26 November 2009

Neurological anthropologist

While we were in California, I finished a book and had thoughts of finding a bookstore, when I spotted Oliver Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars on Jeff's bookshelf. Jeff was generous in allowing me to borrow it, and implied that returning it was not necessary.

Once again I was more intrigued by the idea of Sacks' book than by the book itself.

I probably should have known after my ambivalent reaction to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks profiles people with quite peculiar problems that result in quite peculiar behavior. His goal in his observations is determine how people's brains work and don't work by observing their behaviors. In this respect, he's very much an anthropologist.

But he's a scientist and a neurologist and he offers much more than sideshow curiosities. He describes clinical details and elaborate hypotheses about how the brain functions. He relates the people he's writing about to other people he and others have written about. Once again, that's more than I really wanted. I skimmed a lot of pages.

The best of the profiles in this book is of the blind man who, in middle age, gains eyesight after surgery. What makes it the best is that Sacks raises questions about differences between seeing and looking. Those of us who are sighted don't understand how much learning goes into the process of looking. We have been learning since birth, and were pretty good at it before we could speak. The middle-aged man who had never seen anything before has to learn to distinguish foreground from background; to distinguish between spheres and cubes with his eyes, not just his fingers; to recognize eyes and noses and faces. It's not easy, and people like the one Sacks describes often fall into deep depression after experiencing sight for the first time. This man did.

In other profiles, Sacks marvels over the artistic and musical skills of a child who can barely speak, a surgeon who has Tourette's syndrome, and a man with literally no short term memory. These are out-of-the-ordinary people, but most of Sacks' book is more textbook than I wanted.

It helped me pass the time on the flight back from California, but skimming through the last half was more a self-imposed chore than a pleasure.

Have you read it? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reaction.

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