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Oliver Sacks', The Mind's Eye
September 1, 2010 10:18 AM   Subscribe

Oliver Sacks is surviving cancer of the eye, ocular melanoma. In his latest book, The Mind’s Eye, he "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." In the interview, Sacks talks about his diagnosis, the after-effects of his radiation treatment (which include hallucinations that resolve themselves into words if he "smokes a little pot"), his apprenticeships with poets W.H. Auden and Thom Gunn, and the importance of science writing in an age when the authority of science is being undermined by religious zealots. Via MeFi's own, Steve Silberman, digaman.

This info comes via a new network of blogs launching today from PLoS.org, the Public Library of Science, that will also feature blogs by former SciAm editor in chief John Rennie and Pulitzer-prize winning author of "The Poisoner's Handbook," Deborah Blum.
posted by nickyskye (39 comments total) 47 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks, Nicky! I've read a review copy of Sacks' new book, and it's really poignant and thought-provoking, as all his books are. The chapter on face-blindness (prosopagnosia) was published in the New Yorker last week (subscription required).
posted by digaman at 10:27 AM on September 1, 2010


Nickyskye, thank you so much for alerting us about the PLoS blogs. I follow EveryONE and Speaking of Medicine religiously, and it's wonderful that they've decided to expand with new content makers. Neurotribes in particular looks fascinating.

It's especially heartening to see this after the SEED Magazine / Scienceblogs / Pepsico disaster. PLoS blogs will be 100% ad free!

In case anyone is interested in direct links to each of their new blogs:

  • Body Politic

  • Genomeboy

  • Gobbledygook

  • Neuroanthropology

  • NeuroTribes

  • Obesity Panacea

  • Speakeasy Science

  • Take as Directed


  • The Gleaming Retort

  • The Language of Bad Physics

  • Wonderland

  • posted by zarq at 10:31 AM on September 1, 2010 [8 favorites]


    Also, most of the bloggers have Twitter accounts:

    Body Politic (Investigating food, drugs and chemicals): @lindy2350
    Gobbledygook: @mfenner
    Genomeboy: @mishangrist
    The Gleaming Retort: @tvjrennie
    The Language of Bad Physics: @sc_k
    NeuroTribes: @stevesilberman
    Obesity Panacea: @PMJaniszewski and @TravisSaunders
    Speakeasy Science: @deborahblum
    Take As Directed: @davidkroll / @abelpharmboy
    Welcome to Wonderland: @EmilyAnthes
    posted by zarq at 10:55 AM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


    This is a wonder find and an awesome place for me to learn a little every day. Plus, now I have a few more authors to add to my reading list.
    posted by MustardTent at 11:06 AM on September 1, 2010


    *wonderful
    posted by MustardTent at 11:06 AM on September 1, 2010


    That's interesting about the hallucinations. I never dreamed blindness could cause such a vivid neurological phenomenon. And then the fact that cannabis makes the hallucinations gain color and expand into audio...

    We have a lot to learn about the brain and cannabinoid receptors in particular. It's odd that this would happen to a neurologist who could appreciate all this.

    Oliver Saches is a real treasure to his patients and the world at large.
    posted by mccarty.tim at 11:15 AM on September 1, 2010


    And I just read it again and realized he said that the letters spell words, not expand into audio. I was going to say that it would be scary if cannabinoids actually cause hallucinogenic synesthesia...
    posted by mccarty.tim at 11:16 AM on September 1, 2010


    Oh, sweet! I'd been following the Pepsi Science disaster with a keen eye on Deborah Blum, as she's one of my old professors (and ostensibly someone I represent in my day job).

    Eagerly looking forward to digesting the rest of these posts soon.
    posted by Madamina at 11:22 AM on September 1, 2010


    "the importance of science writing in an age when the authority of science is being undermined by religious zealots"

    What the hell does that even mean? How can a nebulous concept such as science have any authority. It taints an otherwise compelling interviewwith an infuriating and patently false political statement. Science has no authority. It has no authority by virtue of the fact that while it seeks truth, within the scientific method is the guarantee that the search is never successful. Remember, a scientific theory that does not support new discovered evidence is rendered false. That means it was always false. It is not false in certain contexts, or close enough for use in these other contexts. Those are pragmatic concerns of engineers, doctors, and others who apply science but do not themselves do new science. So where does this "authority of science" arise from?

    And authority over what? Society? People? Discourse? Science can and should say nothing about justice, fairness, dignity or the human condition. But it is from those things that authority ostensibly arises.

    Here's another quote from the article:

    "Science is under attack these days by religious zealots who want creationism taught in schools alongside evolution, opportunists with political agendas, media outlets that play into bogus controversies about climate change, and so on. What should the role of the science writer be in an age when the role of science in society is being increasingly undermined?"

