The study of the brain, known as neuroscience, has fascinated humans for centuries. Despite the term “neuroscience” being relatively new in the 1970s, the exploration of the brain has been a part of scientific inquiry since its inception. Advancements in technology and research have transformed neuroscience into what it is today, continuously challenging and reshaping our understanding of this intricate organ. In his collection of narratives titled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, physician Oliver Sacks delves into the lives of individuals afflicted with neurological diseases. Through these stories, Sacks aims to not only explore the diseases themselves but also provide insight into the personal experiences and struggles faced by those affected.
In his book, Oliver Sacks highlights numerous cases where neurological disorders severely impacted individuals’ physical abilities: their memory, comprehension, speech, and hearing. Despite these losses, the patients always retained their spiritual capacity. Although their ability to rejoice and feel spiritually fulfilled remained intact, it may have been concealed. One example of this is evident in the story of “The Lost Mariner” (pages 22-41). The protagonist, Jimmie, suffered from amnesia, being unable to retain new memories for more than two minutes, except for those dating back 30 years. This caused a lack of continuity and connection to the present reality, as his mind resided in the 1930s despite living in the 1980s. Jimmie frequently experienced panic attacks and disbelief but would promptly forget them moments later. Over time, with regular visits to Dr. Sacks, Jimmie began to regain some sense of continuity and connection referred to as the “absoluteness of spiritual attention and act” (page 38) by Dr. Sacks. Undeterred by his brain disorders, Jimmie’s spirit never fully disappeared.
The narrative “The Lost Mariner” challenged my belief that neurological diseases completely define a person and take over their life. While it is true that in some cases the disease may dominate, this story helped me recognize that Jimmie’s true spirit still existed beneath his illness.
In the case “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”(7-21), Dr. Sacks discusses the interesting and informative stories of various patients. One particular patient, Dr. P, was a distinguished musician and teacher at a music school. His strange problems were first noticed in this environment, where he struggled to recognize his students and eventually lost the ability to recognize faces altogether. He would often mistake inanimate objects like parking meters and fire hydrants for people, making light of these mistakes with laughter. However, his musical abilities remained unaffected and he felt better than ever. After ruling out any issues with his eyes, Dr. P sought the expertise of a neurologist, Dr. Sacks, who conducted numerous tests to determine the cause of his problem. During these tests, Dr. P’s eyes would dart around, focusing on small details but failing to perceive the bigger picture. Despite his vision impairment, his other senses compensated to some extent. Dr. Sacks informed Dr. P that he couldn’t provide a clear diagnosis but advised him to prioritize music in his life as it overshadowed his vision troubles. Later, it was revealed that a degenerative process (a massive tumor) in the visual parts of his brain was responsible for the vision mistakes and embarrassments. Despite his condition, Dr. P continued to live and teach music until the end of his life.
In the narrative “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” the protagonist’s loss of vision is a thought-provoking experience. Despite this significant impairment, he tries to live his life as normal, encountering embarrassing situations like mistaking grandfather clocks for people. Nevertheless, Dr. P maintains a positive outlook and finds solace in music, which serves as a substitute for his diminished eyesight.
Another fascinating story was “Cupid’s Disease,” where the patient, Natasha K., visited the clinic at the age of 90. Since she turned 88, she experienced a change in her energy, liveliness, and interest in younger men. Initially, she saw it as sudden euphoria in her later years, but her friends had a different perspective. After some reflection, she realized she had contracted Cupid’s disease, which was syphilis. Although she had acquired the disease over 70 years ago, it had resurfaced. Dr. Sacks investigated further and discovered that she had neurosyphilis. Natasha requested not to control or eliminate the disease because she enjoyed the way it influenced her behavior and emotions. The presence of this neurological disease unexpectedly improved her self-perception and life satisfaction. As it was near the end of her life, treatment for this disease was unnecessary since she knew her time was limited. The positive effects brought about by the disease brought happiness to her during her final years.
Another story that caught my interest was “The Dog Beneath the Skin”
(149-153) The passage discusses a legal case involving Stephen, a medical student who used drugs such as cocaine, PCP, and other amphetamines. One night, he had a dream where he transformed into a dog. As a result of this dream, Stephen acquired certain dog-like characteristics including colorblindness and an improved sense of smell. Although his color vision returned when he woke up, his heightened sense of smell remained intact. He became capable of identifying people by their scents and navigating New York City solely using his sense of smell. After three weeks, however, Stephen’s sense of smell returned to normal. Despite not being Dr. Sacks’ patient at the time, Stephen is now friends and colleagues with him. While there have been similar cases to that of Stephen’s before, most individuals typically lose their sense of smell rather than gain it.
The most fascinating case I came across was “The Autistic Artist” (204-224). It revolved around Jose, an autistic man who possessed incredible artistic talent. Despite his speech impairment and tendency to have seizures, Jose produced drawings that were vibrant and outshone the photos he often copied. Since the age of eight, he had not willingly ventured outside and was considered untreatable and devoid of hope. It amazed me to witness how someone with such a multitude of challenges could produce artwork like Jose’s. Unlike other stories, this one featured the actual pictures Jose had drawn, making it easier to connect with his talent. Viewing his artwork truly highlighted the extraordinary abilities of individuals like Jose.
While reading these stories, I considered the immense hardship faced by patients suffering from neurological diseases. However, I failed to consider the experiences of their loved ones, who had to witness their friends or family members grappling with these conditions. It must be incredibly challenging to watch someone you care about, who was once completely normal and healthy, perceive you as an object or mistake an inanimate object for a person. Until now, I hadn’t realized the far-reaching impact that diseases, including neurological ones, have on not just the afflicted individuals but also those around them. This collection of narratives effectively portrays the various ways in which neurological diseases affect not only patients but also their loved ones. Many of the stories feature mentions or portrayals of the family and friends of individuals living with these diseases, highlighting how it affects everyone in close proximity to the illness.
Reading this collection of narratives made me more interested in the brain and psychology, as I wasn’t very familiar with these subjects. I developed a liking for neurological diseases and the mysteries of the brain. While I enjoyed the actual stories of individuals and their diseases, I often found myself confused when Sacks delved into unfamiliar terms and diagnoses. However, Sacks’ stories about how people cope with their diseases made me ponder deeply. As individuals without neurological diseases, we have no understanding of how devastating these circumstances can be to one’s life. It made me realize the complexity of the brain. Sacks’ stories help us appreciate the functionality of our own brains.