Review: Oliver Sacks’ The Man who mistook his wife for a hat

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Photo by: Wikimedia.org

It is not often that one will encounter a story that depicts the extraordinary lives of people with neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks is not only a well-known physician and neurologist but an award-winning author as well. The book “The Man who mistook his wife for a hat and other Clinical tales” is a collection of stories of the patients he has encountered in his career. It is a rather fascinating book that will show you not just the peculiar conditions of the people but also the feelings and emotions that come with these cases presented through Sack’s appealing way of storytelling.

The particular story of the “The Man who mistook his wife for a hat” captured my attention and sparked thoughts and ideas. Saying that it is a remarkable case just based on the title is an understatement. It is the story of a very talented musician, who Sacks referred to as “Dr. P.” who had an uncommon condition of being unable to interpret and recognize faces. Upon meeting him, you could tell almost instantaneously that he is of good disposition and dementia could not be the cause. But still, it’s quite obvious that there is something odd or not right about him. It was previously noted that he makes odd mistakes in relation to recognizing things and people around him. It is ironic that he used to be a professor and therefore interacts with people every day. Those “mistakes” caused feelings of embarrassment, incomprehension and even fear to Dr. P.

The storyteller (Oliver Sacks) conducted a series of interviews and tests to Dr. P. which revealed that there is nothing wrong with his eyes but with the visual parts of his brain. In fact, his visual acuity is rather good. He is a very curious man, and he sees minute details in things. When asked about things, he sees even the tiny features but somehow he failed to see the whole, the bigger picture. Yet, whenever he describes objects or what he sees, he seems pleased with himself, always with a smile on his face.

Oliver Sacks described the patient as a man of great cultivation and charm, who talked well and fluently, with imagination and humor. Through a particular scenario, Sacks was able to identify that there is no problem with him when it comes to abstract shapes, but he fails to identify expressions. Even when tested to identify his family, he just recognizes their features but not their faces. He has this indifference and blindness to expressions.

Another striking part was when he was presented with a rose, he clearly defined the features but was unable to recognize and appreciate it until he was able to smell it. Visually, he was lost in a world of lifeless abstractions. He could speak about things well and describe them extraordinarily, but cannot see their essence or persona.

You might wonder how he gets by in his daily life. Sacks discovered that he faced life with his ears. He has an excellent musical ability. What the visual parts of his brain lacked, his temporal lobes definitely compensated. He had a magnificent musical cortex. A very talented man he is, Dr. P.

If I will be given the privilege of interviewing Dr. P, I’ll be asking him the following supplemental questions after having administered the necessary tests:

  • Besides describing details of particular objects, how do they make you feel?
  • Can you describe the relationship that you have with your immediate family members?
  • Do you think that this particular condition of yours affects how you function and your happiness?
  • Can you tell about your most significant childhood memories?

Those people with aphasia function as precisely as a machine. Though our brain really is like a machine, our mental processes are not just abstract but personal as well. If that part becomes missing, we are just able to classify and categorize but unable to judge and feel. This case is a realization that sometimes disabilities go beyond what meets the eye.

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