The Thirsty Linguist reviews Oliver Sacks’ latest book “The Mind’s Eye”

Doctor and author Oliver Sacks is known for bringing neuroscience to the masses. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (which was made into a movie starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), Sacks explores neurological disorders with the writing skills of a novelist.

Our friend, the Thirsty Linguist, reviews Sacks’ latest book, The Mind’s Eye, which explores the human experience of vision:

As in some of his previous books, Sacks presents case histories of individuals suffering from neurological injury or disease, and uses these histories as a means to probe the capacities of the mind. Lilian Kallir, for example, is a pianist who loses the ability to read, even though the rest of her vision remains intact and, puzzingly, she can still write. Sacks follows Lilian’s story over a period of three years, describing the coping strategies she develops, such as color-coding items in her home, as well as the new talents that arise unexpectedly with her condition, such as the ability to re-arrange musical pieces in her mind without consulting a score. Howard Engel, featured in another case history, is a writer who also loses the ability to read, but he approaches his situation differently: he rejects audiobooks, refuses to give up the world of text, and painstakingly learns his ABCs all over again.

Lilian’s and Howard’s cases both suggest that the brain has a specific location dedicated to reading. But it is not at all obvious why this should be so. Unlike spoken language, which evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, written language is a relatively recent cultural invention that offered no survival advantage to humans in primitive societies. Plasticity offers a potential answer to this conundrum: we can and do use structures in the brain for purposes very different from those for which they evolved. Sacks casts a wide net to gather evidence for this idea. He describes case histories of nineteenth century neurologists, who treated patients with symptoms similar to Lilian’s and Howard’s. He cites evolutionary thinkers from Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace to Stephen Jay Gould and Elisabeth Vrba, tracing the history of the notion of “exaptation,” a biological adaptation which gets put to a new use. He presents key results from imaging studies which demonstrate that different areas of the brain are active during reading versus listening. And he summarizes a computational study of over 100 writing systems which shows that, despite their diversity, these systems share basic visual signatures which resemble those found in natural settings.

The Mind’s Eye thus offers narrative science writing of the most satisfying kind. We delight in pedagogical moments because Sacks weaves them seamlessly into the case histories. We get drawn into the topics of evolution, brain imaging, and computation because we want to follow people like Lilian and Howard. “Make characters the matter of your narrative,” advises James Shreeve in A Field Guide for Science Writers, “and let the science spill from their relations.” Sacks does precisely that.

If Sacks’ work intrigues you, you might also be interested in:

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