A little boy stands in front of you. You can see his pale little hands, his tousled brown hair and even the sparkling expression in his eyes—all a vision of crystal clarity. And yet, not one feature sparks any recognition; the boy seems to be a complete stranger. Then someone reminds you that the boy is, in fact, your son.
In his new book, The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks explores such stories—of people who must find their way through the world and find means of communication despite such visual neurological ‘handicaps’—the inability to recognize people by their faces (prospopagnosia), the loss of 3D vision (stereoblindness), the inability to read, speak or write (aphasia), or most obviously the loss of vision completely (blindness). The stories in the book are particularly personal and the book is partially autobiographical as Sacks himself suffered from a melanoma in his right eye. Consequently, he had to deal with visual hallucinations, distortions and complete loss of vision on that side.
In an interview with NPR about his new book, Sacks tells us how though the experience was disconcerting and terrifying at times, he also saw it as an opportunity to learn and to teach. The contours of three-dimensional vision were gone; his world had become flat. As he continued to lose vision, he chronicled his experiences in his Melanoma Journal, drawing the visual distortions he saw. To him, the journals were not only a means of allowing for detachment and reflection from the situation, they could be used both as a teaching tool. With his story and also other interesting case studies, he shows us how people learn to compensate for these disturbances in vision and adapt to a radically different life.
Sacks investigates some other more fundamental questions in his book—the mechanisms of vision and the importance of “internal imagery” (vision), and interestingly how, despite the relatively short existence of written languages (~5000 years old), humans have a seemingly innate, potential for reading. The Mind’s Eye provides us with a chance, not to walk a day in someone else’s shoes, but rather to see life through someone else’s eyes. Sachs leaves us not only grateful for our truly incredible ability to see and process visual information, but also with more knowledge of the power of all types of adaptation and communication.
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