Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Alchemy of Chance - Aurelie and Oliver Sacks

“There’s one other possibility: visual conversion disorder. Used to be called hysterical blindness. This is where the brain, confronted by an overwhelming trauma, unconsciously disables optical functioning. If a victim witnesses events that she cannot process psychologically, the ensuing attacks of acute anxiety can trigger the brain into converting intolerable stress into a real physical state, effectively eliminating the stressor: sight.”
...“It’s a bit like amnesia then?”
“Think of it this way. Her eyes are in a coma.”

I ordered Oliver Sacks’ new book, “The Mind’s Eye” today, and was struck, while I was reading about it, by the neurological complications and challenges Aurelie faced in coming to terms with her blindness. In his book, Dr Sacks raises many questions about the nature of both seeing and not seeing. He discusses things directly relevant to Aurelie’s condition, and her coping methods - visual imagery and memory, the relationship between direct visual experience and remembered visual experience, the incredible enhancement of touch and the mental landscapes of blindness. I thought of Aurelie, lying in the grass with her eyes closed, listening to the world –
“Big birds squawked and flapped around in the trees; small mammals and birds stirred the undergrowth and fishes plopped the surface of the water, all against an orchestral backdrop of clicking insects. She wondered what it would be like to be on a mountain top. Would she hear the snow melt, the ice crack, the glaciers slide, the wind caress her face? Is wind noisy or does it make other things noisy? Is there a place on earth that’s truly silent? Not unless you’re dead. All that breathing and pumping and cellular movement, even when you think you’re still. “

In an interview with Steve Silberman, Sacks gives the example of a man who had lost his sight as a young adult, who said that when he read Braille, he didn’t feel it in his fingers, he saw it, reminding me of the game of scrabble Aurelie plays with Dafydd, on a tactile board. – Her fingers skipped lightly over the board, processing tactile information while her mind reached out to another tongue.
“It’s a bit like map-reading,” she said. “Graphic representation. It’s more than a quarter of a million years old. We’re hard-wired for it, for analogue information. With one of my hands on the hands of a clock, I can tell the time quicker than you can read one of those silly new digital things. And beat you at Scrabble while I’m doing it.”

I’ve been conducting an experiment since I first read The Alchemy of Chance, closing my eyes and trying to feel the Braille on the outside of hotel room doors, or on ATM machines, or trying to figure out what denomination the bill in my hand was. American and Canadian paper currency is all the same size but a customs officer pointed out that the numerals on the bills are raised, at least if the bill hasn’t been worn smooth. Try it. I wasn’t able to figure out the simplest arrangement of dots by touch, or tell a five from a twenty. The brain, it turns out, rewires itself to cope.

Sacks also talks about the way blind people deal with their disabilities, mentally, not practically, and mentions a religion professor who describes his blindness as “an authentic, autonomous world, one of the concentrated human conditions,” a close approximation of what Aurelie describes when asked if she thinks differently -
“Yes, I do have an expanded abstract realm and, if I’m not careful, I end up living in it much of the time... It’s cool and clear, a bit like I imagine outer space to be. But I’m not on my own. I guess some heavy-duty philosophers live out there most of the time.”
“Isn’t it depressing?”
“Not at all. It just is.”

Of course, a reader has no real need to know the scientific implications behind Aurelie’s condition, but the confluence of fiction and neurology does add another layer of interest and I look forward to learning more about it.

An interview with Oliver Sacks -

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