Saturday, July 30, 2011

"The Mind's Eye" by Oliver Sacks

The brain is an endlessly fascinating organ.  How can lumpy grey stuff be responsible for so much?  In The Mind's Eye, the neurologist Oliver Sacks explores the extraordinary power and function of the brain through a series of essays on medical issues related to sight.  The essays traverse cases of alexia (an inability to read because written words and letters appear like a foreign language), facial blindness (an inability to recognize faces), and lack of stereovision (3-D vision), among others.

What is immediately apparent through Sacks' writing is the complexity of the brain.  Even small neural changes can create huge disruptions in a person's life.  For example, as a seeing person with two properly aligned eyes, I completely take my stereovision for granted.  Yet for someone without stereovision, simple events like climbing stairs (because they all meld into a flat plane) could cause difficulties.  I say "could" in the previous sentence because a theme that runs throughout Sacks' work is humans' ability to cope and adjust.  Whether it is the inability to read, the inability to recognize objects, or blindness, people always find ways to continue their lives.

Another core question that Sacks' essays raise is "how universal or singular are my perceptions of the world?".  In the chapter on blindness, Sacks compares different blind individuals' ways of adjusting to a non-seeing world.  Some went into "deep blindness," completely forgoing visual imagery.  Others created complex and detailed visual imagery in their mind to the point where they could "see" the world around them.  Here I kept thinking about my own method of perception.  Though it's not impossible, I have always had a hard time creating images in my head.  Ask me to picture my husband in my mind and I can remember a photograph of him, but I can't see him separate from a specific photographic image.  When people ask, "How did you picture that character in that book?", I'm puzzled.  I never have any image in my head as I read.  It was surprising to learn about the enormous range of ways others use or don't use visual images.

I'm assuming some of the essays in the collection were previously printed elsewhere, as there was some overlap in information, particularly in the beginning.  This is the first book I've read by Sacks, and although all the issues were interesting, I got the impression that these essays weren't necessarily his best work.  His essay on his experience in losing sight in one eye was tedious at times, relying on excessive examples and repetitive observations.

The Mind's Eye worked well as an audiobook, as there was plenty to think about (I had to stop myself from closing one eye to test how my perception changed without stereovision as I drove).  The essay format also created nice divisions between material.

Considering how well-known Sacks is, The Mind's Eye might not be the best book to start with, but that doesn't mean it's not based on fascinating subjects.

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