The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat by Oliver Sacks

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Hardcover (available in trade), 233 pages, 1985

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I loved the title of this one when I saw it in the bookstore I worked at so I had to check it out.

Synopsis: In this series of case studies of neurological patients, Sacks looks at people who have lost certain neurological capacities, or gained extreme capacities, and examines how it affects them in their day-to-day living. Occasionally, Sacks explores treatments such as medication, or music, but often it is simply a recounting of the patient’s unusual neurological makeup.

Why you should read this book: If you’re fascinated by the bizarre ways that the human brain can function (or under function, or over function), this one’s for you. Sacks has had a wild mixture of patients, from the man who tries to pick up his wife to set her on his head as a hat, to twins who gleefully converse by mentally calculating 20-digit prime numbers and sharing them with each other, to people with brain damage that can read tone and facial expressions to an extreme degree while not understanding actual words, rendering them impossible to lie to or deceive. A fascinating look at both the brain’s ability to adapt, and peoples’ abilities to adapt to neurological change. Highly readable because it focuses on the people as much as the science.

Why you should avoid this book: An obvious drawback is the date the book was published – a lot can happen in almost twenty years in the field of science, not to mention being years behind our times of politically correct labels for people with mental disorders, so words like ‘simpleton,’ ‘retarded,’ and ‘idiot savant’ appear frequently. Another thing to keep in mind is that for the most part these are strictly case studies and often have no final outcome or ‘solution.

Opening paragraph:

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 a myriad other lacks and losses of specific functions (or faculties). For all of these dysfunctions (another favourite term), we have privative words of every sort – Aphonia, Aphemia, Aphasia, Alexia, Apraxia, Agnosia, Amnesia, Ataxia – a word for every specific neural or mental function which patients, through disease, or injury, or failure to develop, may find themselves partly or wholly deprived.

Fabulous quotes:

But the day of surgery Christina was still worse. Standing was impossible – unless she looked down at her feet. She could hold nothing in her hands, and they ‘wandered’ – unless she kept an eye on them. When she reached out for something, or tried to feed herself, her hands would miss, or overshoot wildly, as if some essential control or coordination was gone.
She could scarcely even sit up – her body ‘gave way.’ Her face was oddly expressionless and slack, her jaw fell open, even her vocal posture was gone.
‘Something awful’s happened,’ she mouthed, in a ghostly flat voice. ‘I can’t feel my body. I feel weird – disembodied.’

Their memory for digits is remarkable – and possibly unlimited. They will repeat a number of three digits, of thirty digits, of three hundred digits, with equal ease. This too has been attributed to a ‘method.’

But when one comes to test their ability to calculate – the typical forte of arithmetical prodigies and ‘mental calculators’ – they do astonishingly badly, as badly as their IQs of sixty might lead one to think. They cannot do simple addition or subtraction with any accuracy, and cannot even comprehend what multiplication or division means. What is this: ‘calculators’ who cannot calculate, and lack even the most rudimentary powers of arithmetic?

Also recommended: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon; Talk Talk Talk by Jay Ingram.

Also by this author: On Ageing; Vintage Sacks; Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood; An Anthropologist on Mars; Awakenings; The Island of the Colorblind; A Leg to Stand On; Migraine; Oaxaca Journal; Seeing Voices.

Author’s website:

© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2007

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