An Anthropologist on Mars
Oliver Sacks, 1995
One section of A Short History of Nearly Everything introduced a Methodist minister named Robert Evans who had discovered over forty supernovas just by looking through his backyard telescope. He could spot the supernovas because he had memorized the positions of every visible star in 1500 galaxies and could therefore spot any new pinpricks of light at a glance. I wanted to read more about him, and discovered that Oliver Sacks had apparently written about him in a book called An Anthropologist on Mars. I had read Sacks’s earlier book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in high school on the recommendation of my English teacher, and it has stuck with me ever since: the book was a collection of a couple dozen short essays about people with various neurological conditions, and I remember nearly all of them, even though these days I can’t remember whether I’ve brushed my teeth in the past hour without checking whether my toothbrush is wet. An Anthropologist on Mars was billed as more of the same, only with seven long essays in place of a bunch of short ones, so I decided it might make for good listening during my many many hours stuck in traffic.
I took three main ideas away from this book and my subsequent poking around:
People get attached to the world as they perceive it. The central idea of the perceptual psychology class I took a decade or so ago was that the senses do not relay to us the way the world “is”; they relay impulses to the brain, which tries to make some sort of sense out of them. Often it resorts to wild guesses, which is why we can be fooled by optical illusions. But to speak of an “illusion” suggests that there is a correct way to interpret sense data, which is a problematic notion. Like, it’s easy to take someone who sees a red light and a green light as identical shades of brown and say that he can’t see their true colors, but why stop there? If the petals of a flower look plain to us, but vividly patterned to an insect that can see into the ultraviolet, are we seeing it wrong? If the background behind this text looks white to you rather than like a bunch of red, green, and blue rectangles, are you seeing it wrong? We have a deficit word, “blind”, for lacking the ability to sense a particular portion of the electromagnetic spectrum, and another, “deaf”, for lacking the ability to sense certain type of air pressure waves. For most of us, becoming blind or deaf would be a keenly felt loss. Yet it’s easy to imagine other senses: the ability to detect the mass of distant objects by sensing their gravitational pull, say, or an inner compass like those of migratory birds. We don’t coin words for lacking those senses or agonize over their absence. And while gaining one of those senses might seem like acquiring a superpower, if unaccustomed to it, it might feel like a curse.
The fourth chapter of An Anthropologist on Mars takes up the case of a man, blind since early childhood, who regains his sight after cataract surgery. But, as tends to be the case in such stories, vision does not turn out to be much of a gift. After decades of blindness, including crucial developmental years, his brain simply wasn’t wired for sight. If your experience of objects from very early on has been almost entirely tactile, it is bizarre for an object to seem to shrink and grow with distance, or partially disappear into a shadow. And it wasn’t just a matter of learning how to translate planes of color into an understanding of objects in space, because his mental model of the world wasn’t spatial—it was temporal, a system of sequences. To get from the sofa to the refrigerator meant standing up, taking five steps, turning left, taking ten steps, turning left, and pulling open the door. To ask how far apart the sofa and the refrigerator were would be like asking a musician how far apart the first verse and the third chorus of a song were. When he loses his sight after a serious illness, it comes as a relief—his return to the world of the blind is a homecoming. The flip side of this case is described in the first chapter, in which an artist suffers damage to the V4 area of his brain, the portion of the occipital lobe that translates pure wavelength data from the eyes into the experience of color. The result is grayscale, high‐contrast vision that he finds so grotesque that he considers suicide. One of the worst aspects of his condition is that since the source of the problem is his brain rather than his eyes, he can’t even remember color: not only are the tomatoes in his salad a repulsive black, but he can’t even imagine a tomato of any other color. And yet in a matter of months he has decided that he might not go back if given the choice. His night vision is now phenomenal—he can read a license plate from four blocks away—and he has discovered a world of patterns and textures now that they are no longer washed out by color. Since he can’t summon to mind the chromatic world, when he thinks of returning to it, he thinks not of what he’d gain but what he’d lose.
(But for all Sacks’s talk of how we shouldn’t see blindness or color‑blindness as a mere deficit but rather as an alternate way of processing input from the environment, creating another “order of human being”… I gotta say, as someone struck with a deficit (pleasure dissociation) that has not abated after seven years, mine is just a deficit. Not every cloud has a silver lining.)
