Neurologist and psychiatrist Dr. Oliver Sacks’ The Mind’s Eye is the latest offering from an always eloquent and brilliant observer of the workings of the human brain. As with many of his previous books (among them Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia), this new work explores the dysfunctions of the brain through selected patient case histories, compellingly presented as poignant, inspiring and absorbing stories. The dysfunctions discussed here involve the sense of sight and the complexities of visual perception.

In seven elegant essays—one of which is in the form of Sacks’ personal journal of his cancer diagnosis, subsequent treatment for ocular melanoma and the impairment of his right eye—the author takes us on a journey into “the complex workings of the brain and its astounding ability to adapt and overcome disability.” These disabilities include such intriguing conditions as aphasia (loss of speech and language comprehension), agnosia (the inability to identify objects) and prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces). Sacks depicts these and other conditions in human portraits that include the story of Lilian, a concert pianist who can no longer read music, but can still play beautifully by ear; Howard, a “man of letters” and novelist who can no longer read, but painstakingly finds a new way to read and write; and “stereo” Sue, an academic neurobiologist with monocular vision, who gradually gained and self-improved her normal stereoscopic vision.

Sacks’ blended use of story, anecdote and reference to explore fundamental and mysteriously interconnected complexities of human sight, perception and experience works to great effect. But what makes The Mind’s Eye stand tall is his recounting of how humans—and the human brain—can adapt, finding creative and ingenious ways to cope with physical losses and disorders. The final essay on perception, which discusses blindness, visual imagery and memory, direct visual experience and the paradox of the power of language, is breathtaking. From first phrase to final sentence, Dr. Sacks will draw you into a fascinating mental landscape that will leave you in awe of its strange, often spiritual and exquisite pathways.

 

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