    Ah, science writers are the ones who want authority. Well, they should have any. hows that? Science makes statements about the world. Those statements are structured and subject to certain conditions, they have to be falsifiable, etc. Furthermore, those statements are made in the context of research conducted in a peer-reviewed system.

    Science writers make statements about these statements. But these science writer's statements do not have to conform to any structure. The statements of science writers are not peer-reviewed, they are evaluated at most by an editor before being read by the public. Their statements do not have to be falsifiable. In fact, because the statements of science writers they are abstracted and generalized for an audience of non-scientists, they are almost always wrong in the sense that the abstraction sacrifices scientific precision for accessibility.

    Furthermore, science writers should have no authority for the very reason that they want to attach themselves to the authority they believe science possess. I'm uncomfortable with this, because it suggests that if I disagree with a science writer over a statement they make, I am in fact disagreeing with science. But whatever authority science has is not vested in people who make statements about it. That Einstein's theories are deeply significant in physics and accurately represent the behavior of the universe in no way confers any authority on Einstein the man, or on any future statements he makes.
    posted by Pastabagel at 11:41 AM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


    What a brilliant interview digaman! Congratulations.

    How typical of Sacks that his blindness should illuminate the world for everyone else.
    posted by jamjam at 11:47 AM on September 1, 2010 [5 favorites]


    I never dreamed blindness could cause such a vivid neurological phenomenon. And then the fact that cannabis makes the hallucinations gain color and expand into audio...

    There, do you see why science writers should have no authority? At no point did anyone ever prove that cannabis makes hallucinations caused by blindness "gain color and expand into audio." Nobody even stated it explicitly. Here's what we actually have:

    SACKS: "This is not something I said in the book, but if I smoke a little pot, they sometimes become words. And they tend to be in black and white — but when I smoke a little pot, they’re in color."

    You have a single data point--only presented in this interview written by someone other than the person making the statement, not in the book written by that person--that suggests the hallucinations are changed by pot in this way. And yet the reader reaches the conclusion that the writer knew would be inferred, which is that all of the subjectivity inherent in Sacks' experience, namely his medical condition, the number and variety of drugs he's been on, his age, etc. would be lost and what got communicated would be a generalized fact.

    It isn't the reader's fault for inferring this, because it's the job of the writer to prevent this from happening. But so much of science writing is the writer making a statement that encourages the reader to make an inference that the person making the statement isn't willing to even state implicitly. The reader reading this isn't expected to read with the precision of a scientist peer-reviewing a paper.

    This is why science writer's and communicators of ideas generally do not get to claim any special authority over the subject matter they are presenting. Because, intentionally or unintentionally, they routinely distort that which they are trying to communicate.
    posted by Pastabagel at 11:58 AM on September 1, 2010


    Pastabagel, calm down. The only "authority of science" I mean is the authority of relentless self-inquiry and taking no dogma for granted. If you want to say "but that's anti-authority!" I'll wholeheartedly agree.

    Thanks, jamjam. Love this:

    How typical of Sacks that his blindness should illuminate the world for everyone else.
    posted by digaman at 12:00 PM on September 1, 2010


    Pastabagel, dear, if you actually read what I wrote, I said nothing about audio. That's something mccarty.tim posted here. Before you start bellowing about other people "routinely distorting" information, you might try at least slowing down enough to read the text that you're attacking.
    posted by digaman at 12:03 PM on September 1, 2010


    and the importance of science writing in an age when the authority of science is being undermined by religious zealots.

    That made perfect sense to me and I expect to most people who don't feel like being willfully obtuse.
    posted by docpops at 12:03 PM on September 1, 2010 [6 favorites]


    Ah, science writers are the ones who want authority.

    I read that differently.

    I don't think he's saying that scientific discoveries are absolutes. "Authority" in this case wouldn't mean power or prestige. And it wouldn't mean that a science writer can't be wrong.

    Rigorous scientific analysis and falsifiable concepts are being clearly attacked by dominionists in this country, who are demanding that their unprovable religious beliefs be given equal respect, attention and consideration. It's an anti-intellectual movement which has become increasingly powerful on school boards.

    There's nothing wrong with skepticism. That's one of the hallmarks of scientific thought: your hypotheses are the best explanation we can figure out with until we gain greater understanding.

