He modestly calls himself “both a physician and a storyteller.” Renowned neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Sacks has been publishing case histories since 1970, and his bestselling books (including Awakenings, Musicophilia, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat) have vastly and profoundly enlarged our understanding of the brain.
Thanks to his skilled and intimate narratives, readers among the general public are invited to observe not only challenges faced by individuals with rare types of brain dysfunction but also their often-remarkable strategies for overcoming disabilities caused by injury or illness.
One of the recurring themes in The Mind’s Eye is what Dr. Sacks refers to as the brain’s “plasticity;” he frequently focuses with unconcealed admiration upon his patients’ discoveries of ways to adapt to what most of us would consider the most severe losses.
“Ingenious and resilient,” he comments in regard to a celebrated pianist with visual agnosia who had managed to continue performing despite her increasing inability to read sheet music, words, even to recognize objects and faces. She offers “a lesson in what could be done to hold together a life in the face of ever-advancing perceptual and cognitive challenge.”
And it is Sacks’ own humanity that shines through very clearly when he explains that her “identity as an artist” enables her to transcend her disease and continue playing the piano.
When Sacks writes about “face blindness,” or prosopagnosia, a condition in which individuals have difficulty recognizing faces—even the faces of their closest loved ones—he includes himself among the identified patients.
Having suffered from this condition his entire life, Sacks somewhat humorously describes his own very belated realization that “there were others like me.” On a recent TV program, interviewer Charlie Rose moderated a panel discussion about creativity, where Dr. Sacks was joined by artist Chuck Close, who also suffers from the same condition. Close’s enormous portraits of famous faces consist of digital-like puzzle pieces, thus representing his own strategy for facial recognition. Sacks admits that he even has trouble recognizing his own face, yet he emphasizes that he is “sensitive to the beauty of faces, and to their expressions.”
In the essay “Persistence of Vision,” readers are treated to an even more intimate and dramatic portrait of the physician/storyteller when Sacks develops a tumor in one of his eyes. Through a series of journal entries (including sketches), Sacks shares the details of his symptomatic deterioration of vision, his terrors about disease and mortality, his response to surgery, and his slow adaptation to the loss of depth perception. By the end of the essay, Sacks is quite honestly struggling to come to terms with his new reality, describing his periodic “losing” and “finding” of a friend who keeps disappearing inside the enlarged “blind spot” of his visual field, “deep in my nowhere.”
The most important awareness that unifies all of these essays—and perhaps all of Sacks’ previous books—is his compassionate fascination with human behavior and consciousness.
The ability to reallocate what he calls “good neural real estate” in response to loss by way of stroke or disease offers the resilient individual a chance to maintain a high quality of life despite tragedy on scales large and small. In this way, The Mind’s Eye offers genuine inspiration and hope for the everyday aging brains we all possess. Not just those who fear the onset of extreme dementia but all of us who are forgetting where we left the keys or the name of our once-beloved friend.
Dr. Oliver Sacks is a mapmaker guiding us deep into the mysteries of the brain and outward into a complex shared world. As he writes in the final sentences of this book, “Language, that most human invention, can enable what, in principle, should not be possible. It can allow all of us, even the congenitally blind, to see with another person’s eyes.”