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The Mind's Eye
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187 of 199 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
If I were to ask you to descrbe the differences were between what your eyes see, and what you see, you'd probably think it an odd question. After all what you see is what your eyes see, right? Curiously enough, what you see when you perceive the world around you is very different from what your eyes "see."

Consider this: The human eye can detect fine detail over an angle of about 2 degrees. That's not much; it's roughly the area of a dime held at arm's length. Your first instinct is probably to say nonsense; after all, you can easily perceive the entire scene before you, over an angle of at least 90 and as much as 180 degrees. You're right, at least in part. You perceive the wide expanse of the world before you, but what you perceive and what your eyes take in are two very different things. The world you perceive is not the raw input from your eyes, but rather something constructed by your brain, using input from your eyes as well as a lifetime's experience and memory of the world around you.

Here's another example. You've probably, at one time or another in your childhood, placed a finger in front of your face, and then viewed it through each eye in turn, noticing how it appears to jump back and forth and you switched eyes. Obviously, your eyes see slightly different pictures of the world. Yet when you look at the world, you don't see two different pictures. You see a single picture of the world, with a sense of depth and dimensionality not apparent when viewing with either eye alone. That third dimension isn't there in the pictures coming from your eyes- it has to be added by the brain.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks has made a second career for himself writing about neurological affectations, and how they affect the people who suffer them. In this book, he examines how vision works, and what happens when it doesn't. Sacks has a particular insight into the problems of those whose vision differs from that of the population at large, as he himself suffers from prosopagnosia- the inability to recognize faces. For years, this was assumed to be a purely psychological problem. How could someone with excellent vision fail to recognize a face- even that of a family member? But for severe prosopagnosiacs, even the face of a parent or child is a nondescript set of features, no different from any other. This can and does affect recognition of things as well as people. Sacks, for example, tells how how he many times walked past his own house many times until a neighbor or family member spotted him and guided him home again. Prosopagnosia can range from the slight to the severe. Perhaps as many as 2.5% of the population carry a gene that predisposes them to the condition, and most mild prosopagnodiacs are probably unaware that they have the condition, thinking instead that they simply have a "bad memory for faces." Sacks speculates if many instances of social shyness may in fact be due to the difficulties brought on by prosopagnosia; his own mother was painfully shy, and he suspect, given the genetic component, that he may have inherited his condition from her.

A related condition Sacks discusses at length is alexia, the inability to recognize letters.Usually brought on my injury, disease, or stroke, alexics can see letters, but the letters make no sense to them. One subject, a writer by trade, describes his post-stroke perception of English language as looking like "Serbo Croation (cyrillic) characters." Curiously enough, most sufferers have no difficulty writing, a condition known as "alexia sin agraphia"- alexia without agraphia. They can write, but they cannot recognize their own handwriting after they write. To a neuroscientist, this is strong evidence for very different areas of the brain being involved in the production of text and the perception of it; to a writer, or a voracious reader, it can be a devastating condition. Some found they can switch to audio books and dictation, and a very few have managed to teach themselves new strategies to read, if slowly.

Midway through the book Sacks describes the discovery of a tumor in his dominant eye. Though the tumor is treated, successfully, he loses a part of the visual field in the affected eye, and eventually, most sight. This leads to a number of very curious things. At one point, Sacks describes closing his eye- and continuing to see the scene about him, as if his eyes were still wide open. The brain, Sacks notes, is predisposed towards receiving information from the senses, and if deprived of that information, will fill in as best it can. There is a rare condition in which the sufferers are objectively blind, yet maintain that they can see, even as they find themselves bumping into objects, and many older people with visual impairment suffer from Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition in which the mind creates objects (and occasionally people) to fill in for missing visual stimuli. (Charles Bonnet syndrome is rarely reported, as the sufferers are often afraid it will be taken as a sign of senility.)

Sacks also discusses stereo vision, and those who have lost and gained it, and the loss and recovery of vision in general. Interesting, although most sighted people who lose vision eventually lose their visual imagery as well, some gain an enhanced sense of visual imagery. One subject Sacks discusses became so good at integrating the information from his other senses into his visual imagery that he could confidently walk down the street without a cane or dog. Another repaired the roof of his garage- at night (terrifying his neighbor!), since the presence or absence of light made no difference to him.

