Nenia Campbell's Reviews > The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks
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Oct 03, 14

bookshelves: shrinky-and-the-brain
Read from November 19 to 20, 2011

THE MAN WHO MISTOOK HIS WIFE FOR A HAT was published in the 1980s—and it shows. I am a psychology major, and one thing my professors have impressed upon me (many, many times) is the fact that we are the “baby” of the sciences, the newest, and as such, are constantly developing. Out with the old and in with the new, and all that. In the 1980s, our knowledge of the brain and its functions was still quite limited. Partly, this was because of technology. As we developed better apparatuses for measuring the brain, our data became more specific, and more concrete. One thing that struck me about this book was the fact that Oliver Sacks used many terms that are now obsolete—and even considered insensitive. For example, using the term “idiot savant,” or using “psychopath” interchangeably with “autistic.” It also shocked me how insensitive and even disparaging the medical staff members were towards their patients; we've come a long way.

Overall, I enjoyed reading about all the different case studies. I have always found agnosias (deficits in cognition, particularly the verbal aspects) particularly fascinating. Prosopagnosia, the inability to “see” faces, always struck me as a very unfortunate and sad agnosia to have. I can't imagine what it must be like to not be able to recognize the people you hold nearest and dearest to your heart. I was very admiring of how cheerful Dr. P. remained, even in the face of his unfortunate affliction. In fact, most of the patients seemed to recoup incredibly well. I guess that just goes to show the strength and durability of the human spirit. But anyway, prosopagnosia—here, there were many things that really showed how “dated” the book was. For example, all this talk about how the causes are a “mystery.” Well, no, not anymore. If you're at all curious, prosopagnosia tends to result from lesions to a part of the brain known as the fusiform gyrus (also known as the fusiform face area, or FFA); a part of the brain that selectively responds to faces.

If you are a psychology major, I think you will enjoy TMWMHWFAH (even the abbreviation for the book is long! Yeesh). If you are not a psychology major, but enjoy reading about bizarre medical case studies, I think you will also enjoy this book. However, it is not really written for people who don't have at least some background of rudimentary medical terminology, so if you're just an Average Joe who feels like reading something a bit weird, you're probably better off picking up a copy of Ripley's Believe It or Nots (and I'm not being condescending, I love that book, too).

I think Mr. Sacks' newest book, THE MIND'S EYE, is so much better. Not only because it's better tailored to fit the modern database of psychology knowledge, and more accessible to the Average Joes (and Josies) out there, but also because it shows how he's grown as a human being. Gone is the litany of pretentious medical terminology. Gone is the condescending attitude towards his patients, and the sense of his own self-importance. Instead, he is remarkably sympathetic and helpful toward his patients. I feel like he is better able to relate to them in this book, too, as Mr. Sacks had the misfortune to develop a melanomic tumor near his fovea (the part of the eye with the highest visual acuity, or the clearest vision). He includes excerpts from his own journal about how the tumor affected his vision. It's quite frightening. His recovery went well, though; I believe the tumor was removed, and the cancer went into remission.

Generally I feel like my rating suffices to explain my sentiments on all dimensions of the book, but not for this one. So... let me break it down.

Stories of the patients: *****-stars.
Oliver Sacks' narrative: *½-stars.
Accuracy of terminology: **½-stars.
The drawings and diagrams: ****-stars.
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message 1: by Armeline (new) - added it

Armeline Zobelpelz I definitely have to agree with you, on almost all counts. The book shows its age, and having heard Dr. Sacks' speeches and interviews on, say, Radiolab well before reading this particular work of his, I found myself a bit stunned by some of the terminology used.

Granted, it's important to keep the book's historical context in mind -- as you stated yourself, things have changed quite dramatically from the time of its publication and now (June, 2013 as of this writing).

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