|October 26, 2010
The Mind’s Eye launches today!** In hardcover, large type, e-book, and audio editions. Check out our new YouTube channel for video clips of Dr. Sacks talking about his new book; also, tune in to his interview with Terry Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air on Tuesday, October 26, 2010. And, please, forward this newsletter to a friend!
In The Mind’s Eye, Dr. Sacks tells the story of his own eye cancer and the bizarre and disconcerting effects of losing vision to one side. He also examines some very strange paradoxes–people who can see perfectly well but not recognize their own children, blind people who become hyper-visual, or who navigate by “tongue vision.” Along the way, Dr. Sacks considers more fundamental questions: How do we see? How do we think? How important is internal imagery—or vision, for that matter?
Here are some advance reviews:
“What makes The Mind’s Eye stand tall is his recounting of how humans—and the human brain—can adapt, finding creative and ingenious ways to cope with physical losses and disorders. . . . From first phrase to final sentence, Dr. Sacks will draw you into a fascinating mental landscape that will leave you in awe of its strange, often spiritual and exquisite pathways. . . . The final essay on perception, which discusses blindness, visual imagery and memory, direct visual experience and the paradox of the power of language, is breathtaking.” —BookPage.com
“Sacks, author of the acclaimed Musicophilia, among other titles, combines neurobiology, psychology, and psychiatry in this riveting exploration of how we use our vision to perceive and understand the world and our place in it.” –Booklist
“A no-brainer for the smart crowd; Sacks is so cool.” –Library Journal
Thanks for your support!
The Sacks office
** In the U.S. and Canada. THE MIND’S EYE will be available November 1st in the U.K., Brazil, the Netherlands, Australia, and New Zealand. Coming soon to Germany and elsewhere…
It’s only a few more weeks until Dr. Sacks’s new book, The Mind’s Eye, is published in hardcover, large print, audiobook and e-book formats—in the United States, Australia, Brasil, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and the U.K. (Other translations will be available in 2011.)
But if you are one of three lucky people on our newsletter subscription list, you can get an early look at the book, since we will give away three bound proof copies on October 1. If you are on our newsletter list, you are already signed up for the random drawing. But we hope you’ll help us get the word out and encourage your friends to sign up, too, since we’re reserving one of the proofs just for someone who joins our list between now and the end of this month.
One chapter in The Mind’s Eye is the story of Dr. Sacks’s own experience with eye cancer, and the strange visual effects it has caused. Dr. Sacks talks about the tumor in his eye in a recent interview with Steve Silberman.
Finally, we are happy to announce that Dr. Sacks will be speaking at several East Coast events later this fall—see the list below.
Happy autumn, and happy reading!
–The Sacks Office
New York: October 27, 2010 at 7:00 pm. Barnes and Noble Union Square
Boston: October 28, 2010 at 7:00 pm. Harvard Bookstore at the First Parish Church
New York: October 30, 2010 at 3:00 pm. Rubin Museum of Art
New York: January 11, 2011 at 6:00 pm. Museum of Modern Art
Washington, DC: December 9, 2010 at 7:00 pm. Politics and Prose at Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
Philadelphia: November 10, 2010 at 7:30 pm. Philadelphia Free Library
In Musicophilia, Dr. Sacks writes about music and its therapeutic effects for movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease and Tourette’s syndrome. His Awakenings patients (who had an extremely rare and severe form of parkinsonism) were frozen, virtually motionless, for decades. But even when medications failed, they would respond dramatically to music. Astonishingly, although they could not walk, they could dance; though they could not talk, they could sing.
This fall, Britain’s Rambert Dance Company will debut a new dance work inspired by Awakenings, with music composed by Tobias Picker and choreography by Aletta Collins. The piece will have its world premiere in Manchester, England, on September 22, 2010 and tour the UK this fall, with a London opening on November 9, 2010. Dr. Sacks says he is “thrilled—and honored—that my book was a spark for the firing-up of Tobias Picker’s creative powers. I look forward to seeing this new work inspired by the Awakenings patients.”
While we’re on the subject of dance, kudos to the Mark Morris Dance Group for their pioneering work collaborating with people who have Parkinson’s disease. The MMDG has offered their Dance for PD classes to communities all over the world. (Find out more on NPR’s All Things Considered.) Dance therapy is traditionally aimed at improving mental and emotional health, but it’s great for physical and neurological health as well!
Bravo to the Mark Morris Dance Group for their pioneering program bringing music, and dance, to people with Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Sacks first saw the power of music in his Awakenings patients, survivors of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic who had an extremely severe form of parkinsonism which left them motionless, like human statues.
