The best books on blindness and the brain

Who am I?

Thanks to a degenerative retinal eye disease, I’ve lived on pretty much every notch of the sight-blindness continuum. While going blind super slowly I’ve engaged with the science of seeing and not-seeing as an  academic and artist for about 25 years. I like to say that there are as many ways of being blind as there are of being sighted, there are just fewer of us. Besides teaching literature and humanities courses at NYU, I’ve lectured on art, accessibility, technology, and disability at universities and institutions around the country. I love sharing stories about the brain on blindness, and hope you find my recommendations as fascinating as I do.


I wrote...

There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness

By M. Leona Godin,

Book cover of There Plant Eyes: A Personal and Cultural History of Blindness

What is my book about?

From Homer to Helen Keller, Dune to Stevie Wonder, the invention of braille to the science of echolocation, There Plant Eyes probes the ways in which blindness has shaped our ocularcentric culture, challenging deeply ingrained ideas about what it means to be “blind.” Blindness has been used to signify thoughtlessness (“blind faith”), irrationality (“blind rage”), and unconsciousness (“blind evolution”). At the same time, blind people have been othered as the recipients of special powers as compensation for lost sight, such as the poetic gifts of John Milton and  the heightened senses of the superhero Daredevil.

Godin—who began losing her vision at age ten—illuminates the often-surprising history of both the condition of blindness and the myths and ideas that have grown up around it.

The books I picked & why

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The Mind's Eye

By Oliver Sacks,

Book cover of The Mind's Eye

Why this book?

For me, thinking about blindness and the brain all started with an essay by Oliver Sacks called “To See and Not See” (An Anthropologist on Mars). In The Mind’s Eye Sacks picks up some of the threads of that earlier essay and goes deep into how seeing is not just a matter of having functioning eyes. From the pianist who could  suddenly no longer read music to blind people (like myself) who still consider themselves very visual, these neurological tales are intellectually intriguing and emotionally compelling. Sacks even includes his own journal of vision loss as one of the case studies. But whether he is the patient or the doctor, his distinct voice and personal connection to his subject matter has had a huge influence on my own writing.

The Mind's Eye

By Oliver Sacks,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Mind's Eye as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How does the brain perceive and interpret information from the eye? And what happens when the process is disrupted?

In The Mind's Eye, Oliver Sacks tells the stories of people who are able to navigate the world and communicate with others despite losing what many of us consider indispensable senses and abilities: the capacity to recognize faces, the sense of three-dimensional space, the ability to read, the sense of sight. For all of these people, the challenge is to adapt to a radically new way of being in the world - and The Mind's Eye is testament to the myriad…


An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

By John Locke, Kenneth P. Winkler (editor),

Book cover of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

Why this book?

This seventeenth-century offering is where the famous Molyneux Man first appears in the form of a question: If a man born blind and capable of distinguishing a cube from a sphere by touch, was suddenly made to see, would he be able to distinguish the two objects by sight alone? The answer was a resounding “no!” Just as we must learn to read, we must learn to see, gradually building up connections between our sense of touch and our sense of sight. This was a revelation to me when I encountered it as a person going blind and learning to not-see. If humans are not exactly born blank slates, we are certainly unfinished ones, whose environments and education supply us with knowledge and brain power to perceive the world.

An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

By John Locke, Kenneth P. Winkler (editor),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked An Essay Concerning Human Understanding as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Includes generous selections from the Essay, topically arranged passages from the replies to Stillingfleet, a chronology, a bibliography, a glossary, and an index based on the entries that Locke himself devised.

See What I'm Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses

By Lawrence D. Rosenblum,

Book cover of See What I'm Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses

Why this book?

Perceptual psychologist Lawrence Rosenblum’s book changed the way I thought about my brain on blindness and gave me hope about its ability to adapt. I was astonished by blind painters and mountain bikers, but more importantly, I learned that what often strike us as superpowers, are actually the result of practice and the cross-modal plasticity of the brain. The sighted brains that change after only five days of blindfold and intensive braille training, the experiments that demonstrate how humans can follow a scent trail, and the ways blind people (and sighted people) use echolocation to learn about their micro and macro environments (even if they are not always conscious of it), are just some of Rosenblum’s many examples that are as fun as they are fascinating.

See What I'm Saying: The Extraordinary Powers of Our Five Senses

By Lawrence D. Rosenblum,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked See What I'm Saying as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this revealing romp through the mysteries of human perception, University of California psychologist Lawrence D. Rosenblum explores the astonishing abilities of the five senses-skills of which most of us are unaware. Drawing on groundbreaking insights into the brain's plasticity and integrative powers, Rosenblum examines how our brains use the subtlest information to perceive the world. A blind person, for example, can "see" through bat-like echolocation, wine connoisseurs can actually taste the vintage of an obscure wine, and pheromones can signal a lover's compatibility. Bringing us into the world of a blind detective, a sound engineer, a former supermodel, and…


A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

By Jason Roberts,

Book cover of A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

Why this book?

If the word “echolocation” pricked up your ears in my previous recommendation, I think you’ll love this book which is both a biography and a deep dive into how one blind person used the senses he had to become the first person to go around the world. James Holman (1786-1857) lost his sight at the age of 25 while he was an officer in the British Royal Navy. His career was cut short and he refashioned himself as an author and adventurer known as the “blind traveler.” Roberts explains how Holman used his gentleman’s walking stick not only to detect obstacles and level changes in his immediate environment, but also used the sound of the metal tip bouncing off objects to guide him through far-flung regions of the world.

A Sense of the World: How a Blind Man Became History's Greatest Traveler

By Jason Roberts,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Sense of the World as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.


Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

By David Eagleman,

Book cover of Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

Why this book?

Neuroscientist David Eagleman uses a delightful array of examples—from historical to contemporary, geological to quotidian—to explain the marvels and complexities of the human brain. Although, as someone who lost all her sight later in life, I sometimes find myself wishing for the brain plasticity of a two-year-old, I am grateful for the amount of change that can occur in even the older brain. Most excitingly to a blind person living in an ocular centric world, Livewired reveals how “Sensory organs feed many different information sources to the brain,” and the consequence of this diversity is that: “your brain doesn’t know, and it doesn’t care, where the data come from.” I can only hope reading this book helps non-blind humans learn to be as impartial as their brains.

Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

By David Eagleman,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Livewired as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

What does drug withdrawal have in common with a broken heart? Why is the enemy of memory not time, but other memories? How can a blind person learn to see with her tongue or a deaf person learn to hear with his skin? Why did many people in the 1980s mistakenly perceive book pages to be slightly red in colour? Why is the world's best archer armless? Might we someday control a robot with our thoughts, just as we do our fingers and toes? Why do we dream at night, and what does that have to do with the rotation…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in the brain, the senses, and travelers?

6,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about the brain, the senses, and travelers.

The Brain Explore 103 books about the brain
The Senses Explore 11 books about the senses
Travelers Explore 13 books about travelers

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat And Other Clinical Tales, The Happy Brain, and SuperSense if you like this list.