Wednesday 4 July 2012

The Island of the Colourblind - Oliver Sacks

Every now and then I pick up something which couldn't be further away from my dual comfort zones of 1920s-housewife and quirky-domestic, and end up being captivated.  So... now for something completely different!

I already knew that I loved Sacks' book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, and I have one or two of his books in various places - including The Island of the Colourblind (1997) (sorry, I can't bring myself to give the American title, blame my English student sensibilities).  I can't remember what it was that catapulted the book from shelf to hand - perhaps one too many novels with teacups and maids? - but it did indeed find its way there, and I whipped through it in a day or two.

The title and blurb both offer slightly false information - suggesting that there is an entire community of colourblind people on the 'tiny Pacific atoll' Pingelap.  It turns out that the incident of achromatopsia (symptoms are complete colourblindness - i.e. everything in greyscale - and a high sensitivity to light) is in fact one in 12 of the population.  It's still wildly more than the rest of the world - where achromatopsia is found in one in 30,000.  Even though it is not the isolated, uniform community which Sacks initially hoped to find, he does highlight the emotional benefits of this high incidence:
There was an immediate understanding and sharing between them, a commonality of language and perception, which extended to Knut as well. [...] When a Pingelapese baby starts to squint and turn away from the light, there is at least a cultural knowledge of his perceptual world, his special needs and strengths, even a mythology to explain it.  In this sense, then, Pingelap is an island of the colourblind.  No one born here with the maskun finds himself wholly isolated or misunderstood, which is the almost universal lot of people with congenital achromatopsia elsewhere in the world.
Amongst that number is the mentioned Knut - a Scandinavian scientist who both has and investigates the condition.  When Sacks offers Knut the chance to accompany him, Knut leaps at the chance - and his experience with the condition proves invaluable as a point of connection between the outsider Westerners and the inevitably intimate island society.  (Sacks is occasionally rather scathing about other Westerners who have visited, especially missionaries, but I suppose I couldn't expect him to share my views on them - and, unlike his view of other visitors, he never considers his own work and provisions as a colonial activity.)  Knut also provides a sophisticated, intelligent and thorough angle of living with achromatopsia amongst millions who don't.
Not thinking, I enthused about the wonderful blues of the sea - then stopped, embarrassed.  Knut, though he has no direct experience of colour, is very erudite on the subject.  He is intrigued by the range of words and images other people use about colour and was arrested by my use of the word "azure."  ("Is it similar to cerulean?")  He wondered whether "indigo" was, for me, a separate, seventh colour of the spectrum, neither blue nor violet, but itself, in between.  "Many people," he added, "do not see indigo as a separate spectral colour, and others see light blue as distinct from blue."  With no direct knowledge of colour, Knut has accumulated an immense mental catalogue, an archive, of vicarious colour knowledge about the world.
It reminded me somehow of Helen Keller's accounts of living as a blind, dumb, death woman in a world which is largely none of these things - and the sensitivity with which she perceives how others might perceive her world.

There is no cure for achromatopsia, but it is a condition which becomes much more manageable with the simple expedient of dark glasses and strong magnifying glasses.  The next island Sacks visits, Guam, has a more debilitating illness shared by much of the population: Lytico-Bodig disease.  (I'm just realising how unlike my normal posts this is!)  It's a neurological disease which manifests itself in symptoms like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.  Despite decades of research, nobody has worked out what caused this - but nobody born in the past few decades has shown any symptoms.  Sacks gets a bit too involved in the history of research into the disease for my understanding, but more personal accounts of people living with the condition cannot but be moving.

Sacks is certainly a learned neurologist, but his books are not textbooks in their style.  He has the gift of interweaving the scientist and the storyteller.  His narrative is moving and personal, rather than the impersonal facts and figures one might anticipate from a scientific study.  Perhaps it is most poignant when Sacks realises the limitations of his work:
To calm her, the family started to sing an old folk song, and the old lady, so demented, so fragmented, most of the time, joined in, singing fluently along with the others.  She seemed to get all the words, all the feeling, of the song, and to be composed, restored to herself, as long as she sang.  John and I slipped out quietly while they were singing, suddenly feeling, at this point, that neurology was irrelevant.
I wouldn't ever browse the science sections of bookshops, and I don't remember how I first stumbled across The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, but I'm very glad I did.  The Island of the Colourblind (a play on Wells' The Island of the Blind, which I should mention before this post ends) isn't as captivating as that book, but it is a rather different kettle of fish.  Instead of many psychological disorders and fascinating patients, Sacks explores two communities - more slowly, more deeply, and even more sympathetically.  There was a danger in The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat that it could feel a bit like giving a penny to see a freakshow (although I'm sure that's not what Sacks intended.)  The Island of the Colourblind invites the reader onto two islands, to become, however briefly, a concerned member of two very different communities - not watching from the outside, but sympathising from the inside.  The fascinating statistical aberrations are still there, as are some as-yet unexplained mysteries, but this is primarily a very human study - and a narrative which treads the path between science and storytelling, almost always with impressive success.


  1. I've seen so many great reviews of Oliver Sacks's books, and they do sound interesting. One of these days...

    On the subject of color, I heard a great story a few weeks ago about how humans and animals perceive color. I don't know if the show (Radiolab) is available in the UK, but here's the link, just in case:

    1. Oo, thanks for the link, Teresa...
      Sacks is great, based on my slim experience, for making complex things accessible and fascinating.

  2. I know Eva at A Striped Armchair raves about Sacks, so he's been on my radar for a while. Now, I see that I really must try him for myself!

    1. I'd forgotten that - I must go and dig through Eva's Sacks reviews - thanks!

  3. I adore Sacks' books and have them all. I do read quite a lot of non-fiction, but his are ones I return to again and again. In fact, I should have added one into my Month of Rereading pile!


  4. I ve not read him ,saw film made of awakenings ,I love this island has so many people it shows how small gentic pool could cause this to happen ,like the Russian royals having heamophilla ,all the best stu

    1. I didn't realise there was a film. I have read some of Pinter's plays based on the book.


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