“An Anthropologist On Mars” by Oliver Sacks – A Book Review
In 1995 Oliver Sacks wrote and published a book entitled “An Anthropologist On Mars”, a fascinating series of stories surrounding the curious lives of some of his cases over the years. If you don’t know him, Oliver Sacks is a British born biologist, neurologist, psychologist and best-selling author, made most famous by the portrayal of him by Robin Williams in the film “Awakenings”, a story based on Sacks’ book of the same name. In one of his previous books, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”, Sacks talks about the strange and wonderful places a human mind can arrive at, some horrifying, some sublime and some inspiring, due to illness, injury, or congenital defects in the brain, via a series of short essays. This book is much the same, concentrating on seven cases which show greater oddities in the spectrum of human experience than I had previously been aware.
What I find so interesting in this book is that more than half of these stories place a particular importance on vision; colour-blindness, complete blindness, restoration of sight, sight in the brain, and photographic sight. The first irony here is that Sacks himself suffers from prosopagnosia or “face-blindness”, a disorder in which he cannot “see” faces; that is to say, he cannot make the usual connection of identity by looking at a person’s face, instead depending on auditorial cues, or visual cues about how a person walks, stands, or dresses. The second irony, as he recently announced, is that Sacks himself is steadily going blind, having completely lost his vision in his right eye due to a malignant tumour.
The first case “The Case of the Colour-blind Painter”, a man called simply Mr. I., who suffered a strange and total loss of colour in his vision after a car accident where he suffered what was attributed to a concussion. Mr. I. Was an abstract expressionist artist of some note before the accident, and had an incredible recall of colours, but after the accident, he suffered complete loss of colour, not just like black and white TV, but something described as more akin to the strange way humans look under ultraviolet light, obviously minus the violet; tomatoes looked black, bananas a strange light grey, and human skin took on an almost leaden appearance, and that distressed him greatly in the early parts of his illness. Sacks’ story follows this man’s progress through his sense of great loss, into one of great liberation, finding his feet again as an artist, and learning how to cope with his new-found “disability”.
The second case, “The Last Hippie”, talks of the case of a man who entered a meditational cult after disillusionment with the corporate world of America in the sixties. While he tried to reach enlightenment through meditation and self-sacrifice, he noticed his vision was slowly disappearing. The cult members told him that this was a sign that he was near to reaching total selfless enlightenment, but what they didn’t know as his vision got worse and worse was that a huge tumour had been growing inside his head. Eventually, when this tumour was discovered, it had grown so large that it basically had lobotomised him; his pituitary gland and his frontal lobes were for the greater part destroyed, as was most of his short-term memory. Blind, bald and overweight, he was moved to a hospital for the terminally ill, where Dr Sacks spoke to him. The most interesting aspect of this story was the fact that while he lived his life very much in the present, for his long term memory had been destroyed, he was able to interact with people when prompted or addressed on a very social level, only moments later he would have no memory of this interaction. Ironically, had his tumour been detected earlier, instead of being seen as a sign of religious enlightenment, he could have avoided his lobotomisation.
The other cases in the book include a surgeon with severe Tourette’s syndrome, a man who suffers from incredibly vivid hallucinations and captures these on canvas, a man who had lost his sight as a young boy and had it returned to him as an adult, an autistic boy who could remember and draw any scene he had seen only once and make a detailed representation of this in drawings, and the unusual case of Temple Grandin who, despite being autistic, has achieved the status of being the world’s leading expert on the ethics of animal slaughter for human consumption.
As Dr Sacks points out early in the book, though all these cases involve what we would normally call “disabilities”, what is interesting is not how people cope with these afflictions, but the other unusual side-effects that present themselves as part of coping; be it better dim-light vision wIth extreme acuity, being unable to see by choice or stress, being able to have a completely focused and steady hand while conducting surgery, photographic memory and recall, or empathy for animals in one who had been termed incapable of empathy at all. All of these cases share an extraordinary, almost super-human, characteristic which surface involving the brain and the mind in quite surprising ways.
Since this book is nearly 20 years old, I have no doubt that many of the discoveries outlined in this book have been updated with explanations, and that the diagnoses of these cases has been expanded upon. This is how science works, constantly updating upon previous models as new information arises. It does however stand as an almost voyeuristic look into the human brain; its quirks, conundrums and coping mechanisms.