Sacks' voice fails to score in this book, though his demystifying style is intact.
Although he's been a distinguished physician, neurologist and writer for several decades before, Oliver Sacks burst into the collective global consciousness with the publication in 1985 of his quirkily titled bestseller The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Perhaps, for the first time, readers were offered a clear, high-resolution view of the extraordinary capacities and capriciousness of the human brain. The “higher functions” associated with the cerebral cortex that Sacks writes about have always fascinated physicians, philosophers, psychologists as well as the person next door. Who wouldn't want to know more about the labyrinthine network of connections between billions of neurons that govern the way we think, perceive, feel and behave? Particularly when it's explained as clearly, simply and without fuss as Oliver Sacks, unlike most pedantic medical writers, has always done?
What has probably, at least to me, distinguished Sacks' writing from everybody else in the field, is a clear and sensitive voice remarkably devoid of sentimentality, whose main purpose is to inform without obfuscation. Sadly, at least to me, in The Mind's Eye, the voice is not the same as before. Whether this is because with advancing age, the voice is beginning to lose its timbre or whether it's because he's writing about something too close to himself is hard to tell, but the net result is that the read is not as satisfying as one has come to expect.
In The Mind's Eye, Sacks addresses the relationship between the outer eye and the inner eye; between what the eye sees and how the cerebral cortex interprets this.
On the face of it, this may seem fairly simple and straightforward — the eye sees something, impulses travel from the eye through the optic nerve to the brain (the visual part of the brain is located in the occipital lobe, at the back of the head), which decodes what the eye has seen and that's all there should be to it.
In truth, there's a lot more happening in the brain for us to not only see something in three dimensions, but also recognise what we've seen, link it to memories and other sensory inputs (hearing, smell, touch etc.) associated with it, and finally decide what to do about what we've seen. The visual association cortex that lies in the inferotemporal lobe of the brain is what Sacks explores in depth in The Mind's Eye.
In his customary manner, Sacks efficiently examines the malfunctioning of this part of the brain. He describes fascinating clinical conditions like “word blindness” or alexia sine agraphia (wherein a person can see clearly, but can't read anymore, though writing is not a problem), aphasia (the loss of language functions), and a malady that Sacks himself suffers from, a specific type of visual agnosia — prosopagnosia (the incapacity to recognise faces).
But then he goes on to do something uncharacteristic, something I imagine, would not have come easily for him.
Witnessing for oneself
He shares with the reader his personal journal written at the time he developed a tumour — an ocular melanoma near the point where the optic nerve enters the eye — that pretty much turned his world upside down. His fears, his panic and the manner in which he came to terms with this are all laid bare for all to read. I'm sure his loyal readers would feel closer to him, and perhaps even empathise with his emotions, which are expressed with dignified matter-of-factness.
But, at the risk of sounding callous, I can't help feeling that, even though devoid of mawkishness, this portion of the narrative seems slightly out of sync with the rest of the book.
Also, the crispness in describing the case histories with which his books are usually replete, seems to have abandoned him. However, in masterfully demystifying the intricate cerebral cortex, Sacks remains peerless.
The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks, Picador, 2011, p. 260, Rs. 399.
Keywords: book review