Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

An Anthropologist On Mars Book Commentary

Saba Ashraf's picture

          An Anthropologist on Mars by Oliver Sacks serves to explain the lives of several individuals who have been living with various defects and diseases.  These individuals include Mr. I, an artist who had gone completely colorblind, Greg F., who had no memories of any events after the 1970s, Dr. Carl Bennet, a surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome, Virgil, a man who gained the ability to see after being blind, Franco, a painter who has the ability to create accurate paintings of his hometown that he hasn’t visited in many years, Stephen, a talented artist with autism, and Temple Grandin, an autistic professor at Colorado State University. 

          One of the major themes emphasized throughout the stories of these individuals’ lives and novel included the brain’s plasticity and ability to adapt to various experiences, despite the severity of the defects that had affected the brains of these individuals. The brain’s ability to adapt is especially noticed in those that suffer from neurological illnesses because it forces the nervous system to create new pathways so that the brain can construct a “coherent self and world” according to Sacks (Sacks xvii). Instead of seeing the brain as programmed and fixed, this novel is geared towards helping readers see the brain as a constantly changing and active part of the human body.  In particular, I had found the stories behind these individuals very intriguing and each extremely unique. Many times I learn about various neurological disorders and diseases, but I don’t tend to think about the manner in which individuals with those defects must be living and how they are able to cope. However, by reading this book, I definitely developed a new way of perceiving the brain and its plasticity. Out of all of the stories mentioned in the novel, “The Case of the Colorblind Painter” and “To See and Not See” seemed to be the most fascinating stories to me.   

          In the first part of the novel entitled, “The Case of the Colorblind Painter,” a painter by the name of Mr. I, is affected by a condition known as cerebral achromatopsia. In other words, he has completely lost the ability to see any color due to brain damage from a car accident he had gotten into.  Because Mr. I had dealt with various hues of color throughout his life as a painter, this loss of color had completely distorted his world. In fact, I would imagine one who was never a painter and didn’t appreciate color as much as Mr. I wouldn’t have even had an as difficult time coping with this visionary defect. To many, including myself, cerebral achromatopsia would mean that Mr. I was seeing the world through a black and white television, which turned out to be far from the truth. Mr. I was used to seeing several tones of gray and strong contrasts between white and black. After being very hesitant towards believing this would be his vision for the rest of his life, Mr. I began readjusting his world so that color as he had known would lose all its meaning. Mr. I had finally adapted to a new way of life and began living during the night in a world that made sense to him. He had found his night vision to be extraordinarily clear, which may have resulted from losing the ability to see color, and he began painting images in black and white.  

            The reason why I found this specific story of Mr. I interesting was because I felt that it was one of the stories that related most to the theme of the novel. Mr. I went from being completely disgusted with his visionary defect to completely embracing it. In fact, he couldn’t even imagine a world with color after his brain had adapted to the dull world he was living in. I think this is important to bring up because once color had lost its associations, it meant nothing to Mr. I. For example, an apple was no longer associated with red, but rather a dull gray. A question that was brought up in my mind after reading this story was the connection between dreaming in color and seeing in color and the fact that Mr. I noticed dreaming in black and white when he had become colorblind. Personally, I can’t recall dreaming in color, but perhaps those that are more aware of color in their daily lives such as Mr. I are also more aware of color in their dreams. 

            “To See and Not See” was an account of the life of a fifty-year-old man named Virgil, who had been blind for most of his life. As a baby, he was said to have poor vision but after becoming ill as a child with meningitis, polio, and cat-scratch fever, cataracts started developing in both eyes. Despite being blind, Virgil lived a relatively normal life that included working as massage therapist, an interest in sports, and having many friends. Then, when he was about to get married, he underwent a surgery for a cataract extraction in his right eye and was able to regain vision in this eye for the first time in his life. The moment he began seeing, he had no prior experience or memories of the world he was viewing nor was any of his life devoted to learning to see as most individuals start learning to see as soon as they are born. Unlike cataract extraction on patients who had been able to see prior to developing cataracts, Virgil was not simply able to recover and see normally. Instead of seeing faces, Virgil noted that he saw “blurs” and this was mainly due to the fact that he had not developed any central vision. Rather, Virgil displayed the behavior of an individual who was agnosic, which meant that one could see but not interpret what he/she was seeing.  He acted like a baby, confused and observing objects constantly. Things such as blimps and cars were extremely interesting to him. However, I believe it is necessary to add that an infant has a cerebral cortex that is able to be adapted to any form of perception. However, Virgil was used to perceiving things in time and not space, so he needed to make a radical change in his neurological functioning. Another interesting fact to Virgil’s story was that he touched objects in order to see them, so he had a collection of miniature models of objects such as cars so that he could be able to properly see them. As time passed, Virgil had the cataract in his left eye removed and slowly his vision improved. He seemed less and less lost; however, he had contracted a respiratory illness that prevented one of his lungs from expanding. He recovered slightly, but his retinas slowly stopped working and once again, Virgil was a blind man. 

            I would have to say that this story was the most interesting to read in this novel mainly because as a child, I had known a girl who had been blind since birth, but was able to gain her sense of vision back through some type of surgery when she was in her teens. Although I had not personally known her very well, this story did remind me of her and she could have likely faced the same types of conflicts that Virgil had faced. It was actually quite surprising how difficult of a time Virgil had adjusting to vision because like many others, I would have thought that readjustment to vision would be a quick process. This would make sense for one who had gotten blind much later after birth, but apparently it was not the case for one who had never been able to see the world as most see it. Personally, this story reminded me of just how much constant information our brain is processing and we are able to construct shapes, boundaries, and objects unconsciously every single day, numerous times a day. For example, interpreting magazine images, which many of us do without any trouble, Virgil seemed to struggle with immensely. This related to the many class discussions that were shaped around the idea that we are only conscious of a small part of the information our nervous system is constantly receiving.   

          Another part of this story that had reminded me of a class discussion included the part of Virgil’s story in which he had suffered from implicit sight after his respiratory illness. In implicit sight, the “visual parts of the cerebral cortex are knocked out, but the visual centers in the sub cortex remain intact. The visual signals are properly perceived and are responded to, but the perception doesn’t reach one’s consciousness (Sacks 146-147).” Basically, Virgil reported seeing absolutely nothing, but he would grab something in front of him as if he could see the object. The way I had interpreted this was that the perception of the visual signals hadn’t reached the I-function, the subject of many discussion during class. Because it didn’t reach the I-function, Virgil was completely unaware of the objects sitting in front of him, but the visual centers in the sub cortex were. Lastly, an aspect of this story that related to Mr. I’s story included the color shock Virgil faced when he first gained his vision and the completely opposite shock that Mr. I faced when he had learned he had lost the ability to see color. Even though Mr. I and Virgil were both used to seeing completely different types of colors in their own worlds, when those colors were taken away, a completely new readjustment was needed. 

          Aside from “The Case of the Colorblind Painter” and “To See and Not See,” the other stories in An Anthropologist on Mars were also very enjoyable. They each offered a completely new outlook on common conditions such as Autism and Tourette’s syndrome and completely unheard of conditions that individuals such as Franco had. Apart from being very interesting, this novel was very inspiring because even those who were suffering neurological illnesses created lives for themselves and were able to readjust accordingly such as the surgeon with Tourette’s syndrome.  


Sacks, Oliver.  An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. New York: Vintage

            Books, 1995.  Print.