The Mind’s Eye

Oliver Sacks, widely known for his 1985 book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” is by far one of the best writers to deal with neurology. You might stop and think, who wants to read a book about neuroscience? Won’t it be all jargon and biology and brain talk?

Not even close. Dr. Sacks is far removed from a technical textbook writer. His books on neurological disorders and his patients, their bizarre perceptions and fantastic experiences get down into the nitty-gritty of what it is to be human. His newest, “The Mind’s Eye,” explores the stories of four patients as well as his own experience with eye cancer and prosopagnosia. Lillian, a concert pianist, suddenly finds herself unable to read music, her problems eventually spreading into the rest of her visual perceptions. Pat, a vivacious mother and grandmother, goes from the life of the party to having aphasia and being unable to speak sentences. Howard is a novelist who suffers a stroke that robs him of his ability to read, and Sue is a neurobiologist who has gone through life without three-dimensional vision only to discover the tools to give it to her in her fifties.

Being a cognitive scientist myself and studying neuroscience, this book is an invaluable view into the human minds of these incredible people. They still find ways despite their disorders to be themselves and fight to continue to do what they love even when it is taken away. Pat develops a visual vocabulary, Howard finds he can still write, and Lillian can play from memory and can even use her auditory processing to play what she hears. Dr. Sacks’ journal entries during his trials with eye cancer are haunting and riveting; he describes visual flares, distortions and his feelings of helplessness as the darkness grows. Sometimes these disorders arise slowly, brought on by age as our neural connections grow weak and die, and sometimes you wake up one day and realize you’ve had a stroke in the night.

His accounts of these people reveals him to be an understanding scientist who only wants to know how he can help. By studying them and speaking with them they both understand more about their disorders and what to do with them. He describes his struggle with agnosia, unable to recognize people he’s known for years or his own home, and you know that he can understand what these people are also going through. The social repercussions that arise from neurological disorders can sometimes be crippling, and by having some himself, Sacks can speak to and about these people like no one else can. The book is a must read if you want to see how other people perceive and process sense and to understand just a little more about the fascinating mind of the human race.