Seeing Voices by Oliver Sacks

Seeing Voices by Oliver SacksSeeing Voices, first published 1989, is an odd book. Partly it deals the history of the education, culture, politics, experience, and isolation of the deaf (not normally things that I would cover here). Partly it deals with the science of how sensory inputs and language are processed in the brain (at least, as it was understood at the time). Partly it is a mess of footnotes, many of which are more interesting than the main text (do yourself a favor and make sure you get an edition that has the footnotes on each page and not at the back!). This lack of integration makes the book a frustrating read at times, but I still found it worthwhile.

Like most others (according to Sacks) I would have thought that, given the choice, it would be better to be born deaf than blind. In fact, those born deaf have historically had a much more difficult time in becoming part of society because of their inability to talk and listen to others. It’s not so much the communication itself that is the main problem: it’s the fact that language is so crucial to the development of abstract thought. If no one has been able to explain the concept of tomorrow or next week to you, then it is almost impossible, explains Sacks, for you to reason about making plans in time.

This basic fact turns out to be intrinsic to problems that the deaf have had on-and-off for centuries. When isolated from other deaf people, or  prevented from using the sign languages that were most natural for them, they were unable to develop intellectually. With this deficit, and their obvious inability to speak, the term “dumb” eventually came to mean stupid. Sacks shows how fashions in education—these were mainly, though not exclusively, swings from teaching sign to speech/lip reading and back again—essentially determined when the deaf were able to move forward and when they were not.

Sacks paints a vivid picture of what signing looks like for those of us that haven’t really used it: explaining, for example, how the layout of a house can be drawn with such intricate detail that you can really ‘see’ all of it’s features as if a model had been built in front of you. To me, this is a fascinating example because it shows how different spoken and visual language can be: instead of moving sequentially through or around rooms as we would with our temporally based language, the deaf can use their enhanced spatial perception to see thing as a whole.

I found the history of the Gallaudet strike (where students at a US university for the deaf campaigned to have a deaf president) a bit tedious: human rights struggles are important, and must be won, but blow-by-blow accounts are not necessarily interesting twenty years later. Also, because this is a popular book, the discussions of how language operates in the brain are not as plentiful or detailed as I would like. That said, many of the ideas discussed have been more-or-less superseded by now and there was, in any case, enough discussion of sensory substitution, visual enhancement, etc. to get me thinking.

Those interested in deaf history and culture will undoubtedly find this book valuable. Those interested in sensory substitution and the link between language and education will also find much to think about. However, if you are specifically interested in how the brain processes sensory information and language—though there is definitely something for you here—other books may come higher up the list.

**/*** Worthwhile