One book almost everyone interested in psychology will enjoy is Oliver Sack’s ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat‘. Sacks, a neurologist by training, describes some of the fascinating patients he has treated over the years. From the eponymous Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, through The Man Who Fell out of Bed, The Lost Mariner and The Dog Beneath the Skin, each chapter tells the story of ordinary human experience touched by unusual brain diseases.
Mercifully the narrative is devoid of medical terminology as what Sacks is most interested in is the patient’s perspective on the world. As a result the reader gains personal, subjective insight into the inability to recognise objects (visual agnosia), the experience of a dense amnesia stretching back decades (Korsakov’s), what it feels like to be completely disembodied and many other conditions.
Sacks captures the effects of damage to the brain not by reducing it to diagnoses and categories, but by expanding it to include all the vagaries of the individual. This book is not so much a series of case notes as a collection of parables about the brain.
Each one shows us what certain deficits or excesses can do to our experience – how it can be reduced in one dimension and rapidly expanded in another. Each, ever so gently suggesting that what we take for granted as reality is really just one more dream our brains have manufactured.
Real stories, real people
Above all, people’s stories – for they are stories about real people – are all told with warmth; a kind, philosophical eye, searching not for what has been lost, but for what has been added. A scientist’s attention to detail without the stereotypical austerity.
Sacks is most concerned with finding out what his patients can do, what they enjoy, what it is possible for them to get out of life. He realises their personhood is vital to understanding their condition. Sacks is engaged in what he refers to as the ‘neurology of identity’.
It’s this centrality of human experience and identity that makes this book such a rewarding and frequently touching read.
Published: 12 August 2007