Sacks (Neurology and Psychiatry/Columbia Univ.; Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, 2007, etc.) once again uses the experiences shared with him by patients and others to probe “the complex workings of the brain and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability.”
The author provides six case histories of patients with intriguing vision problems, beginning with the story of a 67-year-old concert pianist who consulted him over her loss of the ability to read music—although she could still perform it brilliantly from memory, and even transpose a Haydn string quartet piece which she played on the piano. She also suffered from increasing spatial disorientation and difficulty recognizing everyday items. MRI tests showed increasing neurologic damage, but this did not lessen her keen insight into her own condition, even though her ability to manage independently declined. In “Face-Blind,” Sacks examines his own congenital difficulty—“trouble with faces and places”—which remains a problem for him at age 76. He even once confused the face of a man seen through a window with a supposed mirror image of his own face—both sported heavy beards. The author compares his adult experience losing stereoscopic vision after suffering a tumor in one eye to that of a previously cross-eyed woman who gained it after a correction allowed her to focus both eyes. Both described a flattened perception of depth when using only one eye. Similarly, Sacks ponders the ability of the blind to visualize scenes that are described to them in vivid detail. “If there is indeed a fundamental difference between experience and description,” he writes, “between direct and mediated knowledge of the world, how is it that language can be so powerful?”
As usual with Sacks, an absorbing attempt to unravel the complexities of the human mind.