Book Review: The Island of the Colorblind

The cover of Oliver Sack’s book: The Island of the Colorblind. Featuring a sideview of a drawing of a human head with the brain visible and 9 different colors coming out of the front end.

The Island of the Colorblind

Oliver Sacks
Vintage
2012

“As a kid I used to think it would be nice to see colors,...I suppose it might open up a new world… but it would also be very confusing. Color is something you have to grow up with, to mature with-- your brain, the whole system, the way you react to the world.”

In a dim-lit West Loop bar, I sat next to a medical student chatting about our love for science. My hands were quite animated as I emphasized the microscopic size of the nematode used for neurobiological research. Noticeably to him, my watch--with a white band and gold-rimmed white face-- stood out. Although he seemed attentive, he interrupted me and said, “You know, I like your watch. You coordinated very well today, it combines your pants.” Complimenting fashion? Perhaps this was my date’s attempt to gain points? But in fact, it wasn’t until the end of our dinner that he told me he was born color blind, and therefore he was very tuned into the coordination of shades, and “white” specifically was attractive (bright) to see. This was my first and only encounter with a color blind person, and I was fascinated to meet someone who perceived the world in a visually distinct manner than my own.

Congenitally color blind individuals are “achromats.” While there is a low prevalence of this retinal disease globally (1 per 30,000), the incidence of this is significantly higher in Micronesia, where it is seen in about 1 out of every 12 Pingelapese Islanders. I picked up Sack’s book The Island of the Colorblind with expectations to learn more about the lifestyle differences of those affected by achromatopsia.

Rather spontaneously, Oliver Sacks invites a Norwegian contact, Knut Nordby, a scientist and also an achromat, to visit the islands of Micronesia with him. We quickly learn how Knut’s personal experience with achromatopsia aids in building a relationship with the islanders.  Like him, they too are sensitive to daylight and have an extreme awareness of which colors “match.” Marvelously, we perceive the immediate happiness from a boy who received visor sunglasses from Sacks and Knut to aid his vision in broad daylight (achromats on the island continually squint and avoid wandering outside at all).

As a devoted observer of the world, Oliver Sacks does more than inform the reader: he also invites us in his island adventures. With compelling narration he engages us with his free-spiritedness, describing his sakau-induced relaxation on the Pohnpei beach, seeing the night sky “hanging on the stars;” to canoeing through the narrow canals of Nan Mandol surrounded by the ancient basalt columns.  He captivates the reader to imagine island life and its bountiful biodiversity, from the “iridescent, blue greenish” of the fern Trichomanes elegans to the bioluminescent protozoa Noctiluca spotted by the achromat Knut.

Read more about achromatopsia and those affected. To watch live feed from their journey, click here.


Lillian PerezComment