As with all Sacks' books, "The Mind's Eye" is a superb synthesis of science, medicine, and insight into the human experience. His obvious empathy, and even affection, for the people he meets and consults with come through in his writing, and help the reader to see the person behind the affliction, and to give each of us greater appreciation for the wonder and the mystery of the senses we possess.
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66 of 67 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 1, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Oliver Sacks has a distinct style of story-telling. He comes across a patient with unusual symptoms. He takes the time to get to know the person in detail. The person is amazing, cultured, refined, and suffering from a brain dysfunction that his other noble qualities compensate for. The doctor visits the patient's elegant home, they share a love for classical music or some other refined art, and the whole discussion leads to musing on the nobility of the human spirit and the utter weirdness that can happen to the human brain.

This book starts out like that, with a story about a classical musician who slowly loses her ability to read, first words, then music, then an inability to recognize much of anything visually. At this point, I felt that the writing was pleasant and interesting, but a bit predictable. A second similar story follows. I still didn't realize that this book focused specifically on sight, vision, and the part that the brain, rather than the eye itself, plays in the ability to see. (I know, the title was a dead give-away, but I took it too metaphorically.)

But then the book veers off in a direction that I wasn't expecting. Dr. Sacks himself is diagnosed with cancer in his eye. He undergoes surgery and radiation, and his vision is changed in odd ways. Much of the book is based on his own detailed notes on his experiments with himself, his internal observations of what he experiences. There is a great deal of reflection on stereopsis, the ability to see in 3-D, which curiously, he had been a big fan of, belonging to a society in New York based on old 3-d imagery. Just like the people he so often writes about, now he himself turns out to be a patient whose particular gifts and interests are suddenly impinged upon by a peculiar ailment. (Are the gods mocking us? Beethoven becomes deaf, musicians lose the ability to read music, a man fascinated with antique View-master images loses the ability to see in 3-D? I once met an elderly woman who was a skillful pianist who had been the victim of a mugging in which the mugger had stepped on and smashed all her fingers.)

I found this book to be one of Sacks best, which is saying quite a lot. I have never forgotten The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, but I found Musicophilia tedious. This is first -rate Sacks. He always has impressed me as a man of unusual empathy. This time, he is not only the empathetic doctor, but a sympathetic patient. A stimulating and enriching read.
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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's not surprising that such a complex system as vision can go wrong in so many ways. The eye itself is amazingly complicated, but it's the mind that makes sense of the images the eye sees. We all know about the trick the mind plays on us to make us ignore the fact that one's nose is in the field of vision of each of our eyes. That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how much the mind determines what and how we see.

In his latest book, The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks presents case studies of vision malfunctions. A concert pianist suddenly can't read music anymore. A novelist finds he can't read anymore - but he hasn't lost his ability to write in longhand. Other chapters cover face blindness and a lack of stereoscopic vision - a woman who sees in two dimensions rather than three.

This would have been a depressing book if it had just been about the many ways our brains can fail us. But Sacks also describes the incredible ways these people have compensated for their losses. The concert pianist finds that she can play by ear better than she ever thought she would be able to. She can memorize long pieces of music and improvise and compose. The novelist writes his drafts in longhand and has his editor read it to him so he can make revisions. In a non-vision related aside, Sacks tells of a woman who has been paralyzed following an accident, but finds she can still at least enjoy the small pleasure of doing the daily crossword puzzle by memorizing the grid and all the clues and then solving the puzzle mentally through the day. She could not have imagined being able to memorize to such an extent before the accident.

Is it possible to achieve feats such as super-memory without having been injured? Do we all possess amazing brains that we only put to the test when we're challenged by circumstances? Again we're left to marvel that, of all the fantastic things the brain can do, the one thing it hasn't been able to figure out yet, is itself.
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60 of 68 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon October 22, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Oliver Sacks' Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood is one of my all-time favorites. It provides an interesting walk though science through the eyes of a child. It is both enlightening and charming... truly a rare breed.

Unfortunatley, "The Mind's Eye" is quite different and while it does offer some of the charm - it is much less readable. In truth, it requires a fairly large degree of prior knowledge in neurology in order for it to make sense. This makes the reading much more academic, and in my case, tedious.

