Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and professor at Columbia University Medical Center, may be better known to many as a literary pioneer. His books, which include Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, introduced readers to indelible tales of patients with almost outlandishly peculiar brain disorders.
But in Sacks’s compassionately rendered stories, at once heartbreaking and hilarious, these patients are not freaks; rather, they are real people — and a window into the inner workings of everyone’s mind and brain.
Now 77 and recovering from an ocular cancer that was successfully treated but left him blind in one eye, Sacks has just released his 10th book, The Mind’s Eye. It is more autobiographical than many of his other recent works. In it, he explores his experiences with cancer and also discusses his prosopagnosia, or “face blindness,” a disorder that prevents him from recognizing faces, sometimes, even his own reflection in the mirror. (More on Time.com: See more from the Mind Reading series)
I won’t lie: Dr. Sacks is one of my literary and scientific idols, so it was no small thrill to interview him in his book-filled, pleasantly cluttered West Village office. This is the first part of our conversation.
The first thing I want to ask is, how is your vision?
I see nothing with my right eye. I walk more cautiously because I don’t see curves yet: things are flat for me and I don’t see or expect things on the right side. But I accommodate.
You have said that you sometimes “fill in” areas that you can’t really see.
I had a very early experience, when I was first in hospital. My right eye was being irradiated and covered. For some reason, I was washing my hands. And I closed my left eye and saw everything perfectly clearly.
I thought, “That’s strange. This must be a transparent bandage over the right eye.” Of course, it wasn’t; it was a huge wad of stuff. But this persistence of vision was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. (More on Time.com: Special Report: Kids and Mental Health)
You’ve written about two opposite responses to losing one’s sight. In one, it goes away entirely, even the idea of seeing. But in the other, visual images inside the mind are enhanced and used to guide daily life. Which way do you think you would go if, God forbid, you lost your other eye?
My world is a very verbal one. This showed up on brain scans.
I wanted to see what went on in the visual cortex when I had this “filling in” phenomenon. Those studies weren’t terribly clear-cut, but what was visible was the speech areas of my brain: [they] were chattering away nonstop during the entire procedure. So there’s a lot of internal speech, probably less internal imagery.
But [how] would I change [if I became completely blind], I don’t know. I think I would probably grow even more word-oriented.
Do you still have hallucinations?
I can see some at the moment, say, on the wall there. They mostly look like letters or numbers, with predominantly sharp edges. They flicker in and out, they’re random. Occasionally I see a V or a W. I suppose I should call them hallucinations because I didn’t order them. They get projected on surfaces, according to how far the surface is away; [up close] I get tiny little tiny letters and if I look at the sky, they’re huge.
I wanted to talk about your prosopagnosia, which you write about in The Mind’s Eye. How do you think your inability to recognize faces affected the development of your social life?
I was and remain somewhat shy. I don’t readily open conversations; I certainly think difficulty recognizing people plays a part there. I have been said to suffer social phobia [or] Asperger’s [but I think] that overstates it. (More on Time.com: The ‘Mommy Brain’ Is Bigger: How Love Grows a New Mother’s Brain)
A person’s response to prosopagnosia seems as varied as the response to vision loss. Heather Sellers, whose recent book discusses her own face blindness, became very social.
With someone like [the artist] Chuck Close, he responds [that way, too]. He’s exuberantly extroverted. He bursts into conversation with people, partly to deal with the fact that he doesn’t recognize them. Or he rapidly finds out what they’re doing, what their interests are, what their job is, who they are.
So you don’t think you have a touch of Asperger’s?
[People say] I’m an honorary Tourette’s because I tend to jerk and I occasionally [suddenly say something]. I am also an honorary Asperger. And I’m an honorary bipolar. I suspect we all have a bit of everything.
But I know with someone like Temple Grandin [who has autism], I really do see her as a different sort of being.
I also wanted to ask you about your experiences with amphetamine use, which you recently spoke about publicly.
I wish I’d never opened my mouth about that. However, since I have…