Anthropologists on Earth

Molly Tamulevich's picture


Oliver Sacks' , “ An Anthropologist on Mars” is an exploration of the senses. Using seven case studies, Sack's describes the lives of people whose sensory experience is markedly different from the majority of the population. These different neurological conditions are illuminated and made more poignant by the individuals who learn how to live with them. Sacks chooses to highlight unusual neurological conditions by describing their manifestation in people who seem as if they would be totally debilitated by them. He blends the creativity of a gripping and interesting narrative with an easily understood explanation of the conditions making the neurobiology accessible to the average reader.

What struck me most about “ An Anthropologist on Mars” was the fact that I had never even conceived of the conditions that he described in his essays. I had never thought of what it would be like to be able to see after a life of blindness or lose my color vision if I were an artist. I had been so struck in class by the experiments that proved the role that the visual and motor cortices played in vision and movement that I had not considered the other implications of impairment to these parts of the body. I am still trying to get a grip on what it means that I am constantly receiving input that I do not consciously interpret. Before reading this book, I had not begun to think of specific ways that the I-function could alter the senses. However, after reading it, I am more impressed and fascinated with the brain's complexity than I was before.

The two stories that I found most compelling were, “ A Surgeon's Life” and “To See and Not See”. I think that this was partly because I enjoyed how well they tied into the lessons we had had in class and therefore, I had a better basis for understanding them. Dr. Bennett, a surgeon living with turrets syndrome is plagued by tics, but when he is performing a surgery or flying a plane, he is free of the symptoms that effect the rest of his life, and able to conduct extremely precise tasks with no worry of having an uncontrollable movement.

In To See and Not See, Virgil is suddenly able to see after a life of blindness. He has to learn to navigate the world using an entirely different set of sensory inputs. The process is far more difficult than it would seem. All of the advocacy groups and doctors working to “restore sight” to the blind would be wise to read this story because it narrates a very intensive, arduous process. Virgil must build his world from the ground up, reacting to more sensory input than he has ever experienced before. It is a very complex journey that renders Virgil helpless at first.

The lesson that I took out of these stories is that disability is only defined by the culture around you. For instance, colorblindness is arbitrary. Compared to Cockroaches, human beings are colorblind, and yet we are not inhibited by our inability to see certain colors. We do not consider dogs disabled because they see less color than we do. As mentioned in class, colorblind is a term we use to describe someone who is merely differently equipped. When we addressed this point in class, someone was insensitive enough to comment, “ We define the culture, we should be able to call people colorblind if we want”. I think that this demonstrates the attitude that most people take towards the differently abled. It is a world built by people with general sensory similarities and therefore anyone who is different is less than average.

The aspect of To See and Not See that I found most compelling is the fact that once Virgil's sight is “restored”, he experiences more difficulty than he did when he was “disabled”.Physically, he is more 'normal' than he was before, but that does not mean that he is able to function better in society, at least initially. Similarly, Dr. Bennett is able to perform tasks that are beyond the capabilities of the average person, but is impaired from accomplishing some everyday things due to his neurological differences. This is the basis of Sack's work. The way that he writes is very conversational, making his subjects more understandable and accessible. The novelty of their situations is what pulled me to his stories, but ultimately, I found myself challenged to rethink my perspectives on the brain's effects on behavior.

Even though I know that the brain is extremely complex, I used to associate brain damage or any kind of intrinsic neurological difference with complete disability. I suppose that reading enough stories about car accidents, violence and mental illness had instilled a sense of all or nothing in me when it came to brain damage. This is clearly not the case. As Sacks points out, not all neurological differences are necessarily disabilities, and people who possess different makeups have different methods for navigating the world. “An Anthropologist on Mars” is an eye opening and insightful book that illustrates the real world potential for many of the theories that we covered in class.


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