Minty Book Review: "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" by Oliver Sacks

Neurological conditions can vary from loss of the feelings in limbs to amnesia. Oliver Sacks, a famous British neurologist (most lifetime worked in the United States), seems to have seen them all. Clearly, that is impossible, although, in this book the reader can learn about a wide variety of different, sometimes unbelievable, conditions. However, the reader must keep in mind that this book was written in 1985 – way before many diagnostic tools that are routinely used nowadays were introduced. Oliver Sacks was working as a neurologist in the 1980-s and he had to analyse the patients thoroughly, sometimes for weeks and months to actually come up with a diagnosis. This book is a compilation of the most standout cases.

This book compiles of different sections of 24 essays. The sections are divided under titles: Losses, Excesses, Transports, The world of the simple. Thus, under different “neurological themes”.

Two examples from the book:

●        The Twins – the author describes two autistic brothers (26 years old, IQ around 60), who are not capable of taking part in society and have spent their life in different institutions. However, they seem to be playing a game, where they say six-figure numbers to each other and look happy for each response. It is important to note that the twins could not do simple mathematical calculations. Dr. Sacks was observing the twins and realized, later after returning home and having written the numbers down, that they were actually all prime numbers. He did try to play the game along with them, using a book of prime numbers – and indeed they responded with correct solution. This is described as savant syndrome (Savant syndrome is a condition in which someone with significant mental disabilities demonstrates certain abilities far in excess of average. The skills at which savants excel are generally related to memory.).

●        The Man Who Fell Out of Bed - a student is described, who woke up and felt like a cadaver foot has been put into his bed, however when he realized the cadaver was attached to him, being his own leg, he tried to pull it off and fell out of bed. This condition is also called parietal ataxic hemiparesis (Ataxic hemiparesis presents with a combination of neurological and motor symptoms and include weakness, clumsiness, and affects the leg more than it does the arm and can also be known as homolateral ataxia and crural paresis.). Unfortunately, Dr. Sacks did not state if he could treat him somehow or if he was bound to live with this condition. 

These essays took me inside of the mind of the neurologist – how he analysed and tried to find a reason or solution for different cases. These people stayed in my head a long time after reading the book. I kept thinking, how is this possible, how does our brain sometimes just cause the most bizarre conditions.

If you are interested in Oliver Sacks, you’re in luck because he was a productive writer. One of his most famous books is called Awakenings, which also turned into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert de Niro. This is a book about patients who were for decades sleeping, while at the same time being conscious and having their eyes wide open. Dr. Sacks gave these patients a drug called L-DOPA (nowadays mostly used in Parkinson’s disease) and this had a miraculous awakening effect. Another book by him is called The Mind’s Eye, where he describes how we experience the visual world and stories about patients who have lost some of the visual abilities. He also talks about his personal experience with a visual disorder.

I believe this is a pleasurable read for all. Having previous knowledge about neurology can be helpful, however is not essential. That means it would be a fascinating read even for neurologists. The essays are not that long, so the book does not drag on, each story is different and the author provides his insights about each patient.

Anne-Grete Märtson