Neurology: “The Mind’s Eye” by Oliver Sacks

The Memoirs of Blind Authors

In The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks explores the relationship between vision and perception of images in the brain. Based on the memoirs of blind writers, the author writes about the visual images that blind people perceive in their visual cortex (brain). He examines how visually impaired people ‘see’ visual images in their brains. He learns that blind people can invoke visual images in their mind, but differ in their ability to create and retain them. The author also seeks to unravel the mystery behind the functioning of blind people’s brains. Using different rhetorical strategies, Sacks explains to the reader the experiences of sight-deprived individuals. His aim is to enable the readers to relate with the blind people’s perspectives, which differ vastly from those of normal-sighted people.

Sacks cite the memoirs of John Hull, an academic whose sight deteriorated gradually until he became completely blind at the age of 48 to explain the ‘mind’s eye.’ Hull reported that after becoming completely blind, he lost the ability to create any visual image in his mind. In contrast, Zoltan Torey, a psychologist who lost his sight at the age of 21. After losing his sight, Torey acquired the ability to visualize images, which allowed him to have visual representations of complicated structures and engineering designs in his mind. The author uses characterization to illustrate Torey’s acquired perceptual skills. Characterization refers to a rhetorical strategy of describing the important features of a character. In the article, Sacks reveals Torey’s imaginations, occupation, and childhood experiences to help the reader understand the character.

The author also cites a memoir by Sabriye Tenberken, a Tibetan woman, who was born with an impaired vision that allowed her to visualize landscapes and people’s faces. However, at age 12, she became completely blind and had to rely on verbal descriptions (color) to visualize objects. In this regard, Sacks identifies her case as that of synesthesia, whereby the loss of sight activated another sense modality that allowed her to decipher objects based on verbal descriptions. In contrast, Jacques Lusseyran, a French soldier, lost the ability to visualize objects when he became blind at a tender age of eight. He, however, acquired an ‘inner eye,’ which enabled him to create mental images based on verbal descriptions of objects. As a soldier, Lusseyran developed the ability to visualize movements that helped him to learn vital defense strategies.

The memoirs of the four blind authors underscore the adaptability of the human brain. The blind author’s accounts of their perceptual experiences show that the visual cortex can rely on the other senses to create mental images. In other words, the optic functions of the visual cortex are reassigned to the other parts of the brain when a person loses the ability to see. Additionally, the memoirs indicate that blind people perceive objects and images differently. For instance, Tenberken used verbal descriptions to visualize objects while Lusseyran projected pictures on a ‘screen’ in order to visualize them.

In the article, Sacks advises readers to interpret the experience of a blind person as a rich inter-sensory state that depends on his/her mental landscape. He explains that, in a blind person, the visual, auditory, language, emotional, and intellectual aspects of the brain are interlinked. Thus, the other senses (hearing and touch) of a blind person influence what he/she ‘sees.’ Nevertheless, personal development after sight loss determines the level of emotional consciousness, a blind person acquires later in life, which, in turn, influences the capacity of his or her brain to perceive visual images. This explains why Hull lost mental visualization while Torey became hyper-visual after losing his sight.

The Author’s Understanding of the Blind

In The Mind’s Eye, the author concludes that each blind person’s experiences involve a unique inter-sensory state. In his article, Sacks shares the experiences of two blind people, Dennis and Arlene, he met who lost the ability to see in their teens. Dennis, who became blind in his teens, retained the ability to conceive images, which enabled him to create vivid mental pictures of people and objects (Braille notes) around him. On her part, Arlene, a retired social worker, reported ‘seeing’ her bodily movements even though she lost her sight in her teens. From these two cases, Sacks learns that one’s ability to visualize images depends on the emotional and personality aspects of a person’s behavior.

Acquiring the ability to perceive objects in one’s environment requires a person to develop his or her physiological state. The way the brain reconstitutes itself after sight loss determines how one recollects images stored in his or her memory. In this regard, the author uses questions as a rhetorical strategy to communicate his opinions and concerns. For example, Sacks asks whether the brain influences human experiences and if the mind controls the brain. He also wonders whether people have the ability to create their own experiences. The author uses a barrage of questions to evoke positive responses on the part of the readers.

