A Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

By Oliver Sacks

Before you even open this book to the first page, you can’t help but to expect something profound.  After all, Oliver Sacks is the author of Awakenings, a story about a group of victims of encephalitis lethargic who were engaged in a comatose state for decades until a new doctor at their hospital discovered a cure. The book was adapted as a major motion picture and nominated for an Academy Award.  If you hadn’t read any of his works prior to seeing this movie, you are in for a treat.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a collection of 24 case studies of patients diagnosed with various neurological disorders primarily related to damage to the right hemisphere of the brain.  Disorders introduced through case studies include (but are not limited to): visual agnosia (prosopagnosia), tonal agnosia, retrograde amnesia related to Korsakov’s syndrome, sensory neuropathies, problems in proprioception, Parkinson’s, Tourette’s and Autism. The book is around 233 pages and was first published in 1970. Although not necessary, some background in biological science is helpful when reading through the cases and notes.  However, it can certainly be appreciated by those not in the field.

Since the publication of this compilation of case studies, the link between the brain and behavior has been explored even further, with newer research being published on the topics introduced. In his footnotes, the author himself notes that he has learned more about some of the disorders presented since he originally wrote the book. But the introduction of current research is neither the foundation nor purpose of this book, it is the eloquent depiction of serious neurological disorders and how they are manifested in patients.  Yes, it touches on the science and testing involved in the diagnosis of these disorders, but it offers much more than that. It is a poignant memoir of lives touched by brain dysfunction and pathology.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat offers insight into the heartache, loss, perseverance and hope of the patients who are presented. It makes you appreciate the brain and its mystery as well as its power. You are reminded that the most primitive functions of the brain serve a purpose further than sustaining basic life forces, but are a necessary component for higher level analysis and reasoning. The vitality of memories, whether good or bad, feed our human spirit.  It is the ability to remember the past, whether recent or remote, that forms our ability to live in the present.