Another enjoyable read from Oliver Sacks, this time on sight and the brain.
Seeing is not merely – or even primarily – a matter of the eye, but of the brain. The eye may experience all sorts of problems, and this book represents a number of them through the cases described. But Sacks’ work here is the written record of his fascination with perception, distortion, neural processing, face recognition, depth of view, three-dimensionality, imaging, and a number of related issues.
The longest chapter is on Sacks’ own visual medical problems. Naturally he has more information on himself as a ‘case’, but I suspect his greater interest in his own case led him to extend that chapter more than required.
This book is not, however, a clinical guide. It is more of an exploration of questions raised by various clinical observations. What is perception?, How does the brain cope with visual disturbance?, Can we truly communicate subjective experiences?
I love the way Sacks is fascinated with people – not diseases or pathologies, but people. It is in facing illness that he seems to detect the uncovering of character, of humanity.
Sacks’ writing also reminded me that we can’t assume much about the people we interact with, or that when we do we will often miss what is very significant for those people. The guy on the footpath might be struggling with one eye almost blind and a correspondingly huge blind spot to one side: it does not have to be that’s he’s a footpath hog. The workmate whose habits are a joke to the rest of the office might just be employing strategies to survive a visual degenerative condition that would paralyse us.
We simply cannot know what troubles people endure. So why not make allowances, and ask them, and make room for all the odd people of the world? After all, someone as high-functioning as Oliver Sacks was once numbered among such odd bods.
Sacks says, essentially, nothing about God-stuff. Yet he is not rude or dismissive of these points of view. He quotes extensively from at least a couple of Christian individuals (about their insight into blindness, rather than Christianity), all the while allowing that their trust positively shapes their experience.
As a Christian, I hope I can demonstrate such person-focussed interest and practice listening to people no matter what their views. And, again as a Christian, I am convinced that the reason we value such behaviour is due to Jesus and his summary of the law into the two love commands (Matthew 22:36-40).
It’s not that behaviour gets us to God. It is that when God got to us, he told us that trust has its behaviours. He/Jesus told us this, and we can be sure it’s a powerful truth – because in Sacks we have the example of a fine Western mind steered (perhaps unconsciously) by the words of Jesus.
For those of us who do follow Jesus, let’s deliberately show such gentle, inquisitive love.