Recent Reading: THE MIND’S EYE by Oliver Sacks

People are so different. The way people experience the world is so different. The way your brain handles what it tells you about the world is so peculiar.


THE MIND’S EYE makes a point of showing us just how different our sensory worlds can be.

A person can lose the ability to read even though nothing interferes with his ability to see the actual letters – word-blindness, alexia, a loss of comprehension of written symbols without losing sight. Yet an inability to read may not be associated with an inability to write, though a person with this kind of word-blindness won’t be able to proofread what he had written. Except that tracing letters in the air with his finger or with his tongue on the roof of his mouth – “writing” them – may allow comprehension. He might then “read” by the motor act of “writing.”

Or similarly a person might lose comprehension of visual objects, though again without losing actual sight. This is associated with posterior cortical atrophy – but there are so many variations in how the problem is actually experienced.

When Lilian came back, and I had packed my bag and prepared to go, she said, “You must take the rest of the biscotti with you” – but now, bizarrely, she could not find them, and became upset, almost frantic, at this. They were right on the table in their dish, but since the dish had been moved she no longer knew where they were, or even where to look. She seemed to have no strategy for looking. She was, however, quite startled to see my umbrella on the table. She failed to recognize it as an umbrella, noticing only that something curved and twisted had appeared – and wondered, for a half-serious moment, if it was a snake.

Think of living life that way – able to see, but not to make sense of what you are seeing. How strange and peculiar! And what kinds of strategies would you come up with to help you cope? Some people find music helps them organize the world; others recognize color and pattern long after they lose the ability to recognize objects in the normal way.

Some people are not word-blind or object-blind, but face-blind – unable to recognize the faces of even familiar people, especially if seen out of context. Sacks himself evidently lives with quite severe face-blindness.

Personal note: I can actually understand this better than object blindness because I have rather poor face recognition myself, though it’s not nearly as severe as what Sacks describes. But it takes years of frequent contact before I can reliably recognize someone. Voices are much more reliable for me, and not infrequently the way someone walks is distinctive even if I can’t recognize the person by his face. I use distinctive features for recognition, just as Sacks describes. I sometimes have trouble when watching a movie, because often all the male actors look the same to me – white men with short, dark hair, all tallish and all about the same age. I literally can’t tell them apart. Actresses aren’t such a problem because generally women at least style their hair differently.

When I was teaching, I could easily go a whole semester unable to tell two students apart because they both had long, straight blond hair. If I had them in one class after another, though, they would eventually look distinctive and then I couldn’t see how I’d ever thought they’d seemed so similar.

I didn’t know that this was unusual until I started proctoring large exams, where the students had to show ID before entering the exam room, and I realized I found it much more difficult than other grad students to tell whether the ID matched the student’s face or not. This was similar to realizing that I have a good deal more trouble than most people in picking out one person’s speech in a crowded room of various conversations. I didn’t know that this was unusually difficult for me until my twin brother commented about the same phenomenon and then the realization clicked into place. I wonder whether the two tendencies are linked or whether it’s just chance that I have trouble both in recognizing faces and in picking specific voices out of a crowd? And I wonder how common these types of perceptual deficiencies are in introverts versus extroverts?

Anyway, according to Sacks, some degree of face-blindness is not particularly rare, with perhaps as much as 10% of the population being noticeably below average. Sacks also notes that that people with face-blindness also often have difficulty recognizing other specific things, such as distinguishing different types of fruits by sight, or recognizing different kinds of birds. Those examples seem strange to me. I can’t imagine being unable to distinguish an apple from a pear or a chipping sparrow from a song sparrow. But I can easily think of other categories of things I can’t tell apart. I can’t tell cars apart very well if they’re roughly the same color, and it’s not unusual for me to walk up to someone else’s blue car and look for dog crates in the back to see whether it’s mine or not. I always park in roughly the same place in parking lots to reduce the problem. I wonder how much of this is interest level. I don’t care about cars at all. But the result is, if I were in an accident, I’d be like, “Well, officer, I don’t know, it was blue or maybe dark gray. Or green. Four doors or two? Well, I don’t know. Driver? Well, I didn’t really notice the driver. But he had an Affenpinscher in the car with him. Of course I’m sure. It was definitely an Affenpinscher.”

Then you get people on the opposite side of the spectrum.

“I was on my way into the subway in Soho when I identified someone fifteen feet ahead of me, back turned, . . . as a man I had knew, or had seen before. In this case, it was Mac, who used to be a family friend’s art dealer. I had last seen him briefly two years earlier, at an opening in midtown. I’m not sure I’ve ever spoken with him beyond an introduction a good ten years ago.”

Unbelievable. Not that I don’t believe it. It’s just . . . unbelievable.

Then we get the various ways in which people deal with complete blindness. Again, people are so very different. We see people who lose not only visual perception, but the memory of vision and any comprehension of the phenomenon of sight. On the other hand, Sacks describes another person, Zoltan Torey, an Australian psychologist, who after he went blind, built up in his head such a clear and detailed and concrete visual representation of the world around him that he don’t hesitate to go out on his roof and replace the guttering by himself. Sacks notes that Torey describes his experience of blindness in OUT OF DARKNESS, in case you’re interested.

Why do some people lose the very concept of vision when they go blind, and others build up a complete visual world in their heads? Well, visual memory is highly variable; maybe that’s why. Listen to Sacks’ account of a moment with his mother:

My mother was a surgeon and comparative anatomist, and I had brought her a lizard’s skeleton from school. She gazed at this intently for a minute, turning it round in her hands, then put it down and without looking at it again did a number of drawings of it, rotating it mentally by thirty degrees each time, so that she produced a series, the last drawing exactly the same as the first. I could not imagine how she had done this. When she said that she could see the skeleton in her mind just as clearly and vividly as if she were looking at it, and that she simply rotated the image through a twelfth of a circle each time, I felt bewildered …

Yes, I’d feel bewildered, too. Wow.

Yet, later, Sacks meets a vascular surgeon who – not blind – evidently somehow has no conscious awareness of visual imagery at all. I’m a highly visual person, that’s why Martha Wells (for example) appeals to me so much as a writer; I totally see the world she is describing. Setting matters to me so much in a novel. So I can’t imagine what’s in this vascular surgeon’s head. How can you think much less do surgery without a visual image of what you’re working with?

I suppose this phenomenon, of seeing but without a conscious awareness of visual imagery, must be similar to blindsight – a complete loss of the conscious awareness of all sight, but without losing sight itself. The damage is all in the brain, not the eyes. A person with blindsight feels blind. But, if told to put a letter in a slot, she will turn the letter vertically or horizontally to match the orientation of the slot and put it through – without any conscious perception of sight at all.

How extremely odd that we can all live in such different sensory worlds. And how difficult to realize that the sensory experience of our friends and acquaintances may be so different from our own. I love a well-drawn alien species, but one doesn’t need to look very far from home to find a quite distinctive experience of the world. Sacks’ books are among the best for creating the realization that many people live in a world that’s just not the same as the one you live in.

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2 thoughts on “Recent Reading: THE MIND’S EYE by Oliver Sacks”

  1. That is fascinating. I wonder if our other senses can be similarly affected? And yes, apparently: deaf hearing and blind smell, at the least.

  2. Mona, I know, isn’t it? Sometimes I’m also struck by how different life must be for someone I meet who’s just a lot more emotionally volatile than I am. Really a profoundly altered sense of the world…

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