The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical TalesThe Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A collection of case studies and musings on consciousness with a bonus crash course in medical vocabulary! Here’s a few I had to look up:

myoclonus: abrupt twitches or spasms in muscles
polydipsia: excessive thirst
satyriasis: excessive preoccupation with sexual gratification
iterative hyperkinesis: repetitive, uncontrolled muscular action or restlessness
protopathic: nondiscriminating responsiveness to pain or temperature stimuli
epicritic: discriminating responsiveness to pain or temperature stimuli
anosmia: absence/loss of sense of smell
hypermnesis: an unusually vivid or precise memory (distinct from eidetic memory)
photism: a form of synesthesia where a visual sensation of color or form is produced by smell/touch, etc.
theophorous: bearing or containing the name of a god

Obviously, this isn’t an exhaustive list. Top ten vocabulary words, perhaps. Speaking of words, because this book was first published in the 1970’s there’s a fair bit of cringe-inducing language employed when Dr. Sacks discusses people with developmental handicaps. However, the respect and compassion he speaks of these patients with can’t be understated. He views each of them as complete human beings, fully alive and consummate in themselves. Contrast this with his repeated concern for the inmost souls of his other patients, ones with memory issues. Although his compassion shines through in every word, Sacks remarks frequently, and in a troubled tone, on his patients’ ability to relate to others in a genuine emotional way, or to be vulnerable. The apparent loss of this faculty – and indifference to that loss – causes Dr. Sacks possibly more worry than the disease itself. And unfortunately no one can answer his questions about whether – in the deepest relational and emotional sense – his patients will be ok.

Were I to rank my reading list in order of most organized books to least, this book would be quite near the top. The studies are divided into groups based on whether the disorder stems from a loss, excess, transportation, or simplification of the patient’s mental world. Each section has an introduction and postscript, and frequently the individual cases have postscripts as well. All full of musings on the nature of the neuropathy, the patient’s perception of the world around them, and relevant historical readings. Everything you didn’t know you always wanted to know, with extra sprinkled on top. Cases get related to each other back and forth throughout the novel, as well as to similar cases throughout medical history. It manages to be detailed without becoming convoluted, though perhaps only by a hair or two. What impressed me most was definitely Dr. Sack’s tenderness for his patients, and his honesty about his own flaws in his perception of them. He details not just his patients’ growth, but his own growth from being able to interact with them. Furthermore, it’s clear he views this interaction as a privilege to him, and not an obligation. I haven’t read many medical case history books with such a clear view of the subject’s value and completeness, and it warmed my heart all through this book. Doctor Sacks could restore a person’s faith in humanity.

*All definitions drawn from http://dictionary.reference.com, except for theophorous which was taken from The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition, 1991

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