The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Book Review)

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

The more one learns about the human brain, the more fascinating – and puzzling – it becomes. For those who want a hint of the depths we have yet to explore, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat contains twenty-four case studies of people with a wide variety of neurological ailments. All of these non-fiction stories were witnessed firsthand by author Oliver Sacks, leaving the reader acutely aware of how many more strange cases there must be beyond this single person’s experience. Though it’s a little dated now, having been written between the years of 1970 and 1985, it is still considered a classic in certain circles.

The people and conditions described here are definitely interesting, and Dr. Sacks comes across as the kind of cultured, empathetic man who is perfect to the role of helping damaged people get the most out of life. His writing style can be frustrating at times, though. I’m not sure who his target audience was, or if he even had one in mind. Most of the time, Sacks takes a high-level approach that will be comfortable to people with no knowledge of the science that drives his discipline. (It’s often easy to forget that his focus is on the neurological side of things, and not just general psychology.) But when he does bring up the physiology of the brain, it’s in passing references without much explanation. Apparently, the reader is expected to understand the significance of a lesion on this or that area of the brain. Similarly, Sacks frequently drops references to other doctors and their work. Again, there is often little context given, and the reader doesn’t always know why that particular case study is relevant at this time.

It also doesn’t help that most of these stories were first published independently in various places. The book simply takes the original articles and adds postscripts where necessary to tie them together or to update old information. The chapters range from a few pages long to nearly twenty, while some postscripts can be longer than the shorter chapters. Many of the articles would be greatly improved if they had been re-written to incorporate their postscripts’ information more naturally. This is especially frustrating when Sacks wants to compare different cases to each other. He is as likely to refer to a story that appears later in the book as he is to refer to an earlier one, meaning that (on a first read, at least), these comparisons mean as little to the reader as do the references to other doctors’ work. This is a shame, because there are a lot of interesting discussions to be had from these stories, and Sacks’ chapter-by-chapter approach does not do justice to these overarching questions.

That isn’t to say that the stories aren’t interesting in themselves. Some create interesting and memorable characters, such as the aging man perpetually trapped in his past as a nineteen-year-old sailor. Others raise intriguing questions, such as the man whose head trauma made him regain suppressed memories of a violent murder. Does that imply that the mechanism of suppression had been tied to a physical element of the brain? There are clever factoids that armchair philosophers like myself can take away in lieu of real medical training, such as the fact that phantom limbs are necessary in order for a person to use prosthetics. But the real gems of the book are when Sacks takes a quirky condition that is half-understood by the general public and gives us some appreciation for how their internal lives actually are. The case studies of a man who relied on his Tourette’s and the idiots savants who could do little but perform amazing calculations will stay with me and even inform my impressions of other people in the future.

Alternately incomplete, dry, and disorganized, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat can be difficult to appreciate at times. I had a few false starts before I got into it. I am glad that I did read it in the end, though. Despite its flaws, the book’s highlights will stick with me for a long time.

Grade: B-

  1. i know that a certain man who told his wife about this story in 1988 or 1989 and i just remembered it. He is a terribly sick individual and has left tracks all over the internet, just waiting for the police and his employer to find. it will help them catch him cause what goes around comes around. He thinks he is a great joker with a continual happy face. He can’t erase all his tracks now and evidence is piling up against him and he can’t control it. should anything happen to me, people have instructions on how to find him. i’ve instaled a “dead-man’s switch’

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