Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Mind's Eye

The Mind's Eye
© 2010 Oliver Sacks
263 pages

Few things are more pertinent to the study of the human experience than the exploration of our minds, our brains -- just what are they capable of, and how thoroughly do they create our version of reality?  After reading V.S. Ramachandran's Phantoms in the Brain, I realized that reality as I see it is something like a computer-rendered experience,  one created by my brain. When the brain's abilities and qualities are changed, the rendered experience changes as a consequence.  In The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks examines cases of his which display people and their brains' ability to adjust to being diminished.  The cases recorded here vary greatly, detailing the accounts of people who have lost abilities we take for granted -- like recognizing faces and reading.

Though Sacks is a neurological doctor,  the brain is such a delicate organ that attempting to undo damage caused by strokes is largely impossible at our current technological level. Instead, he attempts to understand  what is causing  a given person's loss of perception and marvels at how resilient we can be.  In one initial case,  a stroke victim who lost her ability to read text and music learned to rely to memorize new material strictly by sound:  she even gained the ability to transpose music in her mind, then play it intuitively without having an outside reference like sheet music or notes. In another chapter, a man who lost his sight claimed that he could 'read' the landscape by listening to the rain beat upon it. Sacks does not specify as to why some faculties increase in the absence of others, but I would think I likely explanation is that of interference:  if the brain no longer has visual input to contend with,  we can pay more attention to auditory stimuli.  I'd also wager that the increased capacity for memory is a function of necessity: how impressive would we moderns find the memory of people who lived before writing and who depended on oral tradition for the transmission of grand mythological stories?

Some of the case studies involve other neurologists, and Sacks is no exception: he includes his own experiences in the chapter on face blindness, and records his visual distortions during a bout with cancer in his eye. He includes journal entries from his hospital trips and pictures in which he attempted to convey how his central vision was making the world appear to them.  Though not, strictly speaking, a science text, Sack's approach is considerably closer to Ramachandran's than Gary Small's. Reading it impressed me all the more the idea that reality is not something we view through the windows of our senses -- but something constructed from within our brainpans. This was a fascinating look inside, and I'm eager to read more of Sacks. Though The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is of most interest, An Anthropologist on Mars also sounds fun.


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