The Mind’s Eye: A Review

“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.” Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks, now 77, has been a New York neurologist since 1965 and an author for 40 years. The Mind’s Eye is his 11th book, as fascinating as his previous ones. He writes vividly about the interaction between mind and brain, the way that different people creatively adapt to neurological change and the way that the brain responds to changes in the body.

Blindness, full or partial, the loss of the ability to read, inability to recognize faces, a stroke–any of these could be and are initially debilitating. But the adaptation, for the people in this book, allows them to live a full life, and for some of them a fuller and more meaningful one as they open up in other ways.

I was most struck by 2 of the cases in The Mind’s Eye. The first was Howard Engel’s–a Canadian mystery writer. I’d heard some years back that he had suffered alexia (the inability to read) following a stroke. Although he could still write, he couldn’t read what he himself wrote. How tragic for a writer. And yet because of his determination, he re-taught himself painstakingly and excruciatingly slowly to read and went on to write several more books.

The other case was that of Oliver Sacks himself, who wrote about his lifelong prosopagnosia, an inability to recognize faces, and his experience of ocular cancer and vision loss. Considering vision leads to considering thought itself, to meaning and the interaction of language, personality, consciousness and action. He quotes from his own journals–giving a sense of the immediate (including drawings!). And he quotes from others’ memoirs, both those who have experienced vision loss and those who have studied it, from 150 years ago to the present. So much to think about here.

“Rain has a way of bringing out the contours of everything: it throws a coloured blanket over previously invisible things; instead of an intermittent and thus fragmented world, the steadily falling rain creates continuity of acoustic experience…” John Hull in his memoir, Touching The Rock

Sacks has been criticized for putting anecdote above research. He has also been criticized for exploiting people with disabilities. I can’t speak to the first, but his portrayal of people is infused with interest, appreciation and respect. My feeling, as I read, is one of inspiration and admiration for human ingenuity and spirit. I didn’t want to put the book down, and when I finished it, I was hungry for more reading. Highly recommended.

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7 thoughts on “The Mind’s Eye: A Review

  1. Fascinating – off to see if that is on Kindle UK yet. I went almost a decade without doing any serious fiction reading, between when my eyesight deteriorated and when I got my Kindle, because I could only read enlarged fonts on my laptop. That was quite bad enough… I can’t imagine not being able to read AT ALL.

  2. It’s worth reading, I hope there’s a kindle version available. I just checked on Kobo and there is an ebook edition of The Mind’s Eye there. Can kindle read epub files published by Kobo?

  3. Thanks for the recommendation. I read Sacks’ An Anthropologist on Mars many years ago and really enjoyed it. I’m not sure it’s for me to say whether it’s exploitative, but it did help me understand the various conditions of the people in the book. Relatedly, the movie Temple Grandin (about a woman with autism who is featured in Anthropologist) is one of my favorites.

    1. I haven’t seen the movie yet, Fannie. Thanks for the recommendation–I’ll be sure to get it.

  4. I’ve never read any Oliver Sacks – not for any particular reason, just haven’t got around to him! Lovely review, Lilian, and definitely makes me want to read him.

  5. Loved this book and all his books. I don’t take the view that he’s exploitative because his writing radiates genuine respect and fascination. I wonder if those who have qualms are the same people who have qualms about photography of people. If so, I think this is a visceral disagreement that will not go away. But anyway, hurray for Oliver Sacks. Litlove, you should get around to him!

  6. And empathy, I should have said…

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