When I studied abnormal psychology in college, my favorite parts of the textbook were those little side-blurbs that described specific cases of people afflicted with weird brain conditions. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat reads a lot like those side blurbs.
In this book, neurologist Oliver Sacks (of Awakenings fame), describes 24 separate cases of individuals who saw or experienced the word in strange ways–from a 90-year-old woman whose sudden onset of neurosyphilis caused her to feel and act, er, “friskier,” to a medical student who, high on cocaine and PCP, dreams that he is a dog, only to awake to find he has developed a highly acute sense of smell. The title of the book comes from the case of a man named Dr. P., a musician and music teacher who suffers from visual agnosia, meaning he can identify separate features of objects but is unable to put them together to identify the object as a whole. For example, when Sacks shows Dr. P. a glove and asks him what it is, Dr. P. describes the object in detail: “A continuous surface. . . infolded on itself. It appears to have. . . five outpouchings, if that is the word. . . . A container of some sort? . . . .It could be a change purse, for example, for coins of five sizes.” As Sacks notes, “No child would have the power to see and speak of ‘a continuous surface infolded on itself,’ but any child, any infant, would immediately know a glove as a glove, see it as familiar, as going with a hand. Dr. P. didn’t. He saw nothing as familiar. Visually, he was lost in a world of lifeless abstractions.” Upon leaving Sacks’s office, Dr. P. reaches for his wife’s head, mistaking it for a hat. Presumably his wife was used to odd behavior like this.
The cases are all interesting in their own way, but the book suffers from Sacks not being a terrifically engaging writer. I noted this previously when I reviewed Musicophilia, and I felt the same mild disappointment with this book. It’s understandable that a scientist is not the same as a science writer, but I had a hard time figuring out who the intended audience for this book is. It seems basic enough to be directed at laypeople, but it also uses technical terms without explanation, as if assuming a background in neuroscience.
The other issue worth noting is that this book is now almost 40 years old; given that some of the entries were previously published, it presents cases that go back as far as 1970. This isn’t a flaw in the book; however, I mention it as something to consider, given that more up-to-date information on these conditions must be available.
Overall, this book reads like what it is–a collection of individual cases, as opposed to a cohesive whole with an overarching theme and through-line. It’s a good reference for lovers of neuroscience and all things brainy, but not the most satisfying read.