on December 14, 2013
In the most tragic of illnesses and most dire of circumstances, Oliver Sacks finds and describes stories of human resiliency, adaptation and fortitude. In his 2010 collection of essays The Mind’s Eye, the aging, yet prolific, neurologist Oliver Sacks chronicles the lives of five patients, each with different neurological illnesses affecting their abilities to properly see and/or perceive the world in which they live. Although each case is unique, Sacks is able to unite the cases by highlighting a common denominator between all five patients: the ability of each patient, without their full cognitive capacities, to find new and creative ways to navigate their ever-confusing environments. Through his beautifully articulate storytelling, Sacks shows us the power of the human mind to overcome it’s own deficiencies, thereby working to crush the stigma of the neurologically impaired as ‘handicapped’, or even impaired at all.
From the onset of The Minds Eye, Oliver Sacks invites you inside the world of five of his patients, allowing you to experience their daily lives, routines and personalities. In that respect, Oliver Sacks’ eleventh book is very much like a work of fiction, with only one difference; Sacks’ writing is, at its core, a medical and neurological set of case studies. The collection of essays, if it weren’t for Sacks’ unique writing style, would be much like a textbook; describing patients as having a certain type of disease and discussing such a disease’s side effects. However, Sacks does not let the neurological deficits of the various patients take away any of their personality or character. In other words, Oliver Sacks’ five patients are people first and neurology patients second.
For instance, one of the five patients, named Patricia H., is an extremely vibrant and effervescent middle-aged women who suffered a stroke that rendered her unable to speak or understand words – a disease known as aphasia. Before describing or even alluding to any form of illness, Sacks uses the first handful of pages to describe Patricia’s life, character and family history. He writes about how ‘she loves to cook’, ‘ran an art gallery on Long Island’ and was married to ‘a man of many parts- a radio broadcaster and a fine pianist who sometimes played at nightclubs’. Sacks puts an image in the readers head of a perfectly normal woman - a strategy that alludes to Sacks’ overall goal of the text; to show how neurological diseases may take away one’s ability to talk, see or listen; but, for the most part, they do not take away a person’s personality or charm. Only after he chronicles Patricia’s personal history and unique attributes does Sacks describe how she lost her ability to speak after suffering a blood clot that left her in a coma for weeks. Sacks goes on to write about how Patricia, even without an ability to speak, ‘remained active and engaged in the world’. Rather than concentrating only on the disease itself (which he still does, even providing very interesting stories about the etymology and history of aphasia), Sacks focuses on how his patients overcome the disease. He highlights how Patricia, and the other four patients (including Sacks himself), adjusts to the fact that they are disabled, not in body but in mind. Sacks turns everyday patients into modern-day heroes by showing their toughness and courage to stay the course, endure strenuous therapy, and assimilate quite seamlessly back into society. Sacks does this (and more) for four other patients; a woman without stereoscopic vision set on working to be able to see again; another woman suffering from Posterior Cortical Atrophy yet maintaining her love of music and cooking by relying heavily on personal memory; a mystery novel writer who losses the ability to read; and finally himself, an eye-cancer survivor whose life was forever changed because of his near-complete loss of vision.
The Minds Eye is, however, still a work of science, deeply relying on neurological diseases, physiology and anatomy. But, to Sacks’ credit, the book has the paradoxical ability to both be extremely scientific yet not at the same time. For example, one of Sack’s patients (Lillian K.) suffers from Posterior Cortical Atrophy, a progressive, albeit gradual, degradation of the brain’s outer cortex in the posterior (back side) of the brain. In order to provide the reader with needed context, Sacks spends pages describing what exactly a highly complex disease such as Posterior Cortical Atrophy is (you have a sense of how complex the various diseases are from their names alone). However, wanting his essays to have a mainstream audience, Sacks describes such extremely technical medical conditions in layman’s terms; simplifying incredibly complex conditions by using the power of his conversational writing. Rather than being overwhelmed with scientific terms, concepts and labels, the reader is given the proper medical and scientific context in a reasonable and sensible manner.
More than anything, The Mind’s Eye is a bedside book. The collection of essays feels as if it were meant to be read comfortably next to a crackling fire with a hot cup of something delicious in hand. It is much more of a fun read than a set of neurological case studies, and that’s the power that Sacks has; he invites you in the world of the neurologically impaired, not from a medical perspective, but from the perspective of a omnipresent third-eye looking in; quietly overseeing the lives of Lillian, Pat, and others. Being a cancer-patient himself, Oliver Sacks wants you to see what he sees in his patients and also what he hopes to find in himself; a super-human ability to overcome, to endure, and ultimately, to prevail.
However, The Minds Eye, like most anything in life, does have a few shortcomings. Being a collection of essays, the respective chapters of the book seem to lack coherence. Each of the cases is starkly different than the rest, with each chapter dedicated to each patient (including Sacks’ own review of his vision loss). In that sense, each chapter seems like a book unto itself. Also, throughout the various essays, Sacks continually referenced his older literary texts (The Man that Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, etc.) without much explanation or context; references that I assume must have been very confusing for readers unfamiliar with Sacks’ quite expansive body of work.
Given the book’s few flaws, Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye is still a fantastic read for any type of booklover. Science-oriented readers will thoroughly enjoy Sacks’ explorations of various neurological diseases, while the non-science bookworm can find appreciation in Sacks’ beautiful prose and the book’s unique narrative structure. Because of Oliver Sacks’ fantastic ability as a storyteller and writer, I highly recommend The Mind’s Eye to anyone who wants to navigate the world of the mind and find splendor in the human quality of perseverance.