When Brains Go Bad
I’m already pretending I have most of these diseases
The Mind's EyeOliver Sacks
(Knopf · hardcover · $26.95)
The human brain is a 3-pound lump of fat and blood vessels that contains all of a person’s hopes, dreams, fears, obsessive thoughts and the location of my keys. It’s a miracle of natural engineering. I’m in awe of its complexity and of the fact that electrical impulses and neurotransmitters account for the sum of my experience. Way to go, brain.
At the same time, Mr. Brain can be a demon from hell when it decides to turn against its body. Serotonin levels become imbalanced and the keyboard is suddenly contaminated; the Lysol is too far away, and all communication must be done with notes taped to the front door. Screw you, brain.
The Mind’s Eye, by Oliver Sacks, shows you just how much worse things can get for a person, brain-wise. Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse than a little agoraphobia, the doctor/writer introduces scary words like “alexia” and “aphasia.” These aren’t just bad baby girl names—they’re serious medical conditions.
Sacks discusses several patients he’s treated, most of whom suffered neurological damage, either from brain injury (such as a stroke) or from some dread degenerative disease. Several suffer from loss of sight or not seeing in three dimensions. It’s a what’s what of things I would rather not have happen to me.
One woman, a classical musician, is stricken with an inability to read music. As it progresses, the disease hinders her ability to see and recognize objects. A gallery owner has a stroke and can no longer speak, in addition to being half-paralyzed. A professional writer forgets how to read; letters become Cyrillic, indecipherable. (I find that one particularly terrifying.)
At the same time, Mr. Brain can be a demon from hell when it decides to turn against its body.
These stories are terrible. It’s a scary thing when the brain begins to fail. But these cases are not without hope. The resiliency of the human brain is fascinating, to say the least. Though a person’s brain has suffered irreparable damage, the working parts will rewire themselves to pick up the slack, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. The brain is a complex apparatus that’s resistant to outright failure. This organ won’t just go down like the Death Star.
The people, though thoroughly inconvenienced, carry on with their lives as best they can. Just because a person can’t read doesn’t mean he can’t still write. A particularly affecting story in this book is of a novelist, Howard Engel, who has continued his career through a series of ingenious typing tricks that help him remember what he has written. He does what he can and sends it to the editor. The protagonist in his series of novels suffers from the same malaise. He has turned his disability into the proverbial lemonade from lemons. The art gallery owner, though stripped of her ability to speak, leads a highly social life by using a book with specific words to point to in conversation. The musician can still play the piano beautifully, if haltingly at first. All of these stories, while sad, are not overly bleak.
Sacks’ writing style is fairly pedestrian. He is not the style master, but his stories are engaging. He isn’t afraid to write about his own problems with facial recognition and an eye surgery undergone to remove a tumor. It makes him more human, less clinical; although sometimes he’s well, clinical. Such is the pitfall of being a doctor-turned-writer, I presume. I found myself skipping over some of the footnotes. (For the academics, there are more in the back.) The narrative is sometimes interrupted with tangential musings on prior cases or previous research by others in the field. It’s probably necessary, but tends to make some of the book read like an unfocused English 101 paper on neurology.
The people detailed are all successful and upwardly mobile, as if their suffering were somehow more important. While the affluent are not immune from problems, a section on, oh, a fry cook who keeps throwing Happy Meal toys in the fryer would have given Mind’s Eye a little more street cred.