How Do We Know What We Know?

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Oliver Sacks at a benefit at Jazz at Lincoln Center, New York City, November 2006

I once owned a black car that my husband insisted was green, even though the bill of sale said “onyx.” Then one day about 50,000 miles in, and just for a minute, as the light hit the car in a certain way, I saw what he must have been seeing, and it made me wonder: If my black is someone else’s green, is our understanding of color personal and idiosyncratic? Even when we are looking at the same thing, are we seeing the same thing?

Reading The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks’s latest book, is like standing in that ray of sunlight: it questions perception. Sacks is, arguably, the best-known neurologist in the world. It’s a distinction he’s earned over fifty-odd years, not for his stellar lab work or cutting-edge biomedical inventions, but for something far more basic—his ability to tell stories. In medicine today there is a penchant for “translational science”—doctors who bring the insights they gather from the examination of cells to their patients in the clinic and the insights they gather from patients back to their labs. Sacks, too, is a translational scientist, but in an altogether different way: he has taken what he has learned from patients in nursing homes and hospitals and brought it to us, his readers. And his readers, in turn, have brought him more patients and more cases that often make their way into his practice and his pieces. In book after book, Sacks has taken the patient history—the most basic tool of medicine—and turned it into art. By his telling, the brain, his bailiwick, is made more mysterious, not less, and it is through that mystery that Sacks elucidates it.

Like many of his earlier and immensely popular volumes, The Mind’s Eye is primarily a collection of pieces published over the past few years in The New Yorker. Like those other books, this one gains its substance and power from the quirkiness and variability of human experience, rather than from an overarching theme or grand conclusion. The brain plays tricks. The eyes play tricks. Oliver Sacks delights in this biological chicanery and hands off his delight in words. Invoking Wittgenstein in an essay about a woman who learned “by a combination of gestures and mime” to communicate without speech, Sacks writes that

the philosopher…distinguished two methods of communication and representation: “saying” and “showing.” Saying…is assertive and requires a tight coupling of logical and syntactic structure with what it asserts. Showing…presents information directly, in a nonsymbolic way….

The philosopher might have been writing about Sacks himself, for Sacks is a literary, medical, narrative showman. He presents cases. They are, on their face, sui generis. Pat, the woman who was able to converse without conventional language, represents nothing more than herself, yet by telling her story, Sacks enables the reader to …

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