By Chet Yarbrough
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales
Written by: Oliver Sacks
Narration by: Jonathan Davis, Oliver Sacks
Neurological dysfunction is Oliver Sacks field of study and training. The irony is that a tumor attacks his brain to end his life. Of course, he was 82. But somehow, a tumor attacking Sacks’ brain seems an unfair marker for his passing. Sacks opens the eyes of many to the wholeness of being human when a neurological dysfunction changes their lives. Sacks is the famous neurologist who wrote one book that becomes a movie and several that become best sellers.
Sacks is famous to some based on the movie “Awakenings” that recounts an experiment with L-dopa to treat catatonia; a symptom believed to be triggered by Parkinson’s. Patients may spend years in a state of catatonia; i.e. a form of withdrawal from the world exhibited by a range of behaviors from mutism to verbal repetition. Sacks wrote the book, “Awakenings” to tell of his experience in the summer of 1969 in a Bronx, New York hospital. The success and failure of the L-dopa experiment became a life-long commitment by Sacks to appreciate the fullness of life for those afflicted by neurological disorders.
With the use of L-dopa, Sacks reawakens the minds and rational skills of patients that had been catatonic for years. In their reawakening, Sacks found that catatonic patients have lives frozen in time. Their mind/body interactions became suspended in the eyes of society. They were always human but they lost their humanness in neurological disorder.
“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” is filled with stories of people with brain malfunctions that change theirs’s and other’s lives. The underlying truth of each story is that symptoms of neurological disorder mask the wholeness of being human. Sacks reveals that many people confuse what is seen with the completeness of what is an afflicted but whole human being. Sacks first story is about an accomplished musician and teacher who appears increasingly forgetful. He appears to forget people’s names. He cannot identify objects that are given to him to examine. He figuratively mistakes his wife for a hat. Aside from these bizarre symptoms, Sacks notes the patient is highly intelligent and is known as a great teacher of music.
In examining “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”, Sacks finds that the teacher’s mind works like a computer in that he sees the details of things without seeing the whole thing. He forgets names until he hears their voice because he cannot recognize faces. He can identify all the parts of a face but is unable to associate the face with a name. When given a glove he examines it in parts. It has five pouches. It is made of a soft material. The pouches can hold things. But, it is only discovered as a glove when given clues about its use. Sacks’ first story becomes a metaphor for the wholeness of human beings that have neurological disorders.
The music teacher relies on sound and other cognitive senses to fully interpret and appropriately act in the world. Sacks explains to the teacher’s wife that her husband’s neurological disorder is a part of who he is.
Sacks suggests the disorder may be ameliorated with drugs but an unintended consequence may be to destroy her husband’s extraordinary music and teaching ability. In the years of her husband’s life, he has unconsciously hidden a neurological dysfunction by using music as a method for routinizing his life. His wife notes that he always sings when he dresses himself with clothes carefully laid-out by his wife. He uses the rhythm of the song to properly dress himself.
Sacks writes of several more patients that circle the same theme. He notes that memory is a critical part of being human. When memory is lost humanness remains, but personal understanding of oneself is changed. Memory informs and affects action. When memory disappears, time is disjointed and experience is lost. On the one hand, lost memory makes one young again; on the other, friends are older than they should be and many things we know from experience are gone.
Sacks is saying never give up on patients with neurological disorders. They are whole human beings. The neurologist’s job, as with all who practice medicine, is “first, do no harm”. “The Man Who Took His Wife for a Hat” illustrates how seriously Sacks took his calling.