The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks

The Mind's Eye

The Mind’s Eye may be the Oliver Sacks book that comes closest in style and quality to his classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It is another book of patient case histories, this time all having something to do with perception (vision mainly) and the way the mind processes and interprets perception. That turns out to be a pretty broad category, probably the broadest since the fascinating neurological miscellany of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

Once again Sacks provokes his readers to consider how they would experience life if their brains functioned much differently.

Topics discussed include the loss or diminution of the ability to read and/or write (that is, the sense-organs still send the relevant data to the brain, but the brain is no longer able to make sense of printed language, musical notation, etc.), to use and/or understand spoken language (which could also apply to sign language for deaf people), to interpret sense-data as objects (as in the case of the title character in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, who did indeed guess that the figure he saw on the chair next to him—his wife—was his hat, and was puzzled when he had difficulty getting it—her—on his head), to recognize faces (either the failure to recognize that a face is a face, or the inability to ascertain and remember whose face it is), and to see stereoscopically (that is, problems using the slightly different sense-data obtained by each eye to perceive depth and such, which can arise, for example, most obviously if you lose an eye), as well as the changes in people’s mental experience of the world when they lose some or all of their vision.

It’s always interesting in Sacks’s books to learn about the different ways people react to and cope with these drastic neurological changes. The very same kind of damage or change might completely devastate one person, inspire another to painstakingly work to regain as much of the capacity they lost as possible, and result in another accepting the loss and rearranging their life as best they can to do more with their other, intact, capacities. So some give up, some continue the battle, and some fight on a different battlefield instead.

Many might wonder if people who have experienced vision but then go blind later in their life continue to think/imagine/dream in visual images. The answer, it turns out, is that it differs from person to person.

Some blind people gradually go into a state of what one of the patients cited by Sacks calls “deep blindness,” where they cease to “picture” anything in their mind. They rely on their other senses and do not then translate the data acquired by those other senses into something visual.

But many other blind people continue to think visually. For example, they will take all the information they’ve found out about a person—facts about their life that that person or others have told them, their voice, whether they’re wearing a certain cologne or perfume, the way other people respond to them, etc.—and infer from all that what someone like that is most likely to look like.

Then there are variations even within that category of blind person. Some people like that will be very meticulous about building their picture of the world around them, and will care very much about accuracy. Others just find it easier to picture something or other and aren’t all that caught up in its accuracy, sometimes giving themselves a certain artistic leeway to construct images that have some aesthetic or pragmatic value regardless of their accuracy.

Some blind people report that if anything the images they build in their mind now are more vivid than when they were sighted and obtained the images in the straightforward way of simply looking at something. So they are really at the opposite end from those who end up in a state of “deep blindness”; in a sense they become more visual than ever.

Any time I read something by Sacks now I can’t help but think about an observation a friend made in conversation a while back, which was that although he liked Sacks’s books, he was starting to lose patience with the way Sacks somehow seems to have some condition himself that fits the theme of every book, so he can describe it from a first person perspective rather than rely solely on case histories of others.

I don’t know if he was implying Sacks makes some of his experiences up, or imagines he has these conditions as a hypochondriac might after learning about them, or what, but he just found it curious in a head-shaking or chuckling kind of way how the good doctor always seems to have personal knowledge to draw upon.

So ever since he said that, now of course I always notice it. For example, in the last Sacks book I read, which was Hallucinations, it turns out—surprise, surprise—Sacks has experienced hallucinations himself at various times in his life, which he recounts in detail.

And here we go again in The Mind’s Eye, where Sacks discusses people with poor facial recognition abilities, citing himself as an example of someone who is really at the extreme end of the scale of being unable to recognize and remember people by their faces. Then in discussing people with various visual impairments, he talks about his own case—he had a cancerous tumor behind one eye that did serious damage to his vision and threatened to do a lot worse—more than any other.

What can you say though? I hardly think he has some sort of psychosomatic cancer. I guess he really does suffer from a lot of the same things he studies as a neurologist.

Just as Sacks overlaps with his patients, I like to think about what I might have in common with them too. Invariably I don’t overlap with them as much as Sacks does, but some of the things he writes about seem to apply to me to some degree.

I mentioned in writing about An Anthropologist on Mars that my facial recognition ability has always struck me as being inferior to the vast majority of people. It’s not at the extreme that Sacks ascribes to himself, but I routinely don’t recognize people I assume I should.

People who don’t recognize faces well typically rely on other cues instead, like voice. Or they remember some fact about the face—e.g., a handlebar moustache, very thick glasses, whatever—and use that rather than developing a holistic familiarity with the face itself. (The limitations here are obvious: If a person changes various basic things about themselves like that—dresses different from how you’ve ever seen them, has laryngitis, shaves off their beard and moustache, etc.—you’re clueless who they are.)