I am sure that many people will enjoy "The Mind's Eye" but it may be restricted more to the medical community and not the average reader. This is unfortunate, because the stories offered by Dr. Sacks are interesting, but the level of detail is just too deep. An example was the discussion on "Face Blindness" which to me is a fascinating topic (my wife seems to think that I may suffer from this disorder!), but withing 5 pages I have a hard time following the technical detail of the discussion.

Final Verdict - Probably very interesting for the medical community, but it may be a tough read for common Joe.

2 1/2 Stars
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Dr. Sacks is normally an engaging story teller, and his forte is stories about brain, particularly the higher cortical function disorders, told as stories of patients suffering a variety of maladies of cerebrum. Higher cortical functions are what separates us from other primates.

Vision, recognition & perception are the focus in this book. First part of the book is about the stories of patients with higher cortical visual disorders; in the second part he describes his own vision problems due to melanoma of the eye and his lifelong inability to recognize faces, believe it or not, it is a disorder called Prosopagnosia.

First is the story of Lilian who starts out with musical alexia - inability to read musical scores by an accomplished musician - followed by general alexia. Then he describes the story of Canadian novelist Howard Engel who suffers from even rare form of alexia - where he is unable to read and recognize words but he is able to write - a condition called alexia sine agraphia.

Patty is another patient who develops aphasia - inability to speak and express in words but then she adapts and becomes expert by expressing with gesture and mime using just her left arm because her right side is paralyzed. Patty is inspired by Jeannette, a quadriplegic speech therapist. So the stories are about how people adapt when they lose the ability to recognize or express.

Sometimes losing one higher cortical function opens the other doors in the brain, for example, study by Nancy Etcoff showing how people with aphasia become better at detecting lies and emotion.

Dr. Sacks has tackled vision before in The Island of Color Blind but this book deals with a different aspect of cortical visual disorders. In A Leg to Stand On he described how he lost awareness of his leg after an injury. Coming from a tradition of British clinical neurology, his vignettes are mostly anecdotal about his patient's life and presentation and at the most he goes into the anatomical basis of the disease; rarely, if at all, does he delve into the neuroelectrophysiological, biochemical or genetic basis of the sickness.

Compared to Dr. Sacks previous books, this book is not as tautly written; at times it gets too technical for a non medical reader and feels dragged. If you have not read Dr. Sack's before then try The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales and Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. Those are probably his best books. If you want to learn about higher visual, perception & recognition disorders and how the brain and people adapt when they lose some of those functions then this book is informative but less engaging.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Mind's Eye is my first exposure to Oliver Sacks; however, it will not be my last. The author is a seventy-six year old practicing physician with an uncanny ability to tell his patients stories, bringing the reader close to the afflictions experienced by both him and his subjects.

What do the terms agnosia, anomia, aphasia, dyslexia, prosopagnosia mean? This book explains them all and more in the context of stories about people with brain anomalies that result in visual problems. Sometimes these anomalies are genetic and other times they are the result of brain lesions; however, they drastically affect individuals' senses and method of adjusting to their affliction.

Whether it is the sudden or gradual loss of the ability to read, recognize faces or objects, or measure depth the brain has a remarkable plasticity an those areas associated with sight give way to sharpen other human senses.

I found Oliver Sacks' writing skills remarkable and zipped through this 240 page riveting real life medical documentation of visual anomalies in record time. He brings his stories to life making what could have been a difficult subject an easy and interesting read.

If you are interested in learning more about "perception," this is a must read.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I thought of warning psychosomatic individuals off this book, but then realized that, within a few pages, they would lose the ability to read any further, and so the damage might be rather acute and short-lived.

The extraordinary stories of human suffering, endurance and triumph that Sacks presents in this book all have to do with some aspect of sight: people who cannot recognize faces or places, people who all of a sudden lose the ability to read, to play music, or who cannot see in stereo. And they are fascinating stories told in Sacks' usual entertaining style that seems to benefit from his near photographic memory, so much detail does he lay down.

Of course, not all the stories are depressing tales of relentless decline into blindness or depression. There is also resilience and the overcoming of obstacles. And even the unlikely gaining of abilities lost. But every story is gripping and enlightening, not the least of which are the stories about Sacks' own related struggles (I won't throw in any spoilers here.)