The power of music to integrate and cure, to liberate the parkinsonian and give him freedom while it lasts . . . is quite fundamental, and seen in every patient. This was shown beautifully, and discussed with great insight, by Edith T., a former music teacher. She said she had become “graceless” with the onset of parkinsonism, that her movements had become “wooden, mechanical—like a robot or doll,” that she had lost her former “naturalness” and “musicalness” of movement, that—in a word—she had been “unmusicked.” Fortunately, she added, the disease was “accompanied by its own cure.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Music,” she explained. “As I am unmusicked, I must be remusicked.” Often, she said, she would find herself “frozen,” utterly motionless, deprived of the power, the impulse, the thought, of any motion; she felt at such times “like a still photo, a frozen frame” . . . without substance or life. In this state, this statelessness, this timeless irreality, she would remain, motionless-helpless, until music came: “Songs, tunes I knew from years ago, catchy tunes, rhythmic tunes, the sort I loved to dance to.”
With this sudden imagining of music . . . the power of motion, action, would suddenly return, [along with a] sense of . . . restored personality and reality. Now, as Edith T. put it, she could “dance out of the frame,” the flat frozen visualness in which she was trapped, and move freely and gracefully: “It was like suddenly remembering myself, my own living tune.” But then, just as suddenly, the inner music would cease, and with this all motion and actuality would vanish, and she would fall instantly, once again, into a parkinsonian abyss.
Equally striking, and analogous, was the power of touch. At times when there was no music to come to her aid, and she would be frozen absolutely motionless in the corridor, the simplest human contact could come to the rescue. One had only to take her hand, or touch her in the lightest possible way, for her to “awaken”; one had only to walk with her and she could walk perfectly, not imitating or echoing one, but in her own way. But the moment one stopped, she would stop too.
From Awakenings, Vintage paperback edition, p. 60.
Reading and writing: do they go together like love and marriage? Well, it turns out the story is complicated. Take Howard Engel, a novelist who wrote to Dr. Sacks a few years ago. He had a stroke that suddenly destroyed, with almost surgical precision, his ability to read.
Uncannily, the stroke did not affect Howard’s ability to write at all. And (as Dr. Sacks’s subjects often do) he came up with a remarkable strategy to continue as a novelist, despite being unable to read what he has just written.
You may have seen Dr. Sacks’s essay about Howard in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, but if you missed it, fear not: the unabridged version is included in The Mind’s Eye. You can also read a little bit in July’s Footnote of the Month.
The center in our brain for understanding and producing language is uniquely human, having evolved some hundreds of thousands of years ago. But how is it that reading, a cultural invention only a few thousand years old, also has a dedicated center in the brain? If evolution didn’t put it there, what did?
We won’t give it all away here, but the answer involves a lot of your favorite characters and ideas, including Darwin and Wallace, Borges and Japanese poetry, the colorblind painter, hyperlexia, musical alexia, the evolution of alphabets, and, of course, amazingly adaptable brains.
People with alexia can see perfectly well, but their brains lose the ability to decipher words and letters. Howard Engel, the Canadian novelist known for his Benny Cooperman series of detective novels, put it this way:
The July 31, 2001, Globe and Mail looked the way it always did in its make-up, pictures, assorted headlines and smaller captions. The only difference was that I could no longer read what they said. The letters, I could tell, were the familiar twenty-six I had grown up with. Only now, when I brought them into focus, they looked like Cyrillic one moment and Korean the next. Was this a Serbo-Croatian version of the Globe, made for export? . . . Was I the victim of a practical joke? . . . I have friends who are capable of such things. . . . I wondered what I might do to them that would improve on this piece of foolery. Then, I considered the alternative possibility. I checked the Globe’s inside pages . . . I checked the want ads and the comics. I couldn’t read them either. . . .
Panic should have hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. But instead I was suffused with a reasonable, business-as-usual calm. “Since this isn’t somebody’s idea of a joke, then, it follows, I have suffered a stroke.”
from The Mind’s Eye, chapter 3.
Dr. Sacks’s favorite creatures are cephalopods: squids, octopus, cuttlefish, nautilus–all those mollusks that have neurons not only in their heads (cephalo-) but in their feet (-pods) as well. They’re very smart. Dr. Sacks says, “Cuttlefish have enormous eyes, they are curious and, I think, even affectionate. One cannot help feeling that they have individuality and consciousness, and the basis of an inner life. Cephalopods can learn by observation, as higher mammals do. They are richly endowed with nerve cells: an octopus has 300 million or more neurons, about half in its cerebral ganglia, and the rest distributed among its tentacles. I like cephalopods because they are so removed from us and yet, in some fundamental ways, so like us. They are my favorite aliens.”
