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Oliver Sacks on Ripe Bananas

"I’m very interested in how people adapt to extremes” - Oliver Sacks on July 28, 1996

AIRED: January 24, 2017 | 0:06:28

(light music)

- I had 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 have 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

of the face, which he calls eyes.

- Doctor Oliver Sacks is a pioneer

of charting the landscape of the mind.

Neurologist, anthropologist, best selling author,

Sacks has 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, isolated places

tend to concentrate rare genetic disorders,

and so I thought possibly there is a valley

of the colorblind, an island.

In '93, I went along to Guam.

On some impulse, I asked my colleague

whether he knew of any islands of the colorblind,

and to my astonishment, he said,

"Yes there is one."

He said, "The little island of Pingelap,

where a tenth of the population have it,

and a third of the population are carriers

of the 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 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 had 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 non-existent,

which they can only imagine as trivial.

(light music)

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 were rather, perhaps, contemptuously said,

"How can you folk tell when a banana's 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 the helplessness and the hopelessness

until we tried the banana, and it was perfectly ripe,

and they said, "You see, you would've 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.

We used everything."

- [Henry] 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 insolation

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 critical level,

so that if a tenth or a quarter of the population

have 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.

(light piano music)

- [Henry] Another thing that I read about

was quite interesting, you went to a convention

of people with Tourette's Syndrome?

- [Oliver] 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 Tourettic hotel because the owner of the hotel

and his daughter had Tourette's,

so it 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 little howls and knockings

and strange noises all around me,

and I could be alone in a desert,

and I wouldn't do this, but somehow,

with everyone else doing it around me,

suddenly I felt I could do the same,

and I sort of joined them and yelled and screamed and banged

without really just in a state of license,

although I think it did have a certain effect,

an emotional catharsis.

(light piano music)

- [Henry] The attention that you've received

because your Awakenings book

and then the film that was based on your book,

what about that attention that you've received?

- [Oliver] I think I was already, so to speak,

well into middle age before it happened,

and so 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,

and I have a sort of freedom to follow them,

so that if I hear of an island of the colorblind

or whatever, I can then 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,

and that I do what I've just done,

which is I take off for another island.

I've just come back from Curacao.

There I did nothing but swim and dive

and sort of completely forgot patients and neurology

and everything else.

(light piano music)

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