‘To what extent are we the authors, the creators, of our own experiences? How much are these predetermined by the brains or senses we are born with, and to what extent do we shape brains through experience?’
Dr Oliver Sacks is professor of neurology at NYU school of medicine, and was the author of 10 previous books of case studies of his patients before The Mind’s Eye was published in 2010, the most famous being The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat (1985) and Awakenings (1973) – which was made into an Academy Award-nominated film in 1990.
His field is the nature of the human mind and brain. His genius is for writing about his patients’ problems in short essays that read like stories by Chekhov (another clinician). His compassion and empathy are palpable, and we rarely feel he’s intrusive about or exploitative of his subjects.
In The Mind’s Eye his specific topic is vision and perception. ‘If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite’, wrote William Blake in “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”. Here, in seven case studies, Sacks explores how we see, how our brains make sense of the images relayed there, and how astonishingly resilient, versatile and flexible our brains are when something goes wrong with our visual systems, either through disease or other trauma.
Of particular interest here are Sacks’s patients who were gifted artistically. There’s the concert pianist Lillian Kallir, whose agnosia caused her to lose the ability to read musical scores, even to recognise objects or representations of them. In a remarkably sensitive chapter Sacks shows how she developed the compensating capacity to memorise musical pieces and reinterpret and play them without a score; he argues that although our anatomy is vulnerable to disease and damage, we’ve evolved the resilience to tap into other areas of the brain when parts of it which govern visual perception are impaired, and re-learn or activate other ways of coping with deficits.
That’s what makes these studies so exhilarating; we feel desperately sorry for the patients Sacks describes, like the novelist Howard Engel, who suffered a stroke and lost the ability to read (strangely he could still write), but uplifted by their courage and resilience. Engel learned new ways of producing texts. His problems never went away, he said, ‘but I became cleverer at solving them’.
What gives this book a more personal, deeply poignant edge is the sections in which Sacks relates his own visual problems. He suffers from acute face blindness: he fails to recognise people he knows well. Sacks’s self-deprecating wit is often evident: he describes a scene when he turned to his reflection in a restaurant window to groom his beard, only to find that the distinguished face he took for his own was that of a fellow diner, dismayed to see Sacks staring fixedly at him, smoothing his beard.
When Sacks is diagnosed with cancer in his right eye he loses stereoptic vision, which leads him into a fascinating exploration of how we make sense in our cerebral cortexes of the images they receive, trustworthy or not. Sacks’ humanity and empathy for the sufferings of others, so evident in the rest of this book (and his other works) becomes here a raw, visceral terror. Now he’s on the other side of the clinician’s desk he reveals his own frailties and abject fear of death, ageing and dissolution. These sections are almost unbearable to read in the nakedness of his portrayal of the human condition: we are all ‘bare, fork’d animals’.
But the reader comes away from this book feeling exalted rather than depressed. Sacks contemplates with honesty the spectre of mortality; his gaze doesn’t flinch, even when he feels existential panic. It’s that moral gaze, the perception of what it is to be human, rather than a neurologist’s analysis of synaptic processes, that raises this book into the levels of literature.
For example, there’s the blind man who lost even the memory of vision, but he acquiesced with ‘joy’ to his condition. ‘Blindness became for him “a dark, paradoxical gift”. This was not just “compensation”, he emphasized, but a whole new order, a new mode of human being.’
Science fact is surely stranger and more hallucinatory in the visions it provides than science fiction.