Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Island of the Colorblind

Oliver Sacks is one of my heroes. He is a neurologist out of New York who publishes his case studies. The studies read like biographies because Sachs' medical philosophy emphasises the person, and their role, in their illness. Each patient is experiencing something beyond the normal range of human experience and through these extraordinary circumstances Sachs is able to learn about how the brain functions ordinarily.

For example, in one of his studies published in "An Anthropologist on Mars", he meets a man who has been blind for his whole life. One day this man learns his "blindness" is actually the result of scar tissue covering his cornea, and that his actual visual receptors are fine. The entire medical community, Sachs included, assumed this man would have the surgery to remove his cataracts and, hoorah, be able to see. Well, when the bandages were removed the man was able to recieve light input, but his brain did not have the ability to organize this information into a coherent picture. It was discovered that seeing is not passive. Our experience shapes our understanding of the world, in a literal sense. Wow. It is through stories like these and, of course, the powerful "Awakenings", that Sachs' writing has changed the way I think about the world.

In "The Island of the Colorblind", Dr. Sachs is at his best. The book is a blend of natural and political history, medical analysis, and philosophic concepts. After reading the first 30 pages I felt a tremendous excitement to be reading. It was, strange enough, a "reader's high". What I was learning, coupled with the beautiful writing style, was actually making my heart beat faster and an endorphine rush charged through my body.

My favorite parts of the book are bookended in the introduction to the political history of the Pacific islands and towards the end when the concept of "deep time" is discussed in his ruminations on the cycads. The book is actually two separate writings on independent visits to the Pacific islands. The main thrust of the first segment, exploring a "colorblind" island and discovering how the loss of color affects the community, is diluted. The island is not totally colorblind (only about 12% are) and the novel insights the reader is expecting never fully materialize.

Likewise, the primary story line of the second half is centered on an investigation of a rare neurological disease in Guam that has puzzled scientists for years. Unlike his usual case studies, I didn't feel I got to know these patients that well. For readers familiar with Sachs's encephalitic patients, these stories seem familiar, but not as intimately portrayed.

In the last chapter on Rota, Sachs shares how his research into prehistoric plants give him a sense of the sublime time-scale we live in. He refers to this concept as "deep time". Deep time refers to an understanding of, and connection with, the almost inconcievable length of time that passes on a geological or evolutionary scale. For the vast majority of our life we are limited in our relationship to deep time. Rarely, and it happens to Sachs when he is amongst ancient ferns, we catch a glimpse of what 100 million years ago truly means. One gets the sense that for Sachs this could be described as a secular religious epiphany: witnessing the miracle of eternity.

I finished reading this book feeling inspired and humbled. A great read. For first time readers of Sachs, his "Awakenings" is still the masterpiece. And, for anyone interested in a casual introduction to his writing I would recommend one of his collections of cases.

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