Not to mention, they like to swim by jet propulsion (Dr. Sacks has to rely on flippers). And they like to surround themselves with vast clouds of ink (Dr. Sacks was sometimes called “Inky” as a boy, since he was fond of a fountain pen even then). They have quite sophisticated eyes, and their blood is blue. They are better at cloaking themselves than a Klingon warbird. We could go on and on.
So if we were in charge, June would be National Cephalopod Month. You could watch the amazing NOVA program “Kings of Camouflage,” featuring Roger Hanlon of the Marine Biology Lab in Woods Hole.
Of course, you should do so while wearing your Welcome Squid Overlords t-shirt. We’re not quite sure how many humans are on the planet these days, but there are even more squid. Just sayin.’
P.S.: Whew! Squid fossil mystery solved at last.
P.P.S.: For a spectacular meta-list of cephalopods online, check here.
“Stereo Sue,” a chapter in The Mind’s Eye, is about Sue Barry, a neurobiologist who suddenly acquires stereopsis, and true three-dimensional vision, in her fifties. After a lifetime of inferring depth by other monocular cues such as perspective and motion parallax, Sue is stunned by the beauty of her new sense of 3-D space and depth. While most of the the chapter is about Sue’s experiences, Dr. Sacks also points out how stereo vision is important for animals:
Stereopsis, as a biological strategy, is crucial to a diverse array of animals. Predators, in general, have forward-facing eyes, with much overlap of the two visual ﬁelds and, presumably, stereoscopic vision; prey animals, by contrast, tend to have eyes at the sides of their heads, which gives them panoramic vision, helping them spot danger even if it comes from behind. An astonishing strategy is found in cuttleﬁsh, whose wide-set eyes normally permit a large degree of panoramic vision but can be rotated forward by a special muscular mechanism when the animal is about to attack, giving it the binocular vision it needs for shooting out its tentacles with deadly aim.
In primates like ourselves, forward-facing eyes have other functions. The huge, close-set eyes of lemurs serve to clarify the complexity of dark, dense close-up foliage, which, if the head is kept still, is almost impossible to sort out without stereoscopic vision—and in a jungle full of illusion and deceit, stereopsis is indispensable in breaking camouﬂage. On the more exuberant side, aerial acrobats like gibbons might ﬁnd it very difficult to swing from branch to branch without the special powers conferred by stereoscopy. A one-eyed gibbon might not fare too well—and the same might be true of a one-eyed lemur or cuttleﬁsh.
From The Mind’s Eye, Chapter 5.
Event-wise, dozens of way cool talks at the World Science Festival will turn New York City into the world capital of science the first weekend of June. For tickets to events, including a conversation on face-blindness between Oliver Sacks, Chuck Close, and Robert Krulwich, check out the WSF site.
On the paper-and-ink front, we’re happy to announce Dr. Sacks’s debut as a contributor to Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, on newsstands now. His piece, “Colorado Springs Revisited,” is in great company–this issue also includes work by Richard Ford, Louis Menand, Morris Dickstein, Rachel Dickinson, Ryan Flaherty, and Dennis Lang. And that’s only the nonfiction; there are lots more poets, artists, and writers to boot!
Dr. Sacks just delivered the manuscript for his new book, The Mind’s Eye, to his publishers. Alfred A. Knopf will publish the book in the US on October 26, 2010. In the UK, Picador will publish on November 5th, and we also expect Dutch (Meulenhoff) and Brasilian (Companhia das Letras) editions in late 2010, with other translations to follow in 2011.
Check out the beautiful cover design here.
The Mind’s Eye tells the stories of people whose ability to navigate the world visually and to communicate with others is compromised. There is Lilian, a professional pianist who loses her ability to read music and eventually even to recognize everyday objects; and Sue, a neurobiologist who has never seen in three dimensions, until she suddenly acquires stereoscopic vision in her fifties. There is Pat, who, although she has aphasia and cannot utter a sentence, reinvents herself as a great gossip and social butterfly; and Howard, a prolific novelist who must find a way to continue his life as a writer even after a stroke destroys his ability to read. There are (surprisingly many) people who have face-blindness; some of them cannot even recognize their own spouse or children. And there is Dr. Sacks himself, who tells the story of his own eye cancer and the bizarre and disconcerting effects of losing vision to one side. Finally, Dr. Sacks looks at how blind people may use an astonishing array of other senses to “see” the world.