An important take-away from this book is learning that such a high number of people suffer from aphasic disorders, yet they lead mostly normal lives, thanks to their will and their brain's ability to compensate and strengthen the person in other ways.

Read this book and you may never think about words (or faces or eyes) in the same way again.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 24, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Dr. Sacks is an interesting writer. His accounts of different patients dealing with various ailments having to do with the brain's affect on vision is fascinating. But, for me, the book really got interesting when he chronicled his own battle with a tumor in his eye. His honesty and vulnerability during his ordeal was very compelling. Having been diagnosed with a melanoma tumor in his eye, he journals his fears, frustrations and daily battle with his symptoms.

When he wrote of his patients and their struggles it was interesting, and his compassion for their conditions was apparent. Suffering himself from prosopagnosia (inability to recognize faces), his writing and dealing with this condition was particularly detailed. When he chronicles his own battle, though, is when you really feel you get to know the man and what he went through. His writing is honest, no holds barred on how he felt and his fear. A lesser man, especially in the medical field, might have put on a clinical face, but Dr. Sacks really lets us in on how frightened and frustrated he was with his condition.

I would highly recommend this book for anyone, especially those that may be struggling with a chronic condition that requires a lifestyle change to accommodate your condition.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on February 22, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
I really wanted to like this book. I have enjoyed most of Sacks' other books I have read. This was only ok.

In this book, Sacks examines the neurology of the eye, with a special focus on his own experiences with the inability to recognize faces, and also a bout of eye cancer that diminished his vision.

But I really didn't get the fire and wonder in these stories that I recall in his other books. The first case study or two were interesting, but then it rapidly became less interesting. There was little sense of discovery, but more of a sense of biography, and for some reason it just didn't work for me.

I can't really recommend this book, because it didn't hold me. But if you must, give it a try. Your experience may be different.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 4, 2010
Format: HardcoverVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The experience of loss is an integral part of what it is to be a human. Whether it is the loss of a limb, the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a sense of balance, at some time we all have been forced to cope. Oliver Sacks new book addresses some fundamental ways in which we experience the world itself.

"The Mind's Eye" divides into two distinct sections. The first portion consists of Sacks' familiar case studies. We have a woman--a prominent pianist--who gradually loses the ability to synthesize what she sees into a world of objects and symbols. At first, her ability to read disappears into a jumble. Over the following years, she gradually loses the ability to make visual sense of things as simple as a plate of biscotti. Through it all, she develops coping strategies that allow her to continue teaching, playing and living life. Another woman--active and intensely social--suffers a stroke and loses speech, along with motor control of half her body. Through force of will and intense effort, she again becomes part of a world full of people. Sacks himself makes an appearance through the topic of face-blindness--the inability to recognize people by their faces. This is a spectrum disorder: Sacks himself can only recognize a few close family members. It is hard to argue that he hasn't coped well.

I didn't see the second half coming. The first study deals with a woman who had never experienced stereoscopic vision. Although fully sighted in both eyes, a misalignment had kept her from being able to fuse the two images into the sense of depth that most of us take for granted. In her late forties, a series of exercises allowed her to to begin experiencing stereo vision. It is a joyful series of discoveries. Sacks describes his own love of stereo photographs and gadgets. Then comes his own loss of this capability.

Around 2005 a cancer appears behind Sacks eye. This results in radiation therapy and surgery. The end result is a hole in the vision of that eye. The writing here is fundamentally different. A typical Sacks story is tightly considered and described, with a beginning, a middle and an end. But this part of "The Mind's Eye" is more of a personal journal in real time, fully laying out all the fears associated with cancer and loss of vision. When the vision in the affected eye finally disappears nearly completely, we can feel the shock of loss. The story doesn't close as tightly as do most Sacks stories. After all, the experiment is still underway. But in the final pages, we see Sacks reverting to science to understand his own case. What is the relation of the visual cortex to the eyes and to the other senses? What does it do when that connection no longer exists? What relationship might his face-blindness bear to his loss of vision in an eye. Even when the experience is personal, Sacks finds himself coping with the tools he's developed over a life.
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