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Friday, December 17, 2010

The Mind's Eye, Ears, Nose & Throat: Use Them or Lose Them!

In his latest book, The Mind’s Eye, neurologist and psychiatrist-physician Oliver Sacks explores the resilience of human compensatory powers that arise after the loss of senses and perceptual-cognitive abilities that we take for granted. These include speech, the ability to recognize faces (Sacks’ own personal challenge), perception of three-dimensional space, reading, and eyesight. The book’s final, eponymous chapter, much of which appeared in a 2004 New Yorker article, focuses on how different individuals who lose their sight develop very different perceptual-cognitive coping powers and strategies.

The chapter first draws on four memoirs, the first of which depicts John Hull, a professor of religious education in England, who after losing his sight at 43, fell fast into what Sacks describes as an “acquiescent descent into deep blindness.” After that Sacks takes a u-turn, describing three who have lost their sight but [counterintuitively to many among the sighted] have compensated by developing extraordinary visual powers in their “mind’s eye.” The first learned to construct a vivid visual world with engineering precision. The second learned to visualize equally vivid, but aesthetically couched, mental pictures of landscapes and rooms, environments and scenes. The third developed supernormal powers of visualization and visual manipulation—the ability to visualize and manoeuver people, objects, landscapes.

Oliver Sachs also interviewed Dennis Shulman, a clinical psychologist, psychoanalyst, and rabbi, who observed:

. . . I have very visual memories and images. . . My wife, whom I have never seen—I think of her visually. My kids, too. I see myself visually—but it is as I last saw myself, when I was 13, though I try hard to update the image.
When giving public lectures, Dennis confesses to “seeing” his Braille notes visually. He also can recognize many of his patients by smell.

Dennis Shulman and the wasps. The author of this blog was friends with Dennis when he was 13. Many of our mutual friends knew that he was approaching blindness, but were not sure to what degree. Like a family secret, it wasn’t discussed. At about that time, Dennis was central in a short-lived childhood trauma. Seated with several friends at a picnic table in my back yard, he stuck his foot in a yellow jacket hole. Our flight instinct was automatic--so all-consuming, that we didn’t realize that we had left Dennis behind until we saw him through my kitchen window, still flailing at wasps back at the picnic table. Fortunately, my mother’s protective instinct was as involuntary as our own had been—she had him back inside the house before any of us could blink.

Bardic Skills in Jeopardy? While reading Nine Lives, William Dalrymple’s eclectic collection of portraits of spiritual practitioners in India, I came across an example that dovetailed with The Mind's Eye. Dalrymple’s portrayal of Mohan Bhopa, a Rajasthani singer and performer of epics, reveals the bard’s almost preternatural recall of The Epic of Pabuji, a 4000-line, 600-year-old poem that typically takes five nights of eight-hour dusk-to-dawn performances to complete. Ironically, increasing literacy appears to be in part responsible for the demise not only of the bardic tradition but for gaps in the collective bardic oral memory.

Citing the work of Harvard classicist Milman Parry, who in the 1930s went to Yugoslavia to study bardic oral traditions, Dalrymple observes:

I asked whether the bhopas (bards/singers of epics) were illiterate. Milman Parry had found in Yugoslavia that this was the one essential condition for preserving an oral epic. It was the ability of the bard to read, rather than changes in the tastes in his audience, that sounded the death knell for the oral tradition. Just as the blind can develop a heightened sense of hearing, smell, and touch to compensate for their loss of vision, so it seems that the illiterate have a capacity to remember in a way that the literate simply do not. It was not lack of interest, but literacy itself, that was killing the oral epic
  Performing the Epic: See John Smith's article and photos.

If you consider yourself among the handful of readers reconciled to this blog, W&P invites you begin the hadj of committing it to memory. W&P may be just the thing to populate those vast unproductive expanses between you and your therapist.

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