The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
Published in 1985
Genre: Nonfiction, psychology
“Neurology’s favourite word is ‘deficit’, denoting an impairment or incapacity of neurological function: loss of speech, loss of language, loss of memory, loss of vision, loss of dexterity, loss of identity and myriad other lacks and losses of specific functions (or faculties).”
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks is full of this type of language; those opposed to long and complicated medical terms that pertain to the brain should stop reading now (or continue reading; I’m not here to tell you how to live your life.). Compiling different cases throughout Sacks’ career as a neurologist, the book makes for a thought-provoking read. While the title sounds a bit ridiculous and possibly comedic, Sacks explores different types of neurological conditions with a careful and precise methodology that speaks to the universality of the human struggle.
Consisting of Sacks’ accounts of clinical tales, he begins by explaining the reason for writing the book in the format of sharing stories about the people involved in the cases. He argues that this additional context allows for better understanding of not only the specific symptoms of the neurological afflictions, but how they affect the patients. Diving into the lives of those afflicted by these disorders is far more conducive to understanding their daily impact than simply reading the details of assessment and treatment; there is a personal component that becomes necessary due to the nature of the work.
Like most scientists, Sacks seeks to categorize and divides the book into four sections: Losses (memory, proprioception), Excesses (Tourette’s syndrome), Transports (auditory and visual hallucinations), and World of the Simple (people with autism and learning disabilities). Each introduction gives helpful background and distinguishes it from the other sections. Every story tries to dig deeper into the patients (figuratively, of course), the consequences in their lives, and how they see themselves due to their disorders. While still using brain chemistry to diagnose, Sacks’ work focuses on the separate area of personality and the human being as such.
The title comes from the first story, which is about a man who cannot recognize complete faces. He can focus on the individual parts but is unable to combine them into one cohesive whole. He recognizes people by specific attributes and because of this, reaches for what he thinks is his hat, which turns out to be his wife (apparently she resembles a hat in some fashion…or because she was where he thought he set his hat), thereby giving the book its title.
Another story is about a 49-year-old man with retrograde amnesia, causing him to believe he is still 19. This raises the question of what makes us human if we don’t have memory; are we still complete people if we aren’t able to create new memories? However, after viewing the man during religious worship, Sacks sees how such a calming and habitual act allows the man to find a state of temporary bliss, revealing the remaining complexity of the human mind beyond its ability to understand its place in time.
Possibly the most memorable case is about Rebecca, whose tale is told in the final section, World of the Simple. She is a woman with autism who changes Sacks’ view of the intelligently deficit. Sacks originally believed that they exist less in the present world mentally than “normal” people, and it isn’t until after her grandmother’s death that he sees Rebecca grasp the concrete and symbolic in nature, comparing her grief to the winter but knowing that spring will follow. He admits that it took this demonstration for him to realize that these people can have full and rich lives with emotions as complex and potent as anyone else.
It is important to keep in mind that Oliver Sacks was a neurologist, so difficult and esoteric medical terms often pop up since the book is about his work. I would advise any novice reader of psychology and neurology (such as myself) to keep a dictionary handy (or open in an online browser, if you want to get all 21st Century about it). Some of the language is dated (I mean, the book is 32 years old.), but if viewed from a medical perspective and understanding the literal meaning of some antiquated words (i.e. retarded development, idiot savant, moron) the reader will realize that Sacks does not intend to insult. There are also post-scripts present for some stories that give further context after initial publication, which bestows insight by showing other similar cases or following up on the patient’s life.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat takes the reader beyond the realm of diagnostic science and looks at the people more than the disorders they exhibit. Sacks writes with a careful and practiced hand, easily categorizing and placing each case into its appropriate place within the book.
What truly stands out is not only that he was able to help many people, but that they reciprocated and changed not only his perspective, but who he was as a person. The only reason I gave this book a three was because some of it went over my head and while it piqued my interest as someone who once wanted to study psychology, a more intermediate knowledge of these terms and concepts on my end would have definitely made the book more enjoyable.
Verdict: 3 multi-syllabic neurological terms out of 5
Recommended for: Those interested in psychology, people unafraid of complicated neurological terms, fans of the writer learning something about him or herself through their interactions with patients, and you!
Not recommended for: People afraid of neurological and medical terms, those who don’t like looking up words they don’t know or understand while reading, fans of taking currently controversial terms such as retard and moron out of the context of the time the book was written, people who thought this book would be funny because of the title, or those who snickered while repeatedly reading “Sacks'” throughout this review.