British-born neurologist Oliver Sacks has a knack for writing case studies that meld personal observation with scientific explanation and philosophical musing. In such classics as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1970), Awakenings (1973) and An Anthropologist on Mars (1995), he has mapped the contours of neurological diversity, while emphasizing the resilience of the human psyche.
In his latest collection of true-life tales, The Mind's Eye, the 77-year-old Sacks focuses on vision problems and challenges — including his own. For the first time, he writes in detail about his face and topographical blindness. So severe are these maladies that Sacks can't even recognize himself in a mirror, nor wander his own neighborhood without getting lost. (Read an excerpt from The Mind's Eye.)
But for Sacks, professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, there was worse to come. In vivid diary entries, he recounts his struggles with an ocular melanoma in his right eye. Awaiting what will turn out to be the first in a string of operations, he writes, "I feel a terrified child, a child screaming for help, inside me." Despite the efforts of his physician, to whom he dedicates this book, Sacks has since lost all vision in that eye.
In The Mind's Eye, Sacks couples autobiography with other accounts of affliction and healing: A pianist finds herself unable to read either music or books, but continues to perform brilliantly from memory. A detective novelist loses the ability to read, but still manages to write his books, inventing a protagonist who shares his plight. And an aphasic, partially paralyzed woman compensates for her inability to speak with gesture, mime and the sheer force of her personality.
"These are portraits of human beings and how they deal with neurological and perceptual vicissitudes," Sacks said in a recent phone interview with the AARP Bulletin, "and I'm one of them."
Q. What was the inspiration for The Mind's Eye?
A. I've been interested in vision and its phenomena and its problems for as long as I can remember, partly because I had visual migraines. [With visual migraines] one may lose vision entirely, or lose vision in one-half of the visual field; you may lose color; or you may see zigzags across the visual field and may have hallucinations. It made me think very early that vision is dependent on the brain. The book is a sort of strange mixture — of a memoir, and essays, as well as four case histories. I want to discuss visual experiences with the reader.
Q. One theme of this book, as in your previous work, is the power of people — and of the human brain — to adapt to adversity and compensate for deficits.
A. Very much so.
Q. Can you give a couple of particularly striking examples?
A. This hit me very strongly with regard to Lilian Kallir, the pianist, who initially lost the power to read music. And then this happened to her three years later with print as well. And then she lost the ability to recognize common objects. When I tested her in the clinic, I couldn't imagine how she survived outside. I had to make a house call and see her in her own place.
Q. What did you observe?
A. She had organized everything, but especially books, by their color, by their shape, by their subjects. This woman, who couldn't recognize anything much in an ordinary way, found an extraordinary way of organizing objects. When we went into a supermarket, she knew the labels of everything. This seemed a remarkable example of how someone who could have been in a state of absolute visual bewilderment was coping rather well.
Q. Can you offer another example of adaptation?
A. The novelist who lost the ability to read. When one loses an ability to read in this way, one retains the ability to write. I wondered how he could ever write a book again if he couldn't read what he'd written. But what was happening was his hand and then his tongue were copying the shapes of letters as his gaze moved along the line.
Q. How did that work?
A. In effect, rather than reading with his eyes, he was writing with his tongue. This is not something which he designed. I don't think one could think up such a weird thing. But this is what the brain, the organism, came up with. This is a very nice example of the resilience and inventiveness — I almost want to say the playfulness — of the central nervous system.
Q. I'm thinking of the comment he made: "The problems never went away, but I became cleverer at solving them."
A. You know, that could be the epigraph of the entire book.