Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985)

Oliver Sacks is a neurologist with a sharp sense for some of the stranger manifestations of brain injuries, bringing a literary flair to his write-ups of the cases he has worked on. Some critics have dubbed him "the man who mistook his patients for a literary career." It may or may not be true that he is an opportunist, but there's no question he's a good writer and storyteller. The some two dozen "clinical tales" featured in this one present all manner of bizarre results from brain injuries or conditions, often involving the right hemisphere of the brain. In the title piece, his patient suffers from an inability to assemble the visual details of physical objects into a wholeness that enables him to recognize them. Trying to figure out what a glove is, for example, he describes it as, "A continuous surface, infolded on itself. It appears to have five outpouchings." As to its purpose, his guess is that it is some kind of organizing change purse. In the incident that provides the title of the book, this patient looks at his wife in Sacks's office as they are preparing to leave. Some visual detail about her head—perhaps the roundness, or the color or texture of her hair—makes him believe it is his hat, which he attempts to grasp and lift to his head. Besides right hemisphere brain injuries, Sacks's cases also involve Korsakoff's syndrome (an inability to form new memories, the condition memorably riffed on in the movie Memento), a pair of illiterate autistic twins who play a numbers game and are able to identify very large prime numbers, and a drug-abusing student who suddenly finds himself in possession of an ultra-keen sense of smell. A lot of things combine to interest me about these cases and incidentally make me like this book very much. I have long been fascinated by stroke victims with impaired left hemispheres of the brain who have lost all their vocabulary except swear words. What is going on in that mysterious right hemisphere? Then there is the clinical way these reports go, like a police procedural, starting from the description of a disorder (or crime) and patiently sifting the clues and analyzing them. Yet often nothing is absolutely certain. Police procedurals tend to result in conundrums that are resolved satisfactorily one way or another (not always), but these brief case studies by Sacks are simply pieces of a puzzle, contributions to a methodical, larger understanding about how the brain works and doesn't work. We're still not there, 30 years after the publication of this book, and there is likely still a very long way to go. But as pop science books go, a favorite category of mine, this is a pleasure to read, much like well-crafted short stories or personal essays. It presents profound mysteries, even maybe helps to solve them a little. But more importantly it can leave one recharged with the wonderful sense of the strangeness of life. You can't ask much more from a pop science book.

In case it's not at the library.

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