The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

In his most extraordinary book, "one of the great clinical writers of the twentieth century" (The New York Times) recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aber...

Title:The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales
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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales Reviews

  • Mona

    I first heard about this book when my biology professor mentioned it in class in reference to right-brain and left-brain disorders. Just last year, I had the good fortune to see the author himself - Dr. Sacks - speak at the university in my hometown. He was a dynamic and entertaining speaker and from then on, I resolved to try out his books. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat matched its author. The book is a collection of case studies on Dr. Sacks's patients with neurological disorders. Sac

    I first heard about this book when my biology professor mentioned it in class in reference to right-brain and left-brain disorders. Just last year, I had the good fortune to see the author himself - Dr. Sacks - speak at the university in my hometown. He was a dynamic and entertaining speaker and from then on, I resolved to try out his books. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat matched its author. The book is a collection of case studies on Dr. Sacks's patients with neurological disorders. Sacks divides the book into four parts, each of which deals with "losses" and "excesses of neurological functions, "transports" of hallucinations, visions, and imagination, and "the simple", concerning the mentally or physically challenged, respectively.

    In one chapter titled "The Twins", Sacks describes a pair of twins who had the ability to factor large numbers in their heads, so much so that they could calculate the date of any day of the week in history. He discovers that numbers, especially prime numbers were, for them, a special sort of communication that required no thinking through but was instantaneous. In another chapter, Sacks relates how a previously healthy patient woke up one morning convinced that the leg lying in his bed was not his. Efforts to convince him otherwise (including his own efforts to toss it out onto the floor which resulted in the rest of him falling out as well) were fruitless. How and why do these pheomena occur? These are the questions Sacks attempts to answer.

    Although Sacks includes discussion of concepts that may be familiar only to psychologists or neurologists, the book is accessible to readers without that type of backgroud. It was extremely readable, such that I finished it in two days. My only complaint is that although Sacks includes a postscript to most of the chapters to explain further studies or new discoveries that occurred after he first met these patients, there is often no resolution to these stories. This is understandable, considering that many of the patients' disorders are unusual and may not have any resolution, but I still found it a little frustrating. I do, however, want to do more reading on this subject and look foward to reading Sacks' book titled Awakening.

  • Sheffy

    Despite so many people recommending this book, my high expectations were disappointed. Yes, it's perversely interesting to hear about neurological conundrums that afflict people in peculiar ways, but Sacks isn't a particularly good writer, nor does he have a good grasp on his audience. At times he obliquely refers to medical syndromes or footnotes other neurologists, as if he is writing for a technical physician audience, but on the whole his stories are too simplistic to engage such an audience

    Despite so many people recommending this book, my high expectations were disappointed. Yes, it's perversely interesting to hear about neurological conundrums that afflict people in peculiar ways, but Sacks isn't a particularly good writer, nor does he have a good grasp on his audience. At times he obliquely refers to medical syndromes or footnotes other neurologists, as if he is writing for a technical physician audience, but on the whole his stories are too simplistic to engage such an audience. He talks about phenomenology, but doesn't satisfactorily discuss mechanistically what is going on in the brain, so what's the point? To quote a friend in college, it's his own "mental masterbation"--he likes to show off how well-read he his, how many bizarre patients have been referred to him (or he's God's gift to them) and erudite his vocabulary is, but fails to clearly get his points across. On top of his confusing musings, his reconstructed dialogue is incredible unrealistic, it's clear why doctors need to learn to communicate better.

  • Dru

    Dear Dr. Sacks,

    On page 112 of the paperback edition of your book, the second paragraph begins with the following sentence:

    "And with this, no feeling

    he has lost feeling (for the feeling he has lost), no feeling

    he has lost the depth, that unfathomable, mysterious, myriad-levelled depth which somehow defines identity or reality."

