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May 31, 2008

To See or Not to See

It was an event so hot that not even V.S. Ramachandran could score an extra ticket. NPR's Robert Krulwich interviewed Oliver Sacks about the relationship between sight and the brain -- or, more specifically, between Oliver Sacks' brain and sight that's been scarred by ocular melanoma. Though Sacks did not lose his eye to cancer (his opthamologist assured him, "We've taken out a thousand eyes, but we can save yours.") his vision now veers into bizarre and somewhat horrifying territory. Sacks draws his new world in notebooks, scans of which flashed on the screen behind him -- a grotesquely swollen Empire State Building, flattened depth perception and headless bodies (like Magritte's "Pleasure Principle") were part funhouse, part haunted house.

It all seems to have shaken Sacks a bit. Particularly his lack of depth perception. Krulwich covered his own eye and had no problem seeing "in stereo," as they described it. But Sacks said, "it's a much different way of 'seeing' now. The world looks like an odd 13th century painting. Everything flat." I wondered what the sea of our heads in the audience looked like.

Krulwich brought up a woman named Sue who had lacked depth perception her whole life until recently, when exercises and a prism in her eyeglasses brought everything into stereo. Sacks' eye is too damaged to rehabilitate, so he sat and listened while she described the awe of finally seeing in 3D. It made me think of "To See Or Not To See," a chapter in Sacks' An Anthropologist on Mars, where a man named Virgil, who had been blind nearly his entire life, had surgery to restore his sight. But he was not psychologically prepared to deal with his new world. He had not "learned" to see, Sacks reasoned. And now, for a neurologist who's spend much of his life trying to understand the brain's twisted paths, his own has left him utterly bewildered.

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