Book Review: ‘The Mind’s Eye’ by Oliver Sacks

The Mind's EyeThe Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a neuroscience major, what I really read Oliver Sacks for is the case studies approached with an academic bent. So basically presentation of the condition and then a discussion of what could be causing the symptoms/underlying problems/all that good stuff.

The systems neuroscience professor who first recommended him to me rolled his eyes a little before mentioning that Sacks doesn’t consider himself an academician, really—and he does mention it at the beginning of this book, he mainly thinks of himself as a physician. This book is pretty focused on the clinical stuff, though.

It has been some time since I read his other work, but I want to say the language in this book at the beginning is a little more technical than usual. The last one I read was Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain and that one did tend to rhapsodize about the power of music (which is understandable given Sacks’ background in the piano).

This book splits, for me, into two parts: the first half is the usual run of case studies with a mix of anecdotes, clinic visits, and then a discussion of the medical underpinnings of the case as well as fragments of other related studies. (He also includes some of his personal experience with prosopagnosia—face blindness—in the section on that phenomenon.) The second part goes into Sacks’ own experience with losing stereoscopy, and here the book takes on the tone of a medical memoir. I haven’t read Sacks’ own memoirs, but this section includes a straightforward discussion of the medical side, combined with his observations both in the form of recollections, journal entries, and even scanned pages from the journals that include drawings of what’s happening to him. The ending retreats away from this back to case studies of people who have lost sight late in life (you may recall that he has written about people gaining it late; if you don’t, there are plenty of footnotes going back to his other works and any other works he’s referencing).

Overall, I found this book more sparse than the other things I’ve read by him. But as I mentioned, I don’t see this as a downside. I read these for the neuroscience above all. (Another book that offers a nice, and much more journalistic rather than personal, exploration of vision is A Natural History of Seeing: The Art and Science of Vision—written by Wired journalist Simon Ings, so of course he doesn’t have the same personal involvement with patients as Sacks does.)

Anyway, I don’t know what your motivation for reading this is, but I do think it will be more difficult for people who have no background in science than some of his other books. The cover suggests they went for a ‘pop science’ look, which makes sense as far as marketing goes, but I can’t imagine being able to follow the material without, for instance, having some idea of what the function of the thalamus in relation to the frontal cortex is. If words like ‘prosopagnosia’ and ‘occitotemporal’ scare you, you may want to stick to lighter reading.

Also, the footnotes aren’t strictly required, but they do offer nice additional information as well as the occasional reference. I have no idea how deliberate this was, but I was quite gratified to notice that a) all of the footnotes end sentences (they’re basically extra paragraphs that were just a little too tangential to be inserted directly in the text) and b) I didn’t have to flip between pages because they all managed to line up neatly with the end of the regular text.

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