    But we shouldn't drop the scientific method in favor of "G-d did it!" And to force that on our children in the classroom does them a tremendous disservice.
    posted by zarq at 12:07 PM on September 1, 2010


    In fact, scientists constantly being proven wrong (or right!) by other scientists is the source of science's authority. That's something that the Pope never has to worry about.
    posted by digaman at 12:15 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


    I'm not a "fanatic" when it comes to obsessing about celebrities, but smart people like Oliver Sacks make me giddy. He is just one of those people-of-science I adore, and who make me wish i could get to know personally. (Dan Ariely and Daniel Dennet fit in that category, too)

    That man is a genius, and he appears to be a plainly adorable person. I love it every time he appears on Radiolab, and I just love hearing him speak (TED). I'd love to bake him some special brownies and listen to him tell me stories about his work, relate his hallucinations, or just chat with me, along whatever stream of consciousness he's in the mood for.
    posted by ChefJoAnna at 12:32 PM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


    "the importance of science writing in an age when the authority of science is being undermined by religious zealots"

    What the hell does that even mean?


    For one, it means we're probably not going to act to curb global warming in time to preserve the continuity of our way of life, if not our civilization.

    If you doubt this, look at what a relatively small number of inter-ethnic conflicts and a few million refugees have done to Africa over the last couple of decades, and imagine what will happen when hundreds of millions of people, or more, and including entire societies and peoples, are forced to leave the tropics and to try to find some other place that will take them over the coming decades-- all as global food production collapses.
    posted by jamjam at 12:51 PM on September 1, 2010


    There's a cheery thought.
    posted by zarq at 12:54 PM on September 1, 2010


    Pastabagel, dear, if you actually read what I wrote, I said nothing about audio. That's something mccarty.tim posted here. Before you start bellowing about other people "routinely distorting" information, you might try at least slowing down enough to read the text that you're attacking.
    posted by digaman at 3:03 PM on September 1


    I read the text very carefully. Actually you did say something about audio, but Sacks didn't. You wrote: "Silberman: That’s wonderful. What do the words say?" referring to the hallucination. I understood that what you were asking was "What words did you see? Did they spell anything out, etc." But this is precisely the unintentional ambiguity I'm talking about. mccarty.tim drew a perfectly reasonable conclusion that "say" meant that the hallucinations spoke out load that the hallucination had an auditory component.

    So this is why I'm distrustful of science writers, and even scientists, claiming for themselves whatever "authority" or status science has in our public life. Because the truth is that scientists, or better yet media "experts", already speak with the authority of science. We assume that science is objective, so people talking about it are also objective. But the truth is that people talking about science are no more reliable than people talking about anything else, NOT because science is as subjective as everything else, but because anything people talking about anything distort, abstract, misstate and overgeneralize whatever they are trying to communicate.
    posted by Pastabagel at 1:16 PM on September 1, 2010


    "spoke out loud, i.e. that the hallucination had an auditory component."
    posted by Pastabagel at 1:17 PM on September 1, 2010


    I meant the effect is interesting, even if it happens in one person. The brain is a complex and interesting organ, and I'm glad science writers make developments on the brain understandable to us layfolk.
    posted by mccarty.tim at 1:43 PM on September 1, 2010


    Oh, Pastabagel, you must be pulling my leg with that "say" stuff. It's obvious that you have a point that you want to make about science and science writers, and you'll make it no matter what goddamned thing the article actually says... uh, spells out.
    posted by digaman at 1:50 PM on September 1, 2010


    Excellent. Thanks for the heads up on PLoS Blogs, nickyskye.
    posted by homunculus at 2:08 PM on September 1, 2010


    WOOF. More like this.
    posted by ethnomethodologist at 2:17 PM on September 1, 2010 [2 favorites]


    ChefJoAnna, this made my day:

    > That man is a genius, and he appears to be a plainly adorable person. I love it every time he appears on Radiolab, and I just love hearing him speak (TED). I'd love to bake him some special brownies and listen to him tell me stories about his work, relate his hallucinations, or just chat with me, along whatever stream of consciousness he's in the mood for.
    posted by digaman at 2:24 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


    My retinal specialist was very "No, you don't want any of that" when I mentioned that I felt rather cheated by my visual disturbances and wanted the "tiny gnomes in the alarm clock" Oliver Sacks experience instead, as long as I had to have an experience at all.

    He also doesn't think I should smoke pot, though, not that I do anyhow. I need Dr. Sacks' doctors to oversee my care, obviously.
    posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:44 PM on September 1, 2010


    Sheesh Pastabagel, maybe you should take a leaf out of Sacks' book and 'smoke a little pot'. There are throngs of buffoons, mountebanks, dolts and clods shuffling on this earth; save your bile for a deserving target, or just have some doritos and chillax or whatever.
    posted by smoke at 5:33 PM on September 1, 2010


    Thanks so much for bringing this find to MetaFilter! I was diagnosed with the same thing that Sacks was diagnosed with -- choroidal retinal melanoma -- last summer. I had the same treatment: under general anaesthetic a surgeon popped my right eye out of my head and then stitched a radioactive metal plaque to the tumor on the posterior of my eyeball. I'm incredibly lucky because my surgeon was able to do all this without cutting the muscles that are attached to the eye. Now that it's far enough in the past, I try to imagine what it must have been like to perform the procedure, but I still can't quite picture it.