    I've read this sentence at least twelve times, and I still don't even have the slightest inkling of what the hell it means. What is the subject? What is the ve

    Dear Dr. Sacks,

    On page 112 of the paperback edition of your book, the second paragraph begins with the following sentence:

    "And with this, no feeling

    he has lost feeling (for the feeling he has lost), no feeling

    he has lost the depth, that unfathomable, mysterious, myriad-levelled depth which somehow defines identity or reality."

    I've read this sentence at least twelve times, and I still don't even have the slightest inkling of what the hell it means. What is the subject? What is the verb? Why is the word "that" italicized (twice?)? Good God man, what are you trying to tell me?

    Sincerely,

    Baffled in Brooklyn

    Some people may think "well, if I read the whole chapter, I'm sure I could decipher the meaning." To those people I say: good luck, Charlie. I hope you may succeed where I have so miserably failed.

    This book has many fascinating studies of neurological disorders, and the stories behind the patients are easily understood and, in many cases, enthralling. However, Dr. Sacks seems to give his readers too much credit when he throws off "hyperagnosia", "Korsokovian", and "meningioma" like he assumes we had read an entire neurology textbook before picking this one up. Also, many of his sentences (like the example above) include so many digressions and sudden turns that each one could practically be its own M. Night Shaymalan film pitch. All of this might have to do with the fact that it was written in the eighties, when I presume people were smarter.

  • Tim

    I picked up this book because I am a fan of Oliver Sacks and his various speaking engagements (lectures, public radio interviews, etc)...but I have to say I was fairly nonplussed with it.

    While the case studies in and of themselves make for interesting reading, the tone of the writing is fairly "clinical" and...removed. Despite the review blurbs stating that these are "personal" and "touchingly human" looks at neurological disorders, I saw only a few glimpses of this warmth (an example that sprin

    I picked up this book because I am a fan of Oliver Sacks and his various speaking engagements (lectures, public radio interviews, etc)...but I have to say I was fairly nonplussed with it.

    While the case studies in and of themselves make for interesting reading, the tone of the writing is fairly "clinical" and...removed. Despite the review blurbs stating that these are "personal" and "touchingly human" looks at neurological disorders, I saw only a few glimpses of this warmth (an example that springs to mind is the "Returning To India" story).

    I can't really pin down what I didn't like about the book, but reading it, I had the sense I was being whisked in and out of hospital rooms by a busy, clipboard-toting doctor...which wasn't the best feeling.

  • Paquita Maria Sanchez

    This is not only an informative work on neurological disorders, but a humbling meditation on the beauty of imperfection. Through entering the worlds of a number of "limited" individuals, Sacks reveals the brain's (and therefore the individual's) remarkable ability to overcompensate for cognitive deficiencies. As a result of these heightened states of perception, the often frightening and infinitely compelling worlds of each individual are manifested in the means with which they organize and enga

    This is not only an informative work on neurological disorders, but a humbling meditation on the beauty of imperfection. Through entering the worlds of a number of "limited" individuals, Sacks reveals the brain's (and therefore the individual's) remarkable ability to overcompensate for cognitive deficiencies. As a result of these heightened states of perception, the often frightening and infinitely compelling worlds of each individual are manifested in the means with which they organize and engage with the ordinary, whether it be through mathematics, dance, music, or the visual arts. In simply dealing, they manage to transcend. Sacks explores the varying cognitive expressions of his patients without coming across as cold, sterile, or objectifying. Rather, he devotes a chapter to each individual case, creating in the reader a sense that they are engrossed in a series of fictional character studies, rather than a dry psychological manual or the surface-level observations and blind assumptions of a pompous intellectual. This would be a perfect starting point for anyone interested in learning a bit more about abnormal psychology.

  • Huda Yahya
  • Bookdragon Sean

    is a book about people with neurological disorders centred on issues with perception and understanding the world.

    The brain receives so much information each second, information we will never be consciously aware of. But what happens when the pathways start to break down? Weird and wonderful things evidently. Sacks reminisces over some truly bizarre case studies he encountered over his career. And, like the title suggests, one involves a man who mistook his

    is a book about people with neurological disorders centred on issues with perception and understanding the world.

