Once in a while, I read a scientific book. That is, not very often. I always said I would read a book by Oliver Sacks, and sadly I didn’t do it before he died (not that he would have minded one way or the other, but I’m kind of sad / disappointed at myself whenever I start reading a book just because its author’s death notice was all over the news).
I borrowed this book by Oliver Sacks frankly because it was the only one available at the library that day. I won’t tell you that the theme of vision and blindness was of any particular concern of mine, but I learnt a lot nonetheless.
The book is a collection of case studies of some particular patients who have lost some part of their vision due to brain injuries, and also a large part related to Dr Sacks’ own eye tumor. Although this part was more personal and poignant, I somehow didn’t like it as much because of the lack of distance and the focus on symptoms observation rather than explanation of the brain’s role in different components of the vision.
I enjoyed the other case studies more. Most patients affected with some sort of brain-related blindness were extraordinarily resilient and upbeat. They adjusted to their new lives and found innovative ways to continue doing what they enjoyed despite their handicap. One man whose particular illness consisted in being unable to make sense of words still managed to write books because his hands still could do the movement of forming words. One other patient managed to live rather normally after she lost the ability to recognize objects.
The chapter I could most relate to was addressing the ability to recognize faces (prosopagnosia). I’m very very bad at recognizing faces, although not in a pathological way. On the other hand, Mr Smithereens is inordinately good at recognizing faces, so that I struggle to identify our next-door neighbors, always afraid of being very impolite, while my husband can watch a minor character in a TV series and go “isn’t he the same we saw in such and such movie ten years ago?” I used to feel guilty about this, but Sachs made clear how common this problem is, and how little we can do about it!
One tiny bit of knowledge I gained from reading the book is that babies are actually born with the ability to recognize all human faces of all races and origins. Only after a few months (I can’t find the exact number between 6 and 12 months) does the range of recognition diminish so that we get better at recognizing faces from our own cultural / racial environment and worse at recognizing other races we don’t meet so often. Which is one way of explaining the offensive but common view that people from another race all look the same to you. I always felt bad when someone said something racist like that, and it seems the perfect reply to do in a polite way to express that this view is not only wrong but also the by-product of a homogeneous education. I guess it’s just a scientific proof that children need to grow up in a diverse environment.