The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

One way I keep myself in a creative mode is by reading books that make me see things differently. I returned to an old friend this week, by re-reading a classic of popular science literature, neurologist Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales. I can't recommend the work of Dr. Sacks highly enough, particularly for writers. I'm a lover of popular science; I devour Nova on PBS, adore Carl Sagan and his Cosmos series, and used to read my family's Mayo Clinic Home Health Reference just for fun. But for those of you without an interest in science and medicine, Sacks' books still have fascinating stories to tell. Dr. Sacks presents a wide variety of case histories in this book, showing how strokes or disorders of the brain can cause radical changes in our ability to think, our memories, and even the way we know ourselves to be human. In each case history, Dr. Sacks does not just present a dry account of a disorder and the medical response; he raises discerning questions about what element of the brain makes us feel like ourselves, and whether this or that process and ability defines the human soul.

A few stories stand out in particular. One woman, following a sudden inflammation of nerves all over her body, is struck by a total loss of proprioception, the little-known "sixth sense" that allows us to be aware of our own bodies. Suddenly her body is a stranger to her; she is unable to control a muscle unless she stares directly at it. It is truly disturbing to understand the process that makes us feel in control of our own bodies, and how it possible to feel entirely alien in our own skin.

Another story follows a man with a total loss of short term memory. Like the character in the movie Memento, this man has lost the ability to make new memories, and believes himself to still be a nineteen-year-old living in the 1940's, while actually a fifty-year-old decades later. Each doctor and nurse he must be re-introduced to endlessly; each time he is confronted with a mirror, he is shocked and horrified to see his aged face. In this chapter, Dr. Sacks wonders if the patient's ability to have a self, or even a soul, has been lost; can you have a sense of the continuity of your self if you can't remember who you are?

I'll let you read the book to find out Dr. Sacks' conclusion. Above all, Oliver Sacks brings humanity to medicine; he allows himself to question the same things writers do, by wondering what makes us human, how relationships affect us, and how we can preserve our sense of self.