alibi online
Free Will AstrologyAlibi's Personals
 V.19 No.46 | November 18 - 24, 2010 

Book Review

When Brains Go Bad

I’m already pretending I have most of these diseases

The Mind's Eye

Oliver Sacks

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 character Raleigh St. Clair, from “The Royal Tenenbaums,” is based on Oliver Sacks.
The character Raleigh St. Clair, from “The Royal Tenenbaums,” is based on Oliver Sacks.

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.


Today's Events

A celebration of the creative process and spirit of Veterans who've made paper from camouflage fatigues and created prayer flags from these handmade sheets of paper. Runs through 5/2.

I Used To Be A Rainbow at Richard Levy Gallery

No Idle Hands: The Myths and Meanings of Tramp Art at Museum of International Folk Art

More Recommended Events ››

  • Select sidebar boxes to add below. You can also click and drag to rearrange the boxes; close using the little X icons on each box. To re-add a box you closed, return to this menu.
  • Because you are not logged in, any changes you make to these boxes will vanish as soon as you click to another page. If you log in, the boxes will stick.
  • Latest Posts
  • Web Exclusives
  • Recent Classifieds
  • Latest User Posts
  • Most Active Users
  • Most Active Stories
  • Calendar Comments
  • Upcoming Alibi Picks
  • Albuquerque
  • Duke City Fix
  • Albuquerque Beer Scene
  • What's Wrong With This Picture?
  • Reddit Albuquerque
  • ABQ Journal Metro
  • ABQrising
  • ABQ Journal Latest News
  • Albuquerque
  • NM and the West
  • New Mexico FBIHOP
  • Democracy for New Mexico
  • Only in New Mexico
  • Mario Burgos
  • Democracy for New Mexico
  • High Country News
  • El Grito
  • NM Politics with Joe Monahan
  • Stephen W. Terrell's Web Log
  • The Net Is Vast and Infinite
  • Slashdot
  • Freedom to Tinker
  • Is there a feed that should be on this list? Tell us about it.