    The brain receives so much information each second, information we will never be consciously aware of. But what happens when the pathways start to break down? Weird and wonderful things evidently. Sacks reminisces over some truly bizarre case studies he encountered over his career. And, like the title suggests, one involves a man who mistook his wife for a hat in his inability to accurately perceive people and his utter confusion regarding objects.

    It’s amazing really how someone like that can get through life. The way they see the world, the way they experience the realities of the everyday, will be vastly different to what you and I see. For them though it is normal. They don’t know that their mode of reality completely alien to everybody else’s. When this was published Sacks addressed some rather odd disorders but now, over thirty years later, this book is less shocking as many of these conditions have been normalised to an extent.

    is a mere curiosity, nothing more.

  • سلطان

    من أجمل ما قرأت في هذه السنة.

    لقد غيّر هذا الكتاب الكثير من المفاهيم الخاصة بالذاكرة عندي. كما تغيّرت عندي مفاهيم أخرى تتعلق بحالات الجنون والاكتئاب والحالات النفسية.

    هذا الكتاب ليس كتاباً طبياً، أو نفسياً، أو تجارياً. بل هو كتاب إنساني بالمقام الأول.

    هل تعرف قيمة ذاكرتك أيها الإنسان؟ هل تعرف قيمة حياتك بلا ذاكرة؟ بنصف ذاكرة؟ بربع ذاكرة؟ بذاكرة قديمة؟

    هل تعرف لماذا يتصرف بعض الأشخاص أحياناً بصورة تجعلنا نظن بأنهم مجانين؟

    وأخيراً.. هل تعرف كم فاتك إن لم تكن قرأت هذا الكتاب بعد؟

  • PattyMacDotComma

    This is such a classic that I can’t possibly “review” it, so I’ll just share some stories. Oliver Sacks was the much-loved, highly regarded neurologist who opened up the world of the mind and brain not only to doctors but also to the public.

    The well-known movie,

    , where he was played by Robin Williams, was based on his successful treatment of catatonic patients (including Leonard, played by Robert De Niro), “frozen” for decades after being afflicted with encephalitis. Sacks’s perce

    This is such a classic that I can’t possibly “review” it, so I’ll just share some stories. Oliver Sacks was the much-loved, highly regarded neurologist who opened up the world of the mind and brain not only to doctors but also to the public.

    The well-known movie,

    , where he was played by Robin Williams, was based on his successful treatment of catatonic patients (including Leonard, played by Robert De Niro), “frozen” for decades after being afflicted with encephalitis. Sacks’s perception and inspiration led to the trial which “awakened” them, and he continued to use his remarkable insight and warmth until he died in August 2015.

    This book is a collection of cases of people with various brain anomalies, some caused by accidents or illness and some conditions present at birth. It is disconcerting today to read some of the accepted references to patients in 1985: retardates, defectives, idiots, morons, simpletons.

    “The Man” of the title piece, lost not only the ability to recognise faces, he didn’t even know what a face was. When he tried to put his shoe and sock back on after a medical test, he picked up his foot and asked if that was his shoe. His wife was seated next to him, and he reached across and pulled on her head when looking for his hat. He was almost like a blind man, guessing what and where things were by feel, smell, taste. Yet he still functioned as a music school teacher and sang or hummed his way through his daily life to keep himself on some sort of track.

    Other cases include phantom limbs (gone but still painful), limbs that are perceived as foreign (it’s somebody else’s leg in my bed, doctor, and when I try to throw it out, I end up on the floor), and a woman who had completely lost her proprioception – which is our sense of where our body is in space (a common failing of drunks, but not to this extent). We know how to pick up our foot and move it forward. She had to concentrate every second on where her body was and what she needed to do or she folded up and collapsed. Couldn’t sit or stand without actively thinking about it.

    Another woman’s case is worth sharing, it’s so unusual:

    and so on. Incredible, isn’t it?

