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The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat
And Other Clinical Tales
Oliver Sacks
read on October 1, 2013

This book is a series of stories about people with abnormal neurological conditions. It's incredibly interesting. Primarily, it serves for me as a reminder that everything, everything, everything happens inside our brains. It's remarkably easy to go through life thinking that the world is a concrete, fixed thing. It's easy to think that it is exactly what we see, smell, taste, hear and touch. But that's only what our brains subjectively experience it as. In How The Mind Works, Pinker wrote extensively about how everything we see is essentially a hallucination - our brain "sees" shapes and figures and then fills in the rest with whatever it thinks is actually there. This book is a reminder that our brain does that with every sense we have, and that the smallest neural abnormality can turn a person's experience of the world completely upside down.

What then, is the world actually like?

Most interesting chapters/abnormalities:

  • The book's namesake, a man with prosopagnosia who could not recognize things as a whole. He could see an eye, or a nose, but couldn't recognize that those things were part of a face. Goes without saying he couldn't recognize people, or even know that people were people at all.
  • A man who drank himself into a Memento-esque condition, unable to form new memories.
  • A women who woke up one day having lost her sense of proprioception - the ability to know where one's body physically is. Without looking, she would have no idea where her legs, arms, fingers, etc. were, and was effectively unable to use them.
  • Several people who wake up one day thinking that their appendages aren't their own. These people, who were otherwise healthy and normal, wake up convinced that someone else's leg is attached to their body. So weird.
  • A healthy man who once dreamt he was a dog, with an incredibly heightened sense of smell. Upon waking up, he found he still had that heightened sense. He could literally walk into a crowded room blindfolded and be able to identify dozens of people inside just based on smell. 

Author Bio:

Oliver Wolf Sacks, CBE, FRCP (9 July 1933 – 30 August 2015) was a British neurologist, naturalist and author. Born and educated mostly in Great Britain, he spent his career in the United States. He believed that the brain is the "most incredible thing in the universe." He became widely known for writing best-selling case histories about his patients' disorders, with some of his books adapted for stage and film. After Sacks received his medical degree from the Queen's College, Oxford in 1960, he interned at Middlesex Hospital (part of University College, London) before moving to the U.S. He then interned at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and completed his residency in neurology and neuropathology at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). He relocated to New York in 1965, where he first worked under a paid fellowship in neurochemistry and neuropathology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. Upon realising that the neuro-research career he envisioned for himself would be a poor fit, in 1966 he began serving as neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital's chronic-care facility in the Bronx. While there, he worked with a group of survivors of the 1920s sleeping sickness encephalitis lethargica, who had been unable to move on their own for decades. His treatment of those patients became the basis of his book Awakenings. In the period from 1966 to 1991 he was a neurological consultant to various New York City-area nursing homes (especially those operated by Little Sisters of the Poor), hospitals, and at the Bronx Psychiatric Center. Sacks was the author of numerous best-selling books, mostly collections of case studies of people with neurological disorders. His writings have been featured in a wide range of media; the New York Times called him a "poet laureate of contemporary medicine", and "one of the great clinical writers of the 20th century". His books include a wealth of narrative detail about his experiences with patients, and how they coped with their conditions, often illuminating how the normal brain deals with perception, memory and individuality. Awakenings (1973) was adapted into an Academy Award-nominated film in 1990, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. He and his book Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain were the subject of "Musical Minds", an episode of the PBS series Nova. Sacks was awarded a CBE for services to medicine in the 2008 Birthday Honours.