    I was also lucky in that my plaque (and radiation dose) was small enough so that I could go home for the week that it was in. Of course, since I was radioactive for that week, I had to remain indoors and away from my wife and cat. I could definitely feel the bit of metal that was attached to the back of my eyeball, but it wasn't really the painful sensation that Sacks describes. It hurt to move my eyes, so they were mostly closed for a week. I already had decreased and mildly distorted vision from the the fluid caused by the tumor before the operation itself, but during the week the plaque was in, even though my eye had been traumatized by being removed from its socket, I could still see about as well as I could before the operation. After it was all over, my wife joked with me that the whites of my eye looked like bloody oatmeal after the initial operation.

    After the week was over, under a local anaesthetic together with demerol this time, the first surgeon's partner popped my eye out again and took the plaque off. I was back in front of my class two days after that.

    It sounds like some of Sacks' subsequent eye problems were caused in part by the radiation retinopathy that accompanies radioactive plaque treatment. The radiation which is meant to kill the tumor also damages the tiny blood vessels in the back of the retina. These blood vessels eventually begin to hemorrhage and lead to wet macular degeneration. I think my ophthalmologist is kind of a worst case scenario guy -- he tells me not to expect to see much of anything with my right eye by 18 months after the operation -- but things are much better for me now than they were 6 months ago. And of course, I'm still eating my 'magical objects' -- fish oil, almonds, papaya leaf tea and green tea -- and doing my 'magical activities' such as exercise and talking to bullying relatives as little as possible in the hope that these things will provide me with stereoscopic vision for bit longer.

    I know it's hokey to say this, but please do treasure your two good eyes if you have them.
    posted by Wash Jones at 5:57 PM on September 1, 2010 [12 favorites]


    Thanks for that, Wash.
    posted by digaman at 6:44 PM on September 1, 2010


    Wonderful tale Wash. Thanks for sharing.
    posted by docpops at 7:51 PM on September 1, 2010


    And authority over what? Society? People? Discourse? Science can and should say nothing about justice, fairness, dignity or the human condition. But it is from those things that authority ostensibly arises.

    I like this guy.
    posted by KokuRyu at 8:59 PM on September 1, 2010


    I love this quote:

    Sacks: Luria lamented in his letters to me that the great observers of the 19th Century are gone now, and that the art of observation has diminished. You can put that down partly to specialization and technology.

    I like the observation itself, plus I love the fact that Sacks wrote actual correspondence, presumably exchanging observations and ideas, and perhaps even goals, dreams, and desires. It's also cool that he corresponded with Luria.
    posted by KokuRyu at 10:06 PM on September 1, 2010


    Pastabagel, perhaps this was what nickseye was trying to say:

    Silberman: Science is under attack these days by religious zealots who want creationism taught in schools alongside evolution, opportunists with political agendas, media outlets that play into bogus controversies about climate change, and so on. What should the role of the science writer be in an age when the role of science in society is being increasingly undermined?

    No mention of authority there whatsoever.
    posted by KokuRyu at 10:08 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]


    Thank you for contributing your moving and poignant personal experience Wash Jones.
    posted by nickyskye at 10:12 PM on September 1, 2010


    Thank you for sharing, Wash Jones; between your story and Oliver Sacks, I might be able to better understand my father-in-law, who lost one eye to cancer quite a few years ago, when my husband & I were still early in our relationship. It was still early enough that I wasn't involved that much, all I knew was that he had cancer, and they had to remove the eye, and he was VERY lucky that it didn't spread to his brain. Also that it was a fairly rare cancer, so I don't know if it was the same type.

    Dad's a stoic guy about that sort of thing, too, so I've never heard him talk about it. But mr epersonae said that he did tease Mom that he was going to go with an eye patch to look like the Arrow shirt guy. Mom got veto power on that one, if I understand it correctly, and he has a glass eye now. 10+ years on, he seems to do pretty well, although of course he can't have a driver's license with only one eye.
    posted by epersonae at 9:21 AM on September 2, 2010


    although of course he can't have a driver's license with only one eye.

    Huh, what?
    posted by hippybear at 9:58 AM on September 2, 2010


    hippybear: oh, no kidding. maybe I heard it wrong from the fam, wouldn't be the first time. I do know that he doesn't drive.
    posted by epersonae at 10:13 AM on September 2, 2010


    Also, finally reading the article, was amused (?!) to read this quote: "In the old days, ten to twenty years ago, one would just take the eye out." So yeah, old days.
    posted by epersonae at 10:16 AM on September 2, 2010


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