Based on the two cases, Sacks notes that when blind people are unable to visualize images in their mind, they create mental representations of what they believe the actual object looks like. Thus, their mental visualizations are limitless or unaffected by visual images. After the loss of sight, their visual cortex becomes autonomous in its activity by relying on signals from the verbal and auditory parts of the brain. The author concludes that a blind person’s visual cortex is under the influence of his or her emotions, thoughts, and consciousness. Dennis reported that his sight loss had stimulated other senses and enhanced his ability to perceive people’s moods, anxiety, tension, and even smell. According to Sacks, Dennis’ experience indicates that visual deprivation enhances the other senses, including smell and auditory senses.

The author also learns from Prescott’s writings about his childhood journeys to foreign lands. Although Prescott reported having vivid images of the landscapes in Peru and Mexico, he had never visited these places. In view of this, Sacks concludes that Prescott developed enhanced visual imagery as a way of compensating for his lost sight. He reasons that one acquires pictorial imagination or ‘virtual reality’ when his or her sense of sight becomes dysfunctional. This explains why blind children have higher verbal proficiency than those with normal sight. Their enhanced perceptual abilities enable some, like Arlene, to possess a strong sense of color and construct images based on their visual memories, readings, and knowledge.

Based on the experiences of Arlene, Denis, and Prescott, Sacks notes that sighted people create images based on what they can perceive with their eyes. In contrast, those who lack particular visual capacities due to brain injury are often unable to visualize and synthesize images. To compensate for their lost sense of sight, they use non-visual information (verbal messages and memory) to visualize objects and images. In this regard, Sacks concludes that people like Dennis and Arlene have the ability to transfer information obtained through touch, smell, or hearing to the visual cortex, which then converts it into a visual form. Thus, the author uses neurological cases to illustrate how the human brain functions. He uses this rhetorical strategy to reconcile the blind people’s visions with his understanding of Neuroscience. This helps the reader to understand the reason behind the amazing abilities of the blind people, as narrated in their memoirs.

The ‘Meta-Modal’ Brain

In the article, Sacks states that blind people have rich inter-sensory or meta-modal states. This means that people’s ability to ‘see’ or visualize images depends on the brain’s ability to blend its different functions. From a neurological perspective, the rich interconnectedness of the brain neurons means that perceived images can be interpreted in different parts of the brain. He explains that the enhanced interactions among the different cortical regions (audio, visual, touch, and smell sensory areas) blurs the distinction between auditory and visual senses.

In this regard, for blind people, the ability to visualize images is acquired when the other senses (touch, smell, and hearing) are stimulated. In view of this, Sacks argues that, because of the neural interactions, the sensory states are not fixed; rather, they are ‘meta-modal’ as auditory information can be interpreted in the visual cortex and vice versa.

Synesthesia describes the stimulation of the other senses when one sense modality is enhanced. In the article, Sacks describes the experiences of Sabriye Tenberken, a Tibetan woman who had impaired vision before becoming completely blind in her teens. Despite losing her sight, Tenberken was able to visualize objects based on a verbal description of their appearance. According to Sacks, Tenberken’s condition qualifies as synesthesia, as the blindness stimulated the senses of touch and hearing.

The author uses synesthesia to describe how blind people perceive images figuratively and literally. He helps the reader to understand how the blind calm their anxiety by creating visual images based on what they hear or feel. In the article, synesthesia refers to a coordinated sensory experience that involves the stimulation of two or more senses.

The article’s thesis with regard to brain functioning is that people’s capacity to ‘see’ or visualize images depends on the ability of the brain to blend its perceptual functions. The sensory areas’ interconnectivity means that auditory information can be perceived in the visual cortex and vice versa. In other words, the brain, after the loss of sight, reorganizes itself such that its perceptual functions are reassigned to different sensory areas. Thus, for blind people, auditory information is processed in the visual cortex. This explains why their auditory skills are more advanced than those of people with normal vision are. However, some blind people never acquire advanced auditory or perceptual skills because of a lack of social energy to develop them.

The title of the essay, ‘The Mind’s Eye’ aptly summarizes the author’s argument about the brain’s perceptual capacity. The interactions among the brain cortical (sensory) areas create a rich inter-sensory state in the brain (the mind), which enables the blind to visualize the images. Thus, the mind’s eye allows blind people to create vivid pictures of objects in their environment based on what they perceive through the other senses.