I think I do that too, but probably more unconsciously. I probably notice familiar body language and such to augment my minimal facial recognition ability.

In certain respects I’m just not that visual a person to begin with, and the facial recognition thing is maybe a subset of that. Like when I think of something, I typically don’t “picture” it in my mind. Or if I do it’s very, very vague. For instance even in the case of the people I know so well that I do now recognize them facially, if I try to picture them in my mind right now as I sit here, the majority I cannot. Even when I can I find that as often as not I’m picturing some photograph of them I’ve seen a million times.

When I say an image in my mind is vague or unclear, I don’t know that even that really conveys what I mean. That makes it sound like my mental images are like looking at a fuzzy, out-of-focus photograph, which isn’t what I mean.

The problem is I don’t know quite what I mean. I seem to think more in terms of ideas and intangibles than in something like sense-data. Sense-data is more like something I process unconsciously as premises, and my actual thoughts are more like inferences from those premises.

Not that I expect that to make sense to anyone, but something like that (I think) is what’s going on inside me. If I’m with Maurice, I’ll be aware that Maurice is agitated, Maurice is a bad driver, Maurice just contradicted something he told me last week, Maurice is self-conscious about his weight, etc., but not how his nose is shaped or what color his eyes are. Or if I am consciously aware of visual stuff like that, it’ll be as discrete facts; I won’t have a holistic picture of his face or his entire self in my mind.

Even when that stuff about Maurice that I am aware of is based on sense-data—which presumably it always is, at least in large part—again my processing of that sense-data isn’t typically done consciously. I may have acquired the impression that he struggles to follow a logical line of argument from the expression he has on his face at those times, but I’m not somehow picturing him with a befuddled expression when I think about the fact that he’s easily confused.

Same with dreaming. People are often asked if they dream in color. I don’t know if I do or not. It seems like I don’t dream visually at all, but again more in terms of ideas. Dreaming for me is more like reading a book than watching a movie, not in the sense that I’m picturing text rather than the actual events of the story, but in that it’s not pictorial at all.

Or maybe I do dream in pictures but typically forget that by the time I wake up and at most remember the ideas in my dreams.

I’m strangely uncertain of all this stuff. It seems like you’d have the most direct awareness of what’s in your consciousness, that even if you had a problem articulating it to others surely you’d know yourself what your consciousness is like, but in some sense I don’t.

Maybe it’s just that thought—for me—isn’t very much like anything other than thought; it’s not like sense-data or anything else. So when I try to recall some person, thing, incident, etc. to my mind, I don’t know what the resulting mental activity is or how to describe it, but it’s certainly not much like what goes on inside my mind when I open my eyes and look at something.

Sacks mentions the connection between poor facial recognition and shyness, that people like him who are terrible at recognizing faces often minimize their interaction with people so as to lessen the chances they’ll embarrass themselves by not recognizing someone they know.

In thinking about that, I have kind of a crazy theory that I’ll toss out there. This is pure speculation and nothing more, but it’s another possible way of looking at this relationship between poor facial recognition and shyness. I wonder if the causation can work in the opposite direction from what Sacks suggests.

In my case, it feels at least as plausible to say my introverted nature causes me to be poor at facial recognition as it does to say my being poor at facial recognition has caused me to be introverted.

You know how little kids are often chided not to stare at someone? I wonder if I internalized some notion like that from an early age, some sense that it was rude or I was being forward if I examined a person’s face when we interacted, almost like seeing someone’s face was like seeing them naked—a violation of their privacy or personal space. Or like the way some primitive cultures regard it as somehow disrespectful to photograph someone, believing that capturing their appearance somehow constitutes capturing their soul.

Being a shy kid I probably was more apt to look at my shoes or gaze off in the distance than look right at a person I was with. Maybe I just got into the habit of acquiring information about them—such as how to know it’s them the next time I encounter them—in some way other than looking directly at them and at their face.

To take it a step further, it may even be that at some unconscious level I feel not just that I shouldn’t be staring somebody down in effect, but that if I do happen to see their face it’s disrespectful to then use that information, so my brain typically doesn’t process it, like destroying the photograph of someone it was rude to take in the first place.

I don’t know if there’s anything to any of this, but it just seems to me a possibility. Certainly I would think introverted people look people in the eye a lot less often than extroverted people do. Maybe that extends to examining and remembering faces. And since it’s not a task they do frequently nor feel comfortable doing, they never get good at it.

Sacks’s books not uncommonly get me going speculating about things like this, which is one of the things that makes them enjoyable. Certainly The Mind’s Eye is at least as thought-provoking in this way as most of his other books.

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