Interview by Henry Tischler
This interview was recorded on July 28, 1996 for the Cover-to-Cover radio show on WGBH-FM in Boston.
Dig into this interview in our podcast. Jacques Cousteau and George Washington Carver round out this special episode on self, sight, and deep-sea diving.
The Animated Transcript
I’d had a sort of haunting memory of an H.G. Wells story called The Country of the Blind, in which a lost traveler in South America blunders into an isolated mountain valley and finds a whole community of blind people, people who’ve been blind for three centuries and who have lost the very concept of sight and light. And who, in fact, regard him as demented or hallucinated, and having peculiar ideas produced by these pathologies in the face which he calls eyes.
Dr. Oliver Sacks is a pioneer of charting the landscape of the mind. Neurologist, anthropologist, bestselling author, Sacks’s reshaped our understanding of the brain’s resilience and adaptive powers.
I’m very interested in how people adapt to extremes, to the neurological extremes imposed by an illness, but sometimes, say, to other extremes. I’ve been fascinated by total color blindness, or achromatopsia, in which the person only sees, if you want, in shades of black and white, or shades of gray that there existed people who had never seen color and had no concept of color. Islands and mountain valleys and isolated places tend to concentrate rare genetic disorders. So I thought, possibly there is a valley of the colorblind, an island. In 1993 I went along to Guam and on some impulse, I asked my colleague whether he knew of any islands that were colorblind. And to my astonishment he said yes, there is one. The little island of Pingelap where a tenth of the population have it and a third of the population are carriers of the gene which, with a genetic defect which gives rise to it. I felt I had to go.
In the H.G. Wells story, the traveler regards himself as the norm and a superior, and, in fact, he finds that he, that the people in the village are so well adapted to their condition, that he is the one who blunders and makes mistakes and is regarded as abnormal. And I certainly sometimes have the feeling that the achromatopes felt that we, so-called normals, wasted a lot of time talking about color, referring to color, paying attention to something which for them was nonexistent, which they could only imagine as trivial.
I think the tables were turned a little bit. There was a little episode which occurred within minutes of us arriving on the island when we rather, perhaps contemptuously, said, how can you folk tell when a banana is ripe. You can’t distinguish green from yellow. The answer was to bring us a banana, which was a bright green banana, as it happened, and we felt this was an immediate illustration of their helplessness and their hopelessness. Until we tried the banana and it was perfectly ripe. They said, you see, you would have called this unripe, because you went by color. We went by texture, smell, feel, knowledge. They said, you’re narrow-minded, you just used color as a criterion and we used everything.
I guess the message that’s sort of coming through in this discussion here is that we do stigmatize people. People do have various problems that put them in isolation with others. But that as soon as there is a community that seems to form around these issues, that the rules start to change.
Yes. I think there is a sort of, a sort of a critical level. So that if a tenth, or a quarter, of the population has some condition, it has to be accepted as a legitimate form of life, and won’t be marginalized and sometimes won’t even be noticed.
Another thing that I read about and I thought that was was quite interesting, you went to a convention of people with Tourette’s syndrome?
Oh I think another experience which was also with one of these conventions, which took place in a sort of Tourettic hotel. I say a Tourrettic hotel because the owner of the hotel and his daughter had Tourette’s. There was a lot of understanding and liberty given to people with Tourette’s and when I went back to my room in the evening, I heard sort of howls and knockings and strange noises all around me, and I could be alone in the desert and I wouldn’t do this but somehow with everyone else doing it round me. Suddenly I felt I could do the same and I sort of joined them and sort of yelled and screamed and banged without really, just in a state of license. Although I think it did have a certain effect of emotional catharsis.
The attention that you’ve received because of your Awakenings book and then the film that was based on your book. What about that attention that you’ve received?
I think I was already, so to speak, well into middle age before it happened. So I, I think I probably remained essentially the same sort of rather inquisitive and shy and stubborn person but all sorts of things come my way now. I have a sort of freedom to follow them. So that if I hear of an island of the colorblind, or whatever, I can take off some time and go there. On the other hand, I feel frightened by the responsibility. I think I have to measure my words carefully. I don’t know what sort of resonances or influence they may have, and occasionally everything gets too much for me. Then I do what I have just done, which as I take off for another island and I’ve just come back from Curacao, and there I did nothing but swim and dive and sort of completely forgot patients, and neurology, and everything else.
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