Dr. Oliver Sacks on His Book The Mind’s Eye

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Oliver Sacks.  Credit: Elena Seibert.

Oliver Sacks. 

Credit: Elena Seibert.

In The Mind’s Eye, physician and author Oliver Sacks tells the stories of people who are able to navigate the world and communicate with others despite losing what many of us consider indispensable senses and abilities: the power of speech, the capacity to recognize faces, the sense of three-dimensional space, the ability to read, or the sense of sight. On Monday, October 17, Dr. Sacks will visit the Museum to discuss his book and how he too has struggled with several perceptual conditions, from face-blindness to a loss of stereo vision due to ocular cancer. The Museum will stream Dr. Sacks’s lecture live at amnh.org beginning at 7 pm. Dr. Sacks recently answered a few questions about his personal experiences with some of the disorders he treats.

How common is face-blindness, and why have we never heard about it until now?

Face-blindness, or prosopagnosia, affects roughly two percent of the population, and probably this has always been the case. Some of us are better or worse at recognizing individuals, but those with face-blindness are at the extreme end of the spectrum. So-called “super-recognizers” are at the other end. Most people are somewhere in the middle. But this is not something one is really conscious of, until a comparison is made with others. If you are born with prosopagnosia, or colorblindness, or you are a bit near-sighted, you may not realize this, because it is normal for you, and your brain compensates in other ways. Often people realize they are colorblind only when they take a driver’s license test. Many people who have face-blindness do not realize it, and only very recently have researchers begun to investigate the subject.

How long have you had face-blindness?

It is something one is born with, so I have had it for 78 years, but probably the first time I really thought about it was in 1985 when I visited my brother in Australia. He had difficulties recognizing faces in the same way I do, and we both had a sudden feeling that this might be genetic.

How does face-blindness affect your personality?

I think a good deal of what I once attributed to shyness or social awkwardness comes from the fact that I cannot recognize people—this causes great embarrassment at individual encounters, it makes parties confusing, and it makes finding someone in a train station almost impossible. But we face-blind people compensate, unconsciously, in many ways. We become extremely attentive to dress and movement and voice. We recognize individuals by their hair color or glasses frames—this may be why I am partial to redheads. Most of my patients are elderly and gray-haired, and I may not recognize their faces right away. But once they speak or move, I am very good at recognizing voices, or posture and “motor style.”

You discuss your love for 3D photography in The Mind’s Eye. When did this interest develop?

Before my eye tumor, when I had two good eyes, I was an avid member of the New York Stereoscopic Society—a group of professional and amateur stereophiles who meet at the AMNH every month to discuss and explore all things three-dimensional. I have loved experimenting with stereoscopy since childhood, when we had stereo viewers at home. One can infer depth from all kinds of cues—motion parallax, relative size, and so forth—but one can only directly experience depth with stereo vision. If you are one of the sizable minority whose eyes are not quite aligned, then you must infer depth from other cues.

A book signing will follow the discussion, and there will be a live sign-language translation of the event. Click here to buy tickets.