Book Review: The Mind’s Eye

You may never have confused your spouse for an item of outerwear, but have you ever failed to recognize the face of an acquaintance? Fumbled for a word that eluded your grasp? Read a sentence three times and still didn’t get it?  Such familiar traps, and how we cope with them, is the topic of Oliver Sacks’ latest book, “The Mind’s Eye.”

What can you see in your mind’s eye?  Can you envision images that can be slowed down, turned slowly and then recall them to someone else with such detail and accuracy that it would be as if your mind was acting like a remote viewer of sorts?  A camera lens that is capable of capturing and storing images regardless of your capacity to actually see them?  No?  What if you could develop this gift by actually becoming visually impaired?  A compelling question isn’t it.  This is just one of the ideas presented in Oliver Sacks book.

The brain’s ability to renegotiate and adapt itself to a changing world is often referred to as neuroplasticity.  For those who share a curiosity and interest in the world of brain science, neuroplasticity carries the argument that our brains have an unquestionable talent for re-wiring and mapping out new methods of interacting in a world whenever impairment, such as a stroke or other disorder occurs.  My first foray into this world occurred when I read the book:  “The brain that changes itself” several years ago.  It would seem, however, that Dr. Sacks has been evaluating this science much longer and has a strong grasp on the capacity of human adaptation.

Oliver Sacks is a practicing neurologist who specializes in unusual cases.   His many books present like a personal diary of sorts.  A collection of journal entries where readers get to meet the very ordinary people who find themselves inexplicably stricken by a strange disorder.   Dr. Sacks makes us yearn for a physician who brings his level of care, thoughtfulness and empathy to these individuals and their somewhat bizarre disorders.

Dr. Sacks shares with us a world where the human brain has proved itself intelligent, flexible, and ever changing.  Not the rigid mind we might have thought of, but rather a complex system of neurons and senses, capable of re-wiring itself according to the unique challenges placed upon it.   As the pages turn, one grows more uneasy with their own reluctance towards change as we are introduced to those who change has been thrust upon.

Not only does he present a fascinating mixture of strange and unusual phenomenon, but he presents the cases thoroughly by helping the reader get to know each patient from a very personal perspective.  Their fears, hopes and dreams all shared as we gain greater insight into the strange illnesses or disorders that they have developed.   Readers feel much like they have become friends with these individuals as Oliver Sacks educates us about our own human frailties and flaws, strengths and capacities.

As the stories unfold, you will meet a woman for whom Sacks dresses in red, she is a virtuoso pianist, and the first sign of her malady is a sudden inability to read music. She is joined in these pages by a novelist who wakes up one morning unable to read, and an intensely sociable woman who is suddenly struck dumb.

Dr. Sacks does not seem to focus on simply documenting the progression of their disease, or even curing the strange diseases that are presented to him (which in most cases is impossible).   Rather, he seems most interested in the process by which these individuals make up for their new impairments – how they develop new possibility thinking from their newly imposed neurological impairments.

Mid-way through the book we discover that Dr. Sacks has become the patient.  Through his sharing of his inner most thoughts, we are transported through his own journey with ocular cancer and the impact it has on his focus and attention.   We discover this caring man also has an uncanny sense of humour.    There is no miraculous healing in the pages, but rather a frank and intimate look at a man who is confronting change and revealing the strength needed to persevere, grow and adapt to an ever changing world – just as his patients have done before him.