Flow states alter consciousness in profound ways. Apparently this is something that Sacks followed up on in a later book, Musicophilia, but a couple of the chapters here touch on the way that music in particular seems to shift people into a state in which their disorders no longer affect them the same way. As I recall, this was how the subject of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” coped with his agnosia: he was able to perform daily tasks so long as he had a tune to accompany it, but was paralyzed by incomprehension when his tune was interrupted. The second chapter of An Anthropologist on Mars is about a man who suffers a massive brain tumor that leaves him blind, amnesiac, hormonally imbalanced, and virtually vegetative—but who springs to life when taken to a Grateful Dead concert. The stiff, jerky movements of the autistic boy in chapter six become fluid, even graceful, when he plays music, to the point that it moves Sacks to write “AUTISM DISAPPEARS” in big letters in his notebook. But it isn’t just music that produces these transformations. The third chapter concerns a surgeon with severe Tourette syndrome; his disorder nearly always makes a tic‑ridden chaos out of his movements, even when he’s driving a car or flying a plane… but when he’s operating, he can maintain perfect motor control for hours on end. Of course, that raises the question of how one goes about accessing these flow states. I guess I got into kind of a groove playing Minesweeper once.
Developmental delays are delays, not necessarily impasses. The last three chapters of An Anthropologist on Mars are about people with photographic memories. Chapter five concerns a man who, after a serious illness, found that he could conjure up a nearly perfect mental image of the Italian village in which he grew up, and became so fixated on it that he devoted his life to painting picture after picture after picture of it. As Sacks portrays him, he also spoke of virtually nothing other than this village. I looked up his paintings. They’re fine, but without the backstory of having been painted remarkably accurately from decades‑old memories, they wouldn’t really catch my eye. The same cannot be said for the work of autistic artist Stephen Wiltshire, the subject of chapter six. He’s apparently quite famous: he’s received an MBE for his art and has a museum in London dedicated to him. He, too, specializes in cityscapes, but he isn’t restricted to one small village: he can memorize a city at a glance, and later draw a picture that looks like this:
|He also works at street level:|
|There are Photoshop macros that will turn photographs into images that look quite a bit like these, and this guy’s got one in his head. Very cool. But in doing further research on Wiltshire, I discovered not only a bunch of excellent drawings, but also some that throw some of Sacks’s fundamental premises into question. Sacks says that Stephen Wiltshire, like other savants, “deviate[d] radically from normal development patterns”, in that his talents were “fully fledged from the start” and, as the years passed, “had not developed too greatly”. If this was true when Sacks wrote his article, it is most definitely not true now. Here’s a drawing Wiltshire did of the Tower Bridge as an adult:|
|And here’s a drawing of it that he did back in his child prodigy days:|
Oh, yeah, no development there.
I couldn’t help but wonder, if Sacks was so profoundly wrong about
this, what else in his book is equally off base?
The subject of chapter seven of An Anthropologist on Mars is Temple Grandin, of whom I’d already heard: she’s the autistic woman who combined her aptitude for engineering with her ability to intuit the underpinnings of cattle behavior to revolutionize the design of feed lots and slaughterhouses and make them slightly more humane, eventually landing a professorship in animal sciences at Colorado State University. (She was also the subject of an SAT passage back in my Deerfield days.) This movie isn’t actually based on An Anthropologist on Mars—though two other movies are—but apparently it swept the Emmys in its category, and I thought it’d be interesting to see Claire Danes do the Rain Man thing. Of course, that comparison is glib: this is a different sort of movie. It’s a biopic of an autistic person, rather than one in which an autistic person is a catalyst for someone else’s personal growth; therefore, there’s more interiority. We frequently see flashes of the world as Grandin sees it, with words triggering montages of associated pictures, and engineering schematics superimposed over the mechanisms she encounters. The filmmakers also give her a character arc of her own. The movie is not just about how she overcame obstacles (cruel classmates, peremptory administrators, sexist cattlemen, etc.) to achieve success; it’s also about her personal development. As a child, with the help of her devoted mother, she learns speech and some pro forma social niceties, and in adolescence and adulthood she gradually learns how to manage her autism and bond with people. One emblem of her journey is her invention of what she calls a “squeeze machine”, based on a device used to calm cattle. Discovering that the feeling of an embrace does ward off the panic attacks that strike her when she feels overstimulated or something is out of place, but unable to bear being hugged by people, she puts together a box to apply the necessary pressure. You can probably guess that the payoff of this story thread is that near the end of the movie, she accepts a hug from her mother. That seems like an invention to fill a Hollywood formula, but the real Temple Grandin is on record saying that she did in fact abandon her squeeze machine after adapting to human touch. It took sixty years, but again, it goes to show that in a lot of cases we’re talking about delays, not impasses. My guess is that to parents who’ve been told that their children will never do this or that, a delay of a mere sixty years sounds pretty good.