A Faulty Eye Witness, Part I

Oliver Sacks, the New York-based neurologist/author/raconteur, is always fun to listen to or read. His notebooks on the brain’s trickery – which often evolve into popular books – can astound and amuse. On May 30, with prodding from National Public Radio’s Robert Krulwich, Sacks shared observations from his latest journal. It focuses on a patient who gradually lost sight in one eye, and how this changed his life. Sacks had intimate knowledge of every detail – because he’s the patient.

He chronicled what’s been happening over the past two-and-a-half years for a few hundred people at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Friday evening. It was one of the inaugural events of the first World Science Festival – some 40 separate panels of speakers and cultural offerings that were convened throughout four days in New York City.

Sacks’ explorations into the mind-eye connection were triggered a few weeks before Christmas 2005. He had gone to a movie and suddenly experienced this “incandescence” – what he described as a visual “ball of fire” in the 10-to-12 o’clock position of his field of view. His first thought: Oh no, my right eye must have developed a detached retina.

He immediately visited his physician, who looked deeply into his eye – and confirmed what his patient hoped not to hear: “There’s something there” – probably a hemorrhage or tumor. A specialist later identified what Sacks describes as a black cauliflower on his eye. His doctor’s term for his condition: melanoma.

“I didn’t even know you could get melanoma in the eye,” he says. It scared him, he says, because he’d heard this cancer is usually a “death sentence.”

His doctor confirmed that “if it stays, it will kill you.” On the other hand, he told Sacks that melanoma tends to be fairly easy to eradicate when it occurs in the eye, as this “skin” cancer sometimes does. The bad news: Ridding the cancer can require getting rid of the eye, or at least its function. And that’s what happened to Sacks. He kept the organ but at the cost of its vision.

On stage, Krulwich had Sacks close his healthy eye, gaze at him with the bad one, and report what he saw. Sacks described a big blank spot front and center – where the reporter’s face was. The peripheral field above, below and to the side still worked. For instance, Sacks could see Krulwich’s elbows, but not his hands.

When the scientist opened his healthy eye, Krulwich’s face reappeared – but in monocular vision. A two-dimensional figure. To many of us, monocular vision wouldn’t seem so bad. But Sacks noted that throughout the 74 years leading up to this eye problem, he had always been exquisitely sensitive to the stereoscopic world view afforded by his two eyes working in concert.

He says his new 2-D world is probably more crippling to him than it would be to many others because he had never relied on monocular vision. It was too limiting. Indeed, many of his extracurricular pastimes had been pursuits that venerated stereovision, such as trying his hand at 3-D photography and joining the local chapter of a society of similar stereophiles.

But ever the scientist, Sacks turned his new affliction into research, testing and logging the evolution of changes in the bad eye almost from day one. Slides taken of his notebook pages annotated Sacks’ presentation.

For instance, he noted that as his vision was deteriorating, it distorted images. He showed drawings he had made to record the weird contortions that grid patterns would develop. People’s bodies elongated into “grasshopper”-shaped figures. And although the top of the Empire State Building comes to a point, notebook drawings recorded how Sacks’ faulty right eye saw it: with the top flaring out, becoming wider than the base of the skyscraper’s top segment.

And throughout the months of treatment and recovery, the notebook recorded details on the researcher’s attempts to understand his flat 2-D environment. People in an elevator appeared to be paper-thin cut-outs stacked one atop the other. There was no depth to their assemblage. He couldn’t tell that the strange feature atop a parked fire truck was actually some structure on a building far behind it. They appeared attached.

Sacks still dreams in vivid 3-D . “And I tend to weep a little when I have a stereo dream and then wake from it. Monocular vision has proved at least as limiting as would color-blindness, he said.

But as vexing as this “stereo blindness” is, Sacks’ visual universe would soon morph further – into hallucinations.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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