    Tourette’s, Parkinson’s, Syphilis, Epilepsy, so very many conditions that cause brain malfunctions. The last part of the book deals with retardation and autism and how Sacks discovered that many people who were considered to be without any intelligence actually did have views of the world --it just couldn’t be measured.

    He says testing measures deficits. It doesn’t allow for the human, as opposed to the neurological, vision of a person. It reminds me of the saying: Don’t judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree.

    Sacks says although our brain is computer-like, it is also personal and involves judging and feeling. Without that, our brains actually do become defective, and we can’t understand what is real and concrete, like “The Man”. He obviously can’t really interpret the world except the part he understands through music. And that still makes sense to him.

    But Sacks watched “hopeless cases” carefully, figured out what they reacted to when he spent time with them, and had the insight (and, dare I say, patience) to interact with them. They drew for him, played games, expressed themselves in their own way, and enjoyed his company.

    One simple, clumsy girl who couldn’t learn but who loved listening to her grandmother read stories, also loved being outside. He approached her in the park one day, and she gave him a huge smile, gestured, and then called out single words:

    Sacks realised she did have her own very clear, poetic, perception of the world after all.

    Regarding the people who seem to have unexplained abilities with numbers and calendars but who cannot perform on tests, he understands that they may see the world in numbers (as we see it perhaps in pictures or sounds).

    In 1966, he met a pair of severely impaired young twin men who always sat together giggling and calling out long numbers to teach other. They could also tell you any calendar date, but they didn’t seem able to “do” mathematics. Sacks started writing down their numbers, checked them, and discovered they were all, without exception, prime numbers (like 3 or 5, divisible only by 1 or by themselves, for those of you unfamiliar with primes.) But these were several digits long.

    So he got out his chart, sat with them one day, and then called out a prime number that was one digit longer than theirs. They were stunned! Sat and thought about it, smiled, and started calling out numbers the same length (7 and 8 digits). They eventually outstripped him (12 digits!), but Sacks had no way of checking anything more than 10. They ended up with 20 digits, which he had to assume were also prime.

    He quotes the mathematician Wim Klein, speaking about himself:

    I don’t know how much has changed in the thinking since this book was written, but I quite like his idea that we all respond to order and patterns, and while most of us respond in similar ways to similar things, some people need to have music to order their activities (“The Man” could function as long as he sang or hummed), some need numbers, some need nature. Given the right conditions, many people who were previously cast aside could enjoy life more on their own terms.

    He does caution about what we would now call “mainstreaming” people (to make them more like “us”). The number twins were separated to give them a better chance to live a normal life, which they did to some extent (catching public transport, etc.), but the joy seemed to disappear. What kind of price is that to pay to meet our standards instead of their own?

    It's a fascinating glimpse into a fascinating field of study. It’s scary to think how many people we’ve passed judgement on over the years who could have been freer to enjoy life if we’d figured out how to enable them.

    I’m looking forward to reading some of his newer work to see where it took him and whether or not we’re doing a better job of understanding the immense variation of the human condition today.

  • Patrick

    It's rare that I read non-fiction. It's just not my bag.

    That said, this is one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. I'm guessing I've brought it up hundreds of times in conversation.

    It's written by a neurologist who works with people who have stranger-than-usual brain issues. And not only are the cases interesting, but the way he writes about the people invovled is really lovely. It's not clinical at all. Not judgemental. It's very... loving, I would say. It's interesting to see someone

    It's rare that I read non-fiction. It's just not my bag.

    That said, this is one of the most fascinating books I've ever read. I'm guessing I've brought it up hundreds of times in conversation.

    It's written by a neurologist who works with people who have stranger-than-usual brain issues. And not only are the cases interesting, but the way he writes about the people invovled is really lovely. It's not clinical at all. Not judgemental. It's very... loving, I would say. It's interesting to see someone who obviously knows a lot of hard-line science write about these cases in terms that seem to me more suited to someone who would be a philosopher or a spiritualist.

    Amazing book. Can't recommend it highly enough...


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