What happens when we are no longer able to recognise objects, but there’s nothing wrong with our ability to see? When we lose our sense of self and no longer feel the body we’re in? When the concept of ‘leftness’ is severed from our reality?
Oliver Sacks describes cases involving all these issues and more in a classic survey of ‘losses’ and ‘excesses’ in the human brain. The patients are a fascinating array of characters each suffering from such unusual problems that the symptoms seem almost comical. The eponymous man who failed to identify his wife’s head suffered from a form of visual agnosia, leaving him incapable of identifying objects, although his visual acuity was not impaired. Another sufferer had lost all ability to form new memories, and indeed was stuck at some point in his past, incapable of progressing past that point.
In a similar vein to Phantoms in the Brain, these eye-opening cases teach us much about the inner workings of the brain, they also encourage reflection on what it really means to be human, how our sense of self and perception is far more illusory than we really feel comfortable believing, and how little we really understand about how our cranial chemical factories really work.
If there’s one major detraction from this book in my eyes, it’s probably the fact that it’s written in English. The neglect the language has been shown by science leaves it so singularly pathetic at describing medical issues that we’re left with a gobbledegook of foreign words, even where Sacks tries to make the subject digestible for the average reader. Proprioception, for example, is a fascinating concept, and one so familiar to all of us that it’s amazing we don’t instinctively expect it to belong to that elite club of five senses, yet you won’t find me slipping the word into casual conversation any day soon.
On a side note, his descriptions of aphasia rather reminded me of my own feelings when learning a foreign language; that severe headache caused when trying to ram an idea down a set of neural pathways far too small to accommodate it.