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Pulling together all the stories for The Mind's Eye


The events that led up to The Mind's Eye
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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While writing Musicophilia and afterwards, I myself was going through all sorts of interesting visual predicaments, but I was also thinking about... especially, I think, about visual imagery and how it might be for someone who lost their sight. I had earlier, I think right back in 1990 or so, read an astonishing book by a... a professor of theology, an Australian who then came to England. This book consisted of notes and thoughts which he dictated after he became blind. He had lost some of his sight as a teenager and... and he lost the rest of his sight in his early 40s. His name was John Hull and the original title of his book was Touching the Rock, although I think he later changed it to... to something else. But one of the things which struck me was Hull’s description of how, after a temporary and almost hallucinatory enhancement of visual imagery, so that when people spoke to him, he would suddenly envisage them or envisage someone who might actually bear no resemblance to the person he was talking to, he then lost his visual imagery so he could no longer imagine the faces of his wife or children. He said he couldn’t imagine what a three was like and he had to do it with his hand. He had to use motor, or what Joey Bruner called ‘enactive memory’ because he had no iconic memory anymore, no power of visual imagery. And how paradoxically this enabled him to turn fully to the other senses and... and live in them and stop repining nostalgically for irrecoverable vision, and... or substitutes for this in the form of visual imagery. So he speaks of his blindness, the phrase he uses, he calls it ‘a dark, paradoxical gift’. Amazing book. And I wrote about this book, I... I wrote a preface, I wrote a review about it and when this was published in The New York Review of Books, I got lots of puzzled and indignant, and sometimes outraged letters, especially from blind people, who said they found John Hull’s story very peculiar. But for themselves, although it was decades since they had seen, they still lived in an intensely visual world and indeed, a world of heightened visual imagery and imagination. And it came to me... and indeed, a whole sub-species of blind people exist who are called the visual blind. I... I was very, very interested in these reactions to blindness and in the powers of adaptation and changes in the brain which might occur with blindness, all this at the same time as I was losing my own vision, at least in... in one eye. And this led me to write another very long piece called The Mind’s Eye, which was really especially about visual imagination as it existed in everybody and especially its strange, seemingly paradoxical, but, in fact, a very natural heightening in blind people.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Musicophilia, The Mind's Eye, Touching the Rock: An Experience of Blindness, The New York Review of Books, John Hull

Duration: 4 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012