects.

The play raises a number of intriguing issues, not least the question of whether the memories and music that Mrs O'Connor experiences, while being caused by neurological changes in her brain, are also subject to psychological motivations. Given the blandness of her nursing home existence, together with her sense of a lost childhood (she was orphaned at age five), Mrs O'Connor actually finds relief in her symptoms and turns down the offer of medication to eradicate them.

Just as rewarding as the play was the science forum held afterwards. The audience had the opportunity to hear from the director Michael Callahan, members of the cast, as well as the mesmerisingly encyclopedic Dr Vaughan Bell of King's College London, who acted as unpaid scientific consultant to the play.

The show runs for another week, including a matinee on Wednesday that will be followed by the second and final science forum.

Link to Reminiscence at Jacksons Lane theatre.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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