The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: book review

By Emma Brooks

If you think that the human body and mind are really quite impressive and are fascinated by what they can do, then this book is for you!

The author:

Oliver Sacks has become, at least according to the blurb on the back of the book, the world’s best-known neurologist”. On his website he is described as a physician, best-selling author and professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Centre. Originally from Britain, Oliver Sacks has been living in the US since 1965. In 1966 he began working in the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where he encountered many different patients each with their own particularities. It is perhaps this, and his many other encounters over the years, that inspired him to write, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

The book:

If you prefer reading novels to fact-based books there’s no need to worry, as this book often comes across more as a story than an actual medical analysis of neurological disease. Of course, being written by a neurologist there are some technical terms involved, as well as some analysis, but it is nothing that feels out of place given the context of the stories we are reading. Not only that, but we actually learn some interesting and useful medical jargon which we might just be able to situate in our day to day lives.

This was the case for me the other day when I went to the doctor’s and upon reading ‘proprioception’ on a form, turned to the doctor and said, “oh yes I’ve read about that, it’s about how sometimes people lose complete awareness of their bodies”. It might seem a small if not insignificant detail, but it’s nevertheless nice to think that what we read can have this kind of effect on our lives.

In this book Oliver Sacks tells us, through many short chapters and stories, of all the different patients he has met over the years, each with their own illness and particularity which make them stand out. Sometimes he is baffled, sometimes he doesn’t know what’s wrong, but most of the time we feel that he is just in awe of the cases that are presented to him, as are we. The book is divided into four parts representing four different types of illnesses: ‘Losses’, ‘Excesses’, ‘Transports’, and ‘The world of the simple’. Within each part are several chapters, each representing a particular case in point.

Through these chapters, we discover illnesses ranging from amnesia, loss of proprioception, phantoms (related to amputees), Tourette’s, syphilis, and many more besides. All of these illnesses show us how unique the mind is and the important role it plays in our day-to-day life. Basic functions such as remembering who we are and how to move and use our body, all depend on our brain – and when something suddenly goes wrong, it can be quite disturbing and also quite remarkable.

The interesting thing about Sacks’ book is the way he exposes the facts to us. As mentioned before, it is not a dry list of illnesses with bullet points of their symptoms and how to cure them. He manages to hook us by choosing real-life examples of each illness, people who we can identify with as “characters” and who make the experience that much more realistic. This is how we discover the case of the man who mistook his wife for a hat.

The book is a great piece of insight into what the world of a neurologist might be like, as well giving us a small insight into the complexity of the human mind and how it works. If you are curious about how our brain rules our body, about how our body works the way it does, or simply intrigued by the idea of Sacks’ work, then you should definitely try this book.


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