Imagine what it would be like to one day wake up and find that you were suddenly completely blind. This is what happened to Vanessa Potter. Her condition is unique. It has no name. Over the course of the next six months, Vanessa slowly recovered her vision. Opening her eyes onto a watery, two-dimensional landscape, she saw an unrecognisably monochromatic world. As colour reappeared, Vanessa encountered a range of bizarre phenomena, from synaesthesia to discussions with inanimate objects - all part of her brain's mechanism for coping with the trauma of sensory loss and the recovery of her optic nerves.
Vanessa soon became a one-woman experimental subject, as a multidisciplinary team of neurobiologists, psychologists and immunologists tried to work out what had happened to her, and why, and what incredible things they might be able to learn from her. The scientists were fortunate to know exactly what she was experiencing through her audio diaries; her unique medical recovery offered a window into the way that the human optic system develops. A foetus can't explain what's happening as its optic system grows, develops, and clicks into action. Vanessa could. This mesmerising account tells the story of Patient H69 in her own words, based on these detailed diaries she kept during her time of blindness and through the scientific research that was to follow. Having helped open windows into some areas of developmental neurobiology that were barely understood before, this gripping story is a testament to the resilience of the brain itself.
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Better memoir than scientific account
3.5 stars. This is a book in two parts. The first part is memoir of a catastrophic medical event. The author, Vanessa Potter, rapidly loses her vision in the matter of 72 hours following what felt like a prolonged cold. Along with her vision, other cognitive function is hampered, including degradation of feeling in her hands and feet. This first part of the book, vividly written and meticulously detailed, is very good indeed. Potter, a producer, immediately endeavored to record her sensations (both via her family taking notes and her own recordings of her thoughts). As a result, there is an immediacy to the sensations and fear, the ignorance and groping for a diagnosis, the halting steps toward recovery.
The second part of the book is an exploration of the science behind what happened to her and how she managed a partial recovery. This part of the book, while solid, is not nearly as engrossing as the first part of the book. This is largely because she has presented much of the explanation in dialog between her and various specialists. This ends up feeling a bit stilted at time and may have been better presented without constant direct quotes (in many ways, it can feel like a transcript, made a bit unbelievable because of the constant affirmation of whoever she is talking to in a given dialog). Despite these shortcomings, it is still very interesting to learn what may have triggered her loss of vision (a condition related to her immune system) and how her brain attempted to regain some of that vision, as helped by not only neuroplasticity, but also a number of daily projects and activities that Potter engaged in that helped rebuild her sight. In the end, there is no fully rosy picture, as her recovered sight is not the same as her original sight -- she perceives muted colors, reds are mostly lost, and she describes her sight as like looking through a dirty window or in washed out sepia tones like an old photograph. But her recovery at all is amazing and her exploration of the brain and how it can heal is uplifting.
- S. Yates