As well as exploring many other patient’s stories, Sacks’ own anecdote in his latest novel ‘The Mind’s Eye” (Picador, 2010) candidly talks about his experiences with an ocular melanoma in his right eye. The treatment required cutting the eye muscle to insert a radioactive plate for 72 hours, zapping the malignant cells. When unsuccessful, this is eventually followed by laser treatment which damages the fouvea – the part of your eye which delivers your central vision.
In the following weeks of recovery he experiences is extraordinary explosions of vision, with the brain suddenly spurting blowouts of bright light and colour as it tries to heal its burned, charred parts and reconnect tissues and messages between optical nerves and occipital lobe.
Colour becomes a riddle for him. Holding up a green apple in his peripheral vision, it is green, but when moved in front of his body (and thus it is viewed by the fouvea) it becomes black; same for bluebells in a meadow – with the untreated eye they remained blue but seen with the damaged eye the flowers became green with the grass.
Similarly, the scotoma or black hole in his central vision behaves as if a sci-fi beast, changing its pattern and colour to suit his surrounds; black when he opens his eyes, if looking at a white wall, the shape would suddenly change to white to match it, or to match the pattern when looking at brick walls, or chess boards.
The colour soon returns to the apples, and he experiences a heightened sense of vision whereby he sees images in his memory long after the event; a kind of heightened visual memory.
It’s an incredible cerebral experience told by such an eloquent physician.
Among his many books, Oliver Sacks has also written ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat’, ‘Awakenings’, and ‘Musicophilia’.