The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks. New York: Picador USA, 2010.
Summary: Narratives of those who because of optical or neural issues experience distortions in or loss of sight, and how they adapt to such losses.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks left us a series of narratives of neurological impairments and how people with these adapted to life. In this volume he considers cases of visual impairment or loss, describing both a collection of different impairments, some in the eye, some in the brain, and how real people have adapted to losses or changes in this seemingly essential sense.
He begins with a concert pianist who loses her ability to read music. She could remember pieces and play them with perfection, and yet could not make sense any longer of musical notation. In this, as in other narratives, he wrote eloquently, and with admiration of her adaptation:
“Lilian had been ingenious and resilient in the eleven or twelve years since her illness started. She had brought inner resources of every kind to her own aid: visual, musical, emotional, intellectual. Her family, her friends, her husband and daughter, and above all, but also her students and colleagues, helpful people in the supermarket or on the street–everyone had helped her cope. Her adaptations to the agnosia were extraordinary–a lesson in what could be done to hold together a life in the face of ever-advancing perceptual and cognitive challenge. But it was in her art, her music, that Lilian not only coped with disease but transcended it. This was clear when she played the piano, an art that both demands and provides a sort of superintegration, a total integration of sense and muscle, of body and mind, of memory and fantasy, of intellect and emotion, of one’s whole self, of being alive. Her musical powers, mercifully, remained untouched by her disease.”
In succeeding chapters, he describes a patient with receptive aphasia resulting from a stroke, a man who no longer could decode letters into words and sentences, even though he could continue to write them, the challenges of those who are face-blind, a woman who through therapy, achieves stereoscopic vision for the first time in her adult life, and how this changed her perception of the world, and what happens within the brain when a person becomes blind and yet continues to have a “visual sense” of the world– a “mind’s eye.”
Perhaps the most moving was the description of the author’s own experience of visual distortion due to a form of melanoma and eventual loss of stereoscopic vision with retinal bleeding in one eye. He describes the changes in his own perception of the world, his loss of a sense of the existence of half of his visual field, and how he personally adapted to this loss.
Like other books by Saks, he brings together the fascinating world of neuroscience, and the marvelous uniqueness of the human beings whose stories he tells. He helped me marvel at the sense of sight that I take so for granted, and yet could change or be lost for a host of reasons (I need to make that eye check up appointment!). And he helped me appreciate the tremendous ingenuity of individuals, and the fascinating properties of the brain, that enable people to adapt to devastating loss.