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An Anthropologist on Mars

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Julianne Rieders

An Anthropologist On Mars, Oliver Sacks

            Dr.Oliver Sacks writes a captivating account of seven different case studies,seven different people, with a cornucopia of cognitive disorders ranging fromautism to colorblindness. He prefaces his book by pointing out the benefits ofdisease, that from disease derives a world of alternative coping mechanisms, anunderstanding of how things normally work by understanding how things go wrong,and how debilitation is often coupled with other cognitive gifts. Sacks doesnot fail to see and capture the people is his case studies, but sometimes hispersonal feelings toward his patients are all too obvious. His style of writingis most like a narrative, and although this made for a good reading I felt the amountof details and anecdotes describing the personalities of his patients were muchricher and clearer than the scientific background.

            Eachcase is full of unexpected discoveries, and one could write pages on one casealone. For this reason I will focus on one case study involving several bigthemes we covered this year. The case I examine below perfectly illustrateswhat we have learned about vision, that what we see and experience is truly inour heads, and that the brain and the “I” are truly dynamic.

            Inthe first chapter Sacks writes of an extremely successful painter, Mr. I, whosuffered from complete achromatopsia (colorblindness) after a car accident,which was either caused by or resulted in damage to his secondary visualcortex. Mr. I’s case was special because it is extremely rare to becomecolorblind, and even complete congenital colorblindness is rare. I found thischapter fascinating because Sacks and his partner an ophthalmologist, Dr.Wasserman, found that Mr. I didn’t see in black and white, he didn’t see anycolors, but actually saw pure wavelengths. This case study should havecoincided beautifully with our study of sight, but the given cause of Mr. I’scolorblindness at first confused me. We learned in class that lateralinhibition, which functions in the mammalian retina, gives us consistency incolor and contrast across borders, and that without it our vision wouldfluctuate dramatically in different light. This sounds very similar to Mr. I’ssymptoms “Mr. I commented that he now found himself in an inconstant world, aworld whose lights and darks fluctuated with the wavelength of illumination.”(21). I was skeptical when Sacks reported that Mr. I’s achromatopsia wasentirely cerebral and that the cells in his eyes were not affected. As I readon I realized my mistake, lateral inhibition maintains differences in color,Mr. I could not see color at all. The ongoing theme of our class is representedin my misconception, for actually “colors are not “out there” in the world, nor(as classical theory held) an automatic correlate of wavelength, but, rather,are constructed by the brain.” (24). Itwas the part of Mr. I’s brain that made up colors, no bigger than a bean, thatwas damaged, and so Mr. I could not even imagine colors.

            Sackswent through an exhaustive number of tests, and enlisted the help of severalother scientists, before diagnosing Mr. I, illustrating the importance ofworking with others in the field and excluding all other possibilities beforediagnosis. Mr. I was, for a long time, depressed, but his life began to turnaround when he was driving to work early one morning. As the sun rose, Mr. Isaw not the reds and oranges he yearned to see, but “The sun rose like a bomb,like some enormous nuclear explosion, had anyone ever seen a sunrise in thisway before?” (14). Mr. I, as an artist and at a deeper level slowly began toappreciate and navigate through his new strange world.

Sacks was indeedfascinated by this case and also showed a profound respect for Mr. I,describing him as a “tall, gaunt man, with a sharp, intelligent face.”(5).Sacks lamented that although they ultimately were able to diagnose Mr. I, that“this was all in a sense academic. Mr. I’s achromatopsia, after three months,remained absolute, and he had persisting impairments of contrast vision, too.”(32). But through Sacks many tests they were able to help Mr. I’s problem withcontrast using Mondrian patches. The Mondrian patches Sacks used were abstractforms illuminated with different wavelengths. They found that Mr. I coulddistinguish the forms best at medium wavelengths typically associated withgreen. They made Mr. I special green glasses which markedly improved hiscontrast vision.

In the end Mr. Icame to fully embrace his new vision, to go on long walks at night, to evenwatch color television, once painful and confusing, with his wife, for in fact,he had completely forgotten the colors he once knew by heart. For even “ifentire systems of representation, of meaning, had been extinguished inside him,entirely new systems had been brought into being.” (41).

Sacks is not onlya brilliant neurologist, and an eccentric human being, but also a giftedwriter. His book is accessible to most and certainly appealing to anyone, andeven someone who has heard it all will find something interesting in hisnarrative, which reveals not only the unimaginable complexities of disorder,but also something about each and every “normal” person.