The Mind’s Eye


Oliver Sacks
2010

The Mind’s Eye follows the familiar Oliver Sacks formula, mixing “theory lite” with unusual case histories to create reader-friendly primers on contemporary neuroscience.

What makes The Mind’s Eye most interesting is Sacks’s extended account of his own deteriorating vision. Sacks has said of himself: ““I’m an honorary Tourette’s because I tend to jerk … I am also an honorary Asperger. And I’m an honorary bipolar.” Add nearly blind, and you might expect Sacks to be rather glum. But the book’s great charm is how he describes his trials with a detached objectivity. He recounts his fears and frustrations, but he never wallows in them.

Also interesting are the contrasting case histories of other visually-impaired or blind writers and scientists. It seems that the brain has many ways of responding to blindness, and it’s an awareness of this “plasticity” that serves as the book’s underlying theme.

Brain plasticity is pretty universally accepted today, but it wasn’t that many years ago that it was believed that being born blind or losing sight before the visual cortex had fully developed meant the complete absence of anything we could call “vision.”

Sacks shows that there are many ways that a sight-deprived brain can “reprogram” its idle optical centres. Everyone is familiar with cases in which people who lose their sight compensate with enhanced hearing or smell or touch, but there are other, more unusual — and more fascinating — ways that some people without sight “find their way” in a physical world they can’t see. That is, that they don’t see in the same ways that most sighted people do.

These alternative forms of “vision,” which range from the geometric to the synesthetic to the surprisingly image-based, make up the second very interesting focus of the book.

I found the relatively brief “science” sections a little too brief and undeveloped, but then that’s not what The Mind’s Eye is about. Like all of Sacks’s popular work, it’s more about the people than the science.

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