The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

Reviewed by Judy Garrison

As a fill-in for Rima, who covers fiction so well, I chose to review this non-fiction work for three reasons.  Years ago I was galvanized by Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and by Awakenings, which inspired the Oscar-nominated film. I’ve also heard marvelous reports on Musicophilia, the most recent of his 10 books, which includes a chapter on an area man who presented at the Andes Roundtable.  Secondly, in an interview about The Mind’s Eye with Terri Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, I heard Sacks speak about his own face blindness. (Why have I never heard of this condition before, I wondered.)  And, thirdly, being someone with 20/850 myopia, astigmatism, and, like most of us over 50, presbyopia — one who has struggled to have adequate depth perception with mono-vision progressive contact lenses – I wanted to hear what he had to say on the subject of stereoscopy.

In his preface Sacks refers to his case histories as showing “what is often concealed in health: the complex workings of the brain and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability – to say nothing of the courage and the strength that individuals can show and the inner resources they can bring to bear…” As well as being a scientific explorer (a 12-page bibliography attests to his in-depth neurological investigations), Sacks is a master storyteller who fully embraces the humanity of his subjects.

The first one we meet is a 67-year old pianist who became bewildered when during a performance she suddenly found musical notation to be completely unintelligible, a condition that fluctuated at first and then spread to her ability to read words.  Throughout, her vision and her ability to write were unaffected, a condition called “alexia sine agraphia”.

Only in reading his chapter “Face-Blind” was I able to dispense with my skepticism about this phenomenon, technically known as “prosopagnosia.”  How could Sacks and others he cites fail to recognize even their own faces in a mirror, as well as those close to them?  Through detailed accounts he fills us in.  As a youth, he was often embarrassed, as he would cause bafflement and sometimes offense when he failed to identify schoolmates.  With close friends he would be cued by particular features such as the heavy eyebrows of one, the gangly height and red hair of another. Like many prosopagnosics he has relied on recognizing people by voice, motion style, posture, context and identifying markers.  To this day he admits to being much better at recognizing neighbors’ dogs than the neighbors themselves. A related flaw has been his continuing tendency to get lost if he deviates from a habitual route on a walk.

In Sacks’ journal entries following surgery on an tumor on his eye – very touching because he shares his fears and vulnerabilities – we learn in detail of his new visual experiences. One is the “persistence of vision” phenomenon, in which an afterimage is as detailed as reality itself.  Acknowledging his normally meager powers of visualization, he found it surprising that when he closed his eyes for a minute after viewing a bustling, crowded intersection full of bicycles, cars, buses and people, he could still “see the complex scene with its color and movement as clearly as if I had my eyes open,” including being able to read license plates to which he’d paid no conscious attention.

In the chapter Stereo Sue, Sacks, himself a devoted member of the New York Stereoscopic Society, gives the reader a history of cultural fascination with stereoscopy, including the stereoscopes of the Victorian era, and the View Master and 3-D movies of the 1950s.   He describes compensatory strategies for judging depth, and how people who lose the use of an eye for either a short time, or permanently, and therefore their stereovision, vary in their facility at accommodating to monocular vision.  For some it is a huge loss in their functioning and ability to enjoy the visual world.  To others it is not a big deal at all.  An experience in a tiny, windowless hospital room altered for a while his ability to see three dimensionally, even after he was moved to a room with a view. He is led to wonder what happens to prisoners under long confinement in tiny cells.

I hope many of you will borrow The Mind’s Eye, prominently displayed with other new books at the Andes Library. I am confident you will be as edified and entertained as I have been.~

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