Sunday, July 15, 2012

Book Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat

After discovering (far too late I might add, a serious lapse on my part) the movie Awakenings I knew I had to read more about this Oliver Sacks guy. It was a couple of weeks ago that my father told me he was reading another of Oliver Sacks' books, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a collection of odd neurological cases Oliver Sacks has encountered over his amazing career as a neurologist. My mother had a copy lying around, so I picked it up immediately.

The case histories need to be read to be believed. Most of them are so bizarre, so unusual that they are comic, tragic and fascinating all at the same time. Their existence force us to recognize how incredibly complex and intricate the human brain must be, for it to be possible to have such specific and bizzarre things to go wrong with it. 

Reading this book makes you realize that Dr. Sacks is one of those pondering geniuses. He adds a postscript to every chapter where he presents his musings on each case, what thoughts he had when confronted with them not just on neurology, but on life itself, what it means to be human. As The Standard said about the book, "[Dr. Sacks] has a happy knack of turning his casebook into literature", and once you get used to his writing style you see that it is absolutely true. You have to keep in mind that it is a book written in the early 80s, so words that are not considered very PC today are used gratuitously (like "simple" or "retarded"), but the tone of the book show that this is not due to a callousness on Dr. Sacks' part.

I wanted to quote a few sentences from the preface that illustrate why I find Dr. Sacks to be a likeable person:

There is no "subject" in a narrow case history; modern case histories allude to the subject in a cursory phrase ("a trisomic albino female of 21"), which could as well apply to a rat as a human being. To restore the human subject at the centre - the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject - we must deepen a case history to a narrative or tale: only then do we have a "who" as well as a "what", a real person, a patient, in relation to a disease - in relation to the physical.

It is a common complaint that doctors dehumanize their patients, seeing them as a complex machine with a glitch rather than an emotional, suffering entity. Of course many recognize this as a coping mechanism on their part, emotionally detaching themselves from their work in order to be able to deal with disease and suffering and death on such a scale over a number of years. It is because of this that I truly admire Dr. Sacks' insight and courage, the fact that he really connects with his patients beyond the purly physical problem, that he gets to know them and really understand what they are going through and what it means to be them; it is truly exceptional. 

I reccomend this book to everyone, scientists, doctors and non-scientists alike, because there is something in it for everyone. I don't want to give away too much about the content of the book, suffice it to say that it opened my mind to the intricacies of the brain without being overly technical. It made my laugh out loud and wide-eyed with wonder at the diverse examples of some of the most extraordinary neurological problems. It allowed me to muse on the implications of these alongside Dr. Sacks, allowed me to agree or disagree with his thoughts in parts, without forcing my down a single logical path. 

I loved it, and I think it is a great example of how science can be amazingly interesting.

No comments:

Post a Comment