Oliver Sacks: An Anthropologist on Mars

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    Oliver Sacks’ novel, An Anthropologist on Mars, contains seven fascinating and strange neurobiological stories that explore unique perceptions and experiences of both the world and oneself in the world. The first tale, “The Colorblind Painter”, is about Jonathan I., a painter who, after an accident, lost his ability to perceive color in the world, his memories, and even his dreams. He could not remember what color ever looked like (the entire concept was obliterated from his brain), yet, intriguingly, it was determined that he could discriminate wavelengths of light. Another story, “The Last Hippie” is a poignant description of a patient, Gregory, whose large brain tumor destroyed many portions of his brain, including the frontal lobe, optic chiasm, and pituitary gland. This led to his retrograde amnesia (his memories, and he himself were permanently stuck in the 60’s), his blindness, an unawareness of his blindness (it seemed he no longer knew what “seeing” meant), and a complete change in personality, to name a few things. The tumor’s destruction, in effect, caused a complete change in Gregory’s “structure of knowledge, in consciousness, in identity itself” (Sacks 49). “A Surgeon’s Life” provides an insight into the world of Dr. Carl Bennett, a surgeon, a pilot, a Touretter. The doctor has Tourette’s Syndrome and often displays many tics and obsessive behaviors, yet when he performs a surgical procedure or flies his plane, he becomes focused, smooth, and ceases to be “Tourettic”. A fascinating case of temporal lobe epilepsy is described in “The Landscape of his dreams”, in which an artist obsessively constructs and paints detailed, 3-dimensional images of his hometown Pontito, Italy by memory. Finally, Sacks addresses autistic savant syndrome in his essay “Prodigies” through his focus on the young autistic artist, Stephen Wiltshire.

     I found one of the stories particularly interesting for its relevance to our recent discussions on the creation of the “picture in the head”. Entitled “To See and Not See”, this story focuses on a 50-year-old man, Virgil, who had been blinded in early childhood. He was quite used to his inability to see and had built a whole lifestyle and identity around this deficit. It was determined that cataracts obstructed Virgil’s eyes and that it would be possible to remove them. Sacks, before delving deep into this man’s story, asks the questions, “Would it be “normal” from the moment vision was restored? {…} Was not experience necessary to see? Did one have to learn to see?” (Sacks 109) Virgil’s cataracts were removed and it had been hoped that, upon given a retinal capacity for visual input, he would be able to see like any other human. This, unfortunately, was not the case. After being given the gift of “sight” Virgil was agnosic. That is to say, he was able to see but what he saw had no meaning. He had “no visual memories to support a perception” and his brain could make no sense of the visual input it was receiving (Sacks 114). In addition, when Virgil began to be able to recognize objects (to a limited extent) he could only “see” them in parts, never in whole (and a good deal of this recognition was related to his knowledge of what the object “felt” like in his hands). For example, he was unable to see all the components of his cat together. He could only see a paw, a nose, a tail, etc.

      Perhaps such neural connections and associations that had been formed prior to the early onset of his blindness had atrophied from disuse. After being blind for so long, it seems plausible that many of the neural pathways for visual input could have been rerouted and used for other neurological processes. For example, it was noted that Virgil’s hearing was much more sophisticated than the average human being and that he tended to notice a larger variety of details using his sense of touch. Virgil’s case is fascinating because it demonstrates the notion that if visual concepts, like boundaries, shading, faces, and colors are not learned in the early developmental stages of the nervous system, it becomes incredibly difficult to decipher and integrate these visual inputs. In class, this is related to our discussion of the creation of the “picture in the head” of reality by the nervous system and “I-function”. After decades of disuse, there seemed to have been a dysfunction in the distributive system in Virgil’s nervous system that was involved in receiving, processing, and integrating visual stimuli. While his nervous system and “i-function” began to recognize certain patterns of light as concepts, as “things”, he was never capable of string the concepts together to create a larger picture. He was not experiencing his new found “vision” in the way that most humans do and he often reverted to closing his eyes because it was less confusing.

