Over the past 40 years, since the publication of Migraine in 1970, neurologist Oliver Sacks has written 10 books and countless articles, examining what happens when specific parts of a human brain go haywire or stop working. His new book of case histories, The Mind's Eye (Knopf), includes seven more stories of the peculiar effects neurology can impose on personality. A man loses his ability to read language but can still write (alexia); some people cannot recognize faces (prosopagnosia, or face blindness); a middle-aged woman, after operations and the right eyewear, can finally see in 3-D. And conversely, in the essay that follows, Sacks recounts his personal experience with eye cancer and his loss of 3-D vision. As always, Sacks details the physical causes with a combination of clinical precision, literary flair, and compassion. He recently answered questions via email.
HAS THE CONDITION OF YOUR RIGHT EYE CHANGED AT ALL SINCE YOU FINISHED THE BOOK? No, my right eye is still completely blind, and I still have an uncanny sense of nothingness to that side. And I still cannot see stereo depth, because I have only one functioning eye.
IN THE BOOK, YOU WERE ABLE TO RESTORE YOUR STEREOSCOPIC VISION TEMPORARILY BY SMOKING POT.HAVE YOU SMOKED MORE POT, AND IF SO, DOES IT STILL CREATE THE ILLUSION THAT YOUR STEREOSCOPIC VISION HAS RETURNED? No, I don't use pot regularly, just those two occasions I mentioned in the book.
I AM WONDERING IF YOU GET DISCOURAGED BY THE ANTI-SCIENCE MENTALITY THAT'S GETTING MORE PREVALENT IN THE US. Yes, I find this extraordinary, and ominous, as this anti-science mentality seems to resist all reason, and predisposes to fanaticism and bigotry of every sort. It's lunacy. I think it's one of many signs that this country needs much more science education, from childhood on.
E.O. WILSON'SBIOPHILIA HYPOTHESIS CAPTIVATED YOU IN REGARD TO MUSIC, AND YOU EXPLORED THIS IN MUSICOPHILIA. ARE YOU INTERESTED IN STUDYING THE PRIMORDIAL ATTRACTION HUMANS FEEL TOWARD OTHER MAMMALS? It's a fascinating subject, and not just our attraction to other mammals — many people are in love with insects, or reptiles, or fish.
ARE YOU INTERESTED IN STUDYING THE THOUGHT PROCESSES OF MAMMALS OTHER THAN PEOPLE? Well, this is very far from my own field of (human) neurology, but I do think it is a very important area to study, beginning especially with whales and porpoises, elephants, and chimps. I very much admire a number of scientists who study this communication, like Jane Goodall, Katy Payne, and others.
YOU TEACH NEUROLOGY AND PSYCHIATRY AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY MEDICAL CENTER. YOU WRITE BEST-SELLING BOOKS. DO YOU STILL TAKE ON NEW PATIENTS? I see a very small number of new patients these days, but I still see my many nursing home patients, some of whom I have known for decades, every week. I feel energized by seeing them, learning of their lives and experiences. I had to stop going to the nursing homes for a couple of months last year, following my own back and knee surgeries, and I missed it greatly. Apart from seeing patients, I am energized by my daily swims, and by writing.