      The final story, “An Anthropologist on Mars” was actually my favorite of the seven for the beautiful manner in which Sacks tells this person’s story. Temple Grandin is an autistic woman with a Ph.D in animal science who works to design more humane methods of holding livestock. She says she “thinks in pictures” and her experience with visualizing words, concepts, memories, innovations (her entire world) is not uncommon in individuals with autism. She seems to understand better what she sees and the images her brain is capable of concocting than what she hears in a conversation or reads in a fictional book (what we define as language). This made me think that perhaps the visual processing portions of her brain, and those of other autistic individuals, are fortified by stronger and vaster cables that lead them to rely on and think more using vision over language. Or, perhaps because the cables for language are constructed and connected differently, the brain compensates by sending “language” information through this visual route?

     There do seem to be many advantages to thinking visually, as Temple is able to diagram her innovations (livestock holds, more humane slaughterhouses) and run through them in any situation in her mind, correcting mistakes as she goes. In addition, she is very attuned to the behaviors of animals, more so than most human beings, and she is much more able to empathize with them. In this description, Sacks has extended our notion of the possibilities of the “i-function”. We learned that the “i-function” allows us to experience both a picture of the world that can be changed and a picture of the individual in question that can be changed. Through Sacks’ description of Temple, I can see that some heightened ability in her “i-function” permits her to put herself in the position of an animal and move through her mentally constructed contraptions as if she, a cow, were meandering through. Along with detailed anecdotes of Temple’s talents, Sacks explains some of what we view as negative characteristics of autism, but follows this by saying “she (Temple) believes that, if some parts of the brain are faulty or defective, others are very highly developed – spectacularly in those who have savant syndrome, but to some degree, in different ways, in all individuals with autism” (Sacks 290). This statement is profound and it reiterates one the main concepts we discussed in this course: every brain is unique in its connections, and no brain receives, processes, and integrates inputs in the same manner. Everyone experiences the same input differently and there is no right or wrong way to experience the world.

      Sacks often utilizes footnotes and references his own or other related works and stories in an anecdotal style and, to me, the footnotes are just as interesting as the main text itself. For example, in “Prodigies”, after comparing talents autistic savants have with “normal talents” which come and go, he directs the reader to a footnote. In this he says, “It is possible for savant and normal talents to coexist, sometimes in separate spheres (as with Nabokov); sometimes, confusingly, in the same sphere. I have had this impression strongly with an extremely gifted young man I have known since infancy…” (Sacks 226). These footnotes, while not necessary to an understanding of the text, provide additional insight to the subject matter and to related neurobiological conditions. I found myself pausing to read them (and there were a lot of them) and coming away with a more in depth knowledge of the subject. As much as Sacks did not want to interrupt the flow of his main story, he still wanted to emphasize that there is more to each condition than the story he is presenting.

       The novel, in itself, was relatively easy to understand and it complimented our class quite nicely. Sacks’ assertions were frequently so parallel to the topics discussed in class, that I felt his writing was almost an extension of our lectures. For example, in “Prodigies”, he writes:

A modular view of the mind, no less importantly, also removes the personal center, the self, the “I”. Normally, there is a cohering and unifying power (Coleridge calls it an “esemplastic” power) that integrates all the separate faculties of mind, integrates them, too, with our experiences and emotions, so that they take on a uniquely personal cast. It is this global or integrating power that allows us to generalize and reflect, to develop subjectivity and a self-conscious self. (Sacks 227)

This description sounds remarkably identical to our definition of the “i-function” and the novel is full of equally similar concepts. My experience in this class was enhanced by my reading of this novel and, and while I am disappointed that both are now finished, I feel that I now have a reasonable background in neurobiology and related conditions. This class and this novel have given me the opportunity to investigate for myself the concepts I was most intrigued by and my search for a better understanding of them will continue into the future.


1.    Sacks, Oliver. An Anthropologist on Mars. 1st ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1996. Print.


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