The man who mistook his wife for a hat

The brain has been a curiosity to man since the beginning of science. Even though the actual term “neuroscience” only dates back to the 1970’s, the study of the brain is as old as science itself. As time and technology progresses neuroscience has undergone significant changes to become what it is today. New findings, new discoveries are always changing what we know, or think we know, about the brain. In a collection of narratives by Oliver Sacks entitled, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, we see the suffering of those with neurological diseases, their attempts to cope with these diseases and the conclusions that Sacks makes on their conditions. Sacks is the physican in these narrative stories that tell about his studies of the person behind neurological deficits. Sacks’ interests are not only in the disease itself but also in the person. He writes these stories to teach the reader about the identity of the victims of neurological diseases. He describes the experience of the victim as he or she struggles to survive their disease.

Oliver Sacks presents numerous stories where neurological disorders have completely impaired a person’s physical ability; the ability to remember, the ability to comprehend, the ability to speak and hear. These patients, despite their losses, never lost their spiritual ability. The ability to rejoice, to appear spiritually fulfilled, was never lost, just hidden. An example of this was seen in “The Lost Mariner”(22-41). Jimmie had suffered from amnesia and could not remember anything for more than two minutes, except things that were 30 years old. Jimmie had no continuity, no reality. He lived in the eighties, but his mind was in the thirties. Jimmie would erupt in panic attacks of confusion and disbelief, only to forget them a few minutes later. After frequent visits with Dr. Sacks, however, Jimmie began to find some continuity, some reality, in what Dr. Sacks referred to as “absoluteness of spiritual attention and act” (page 38), Jimmie’s spirit, regardless of the brain disorders, was never completely lost.

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The narrative “The Lost Mariner” proved to me that there really is a person beneath these neurological diseases. I had always believed that the disease almost became whom the person was and took over their life. In some cases that is true but this narrative made me realize that Jimmie spirit was still under that disease.

All of the stories that Dr. Sacks discusses were very interesting and informative. In the case “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”(7-21) the patient was Dr. P a distinguished musician and teacher at a music school. This was where his strange problems were first noticed. Dr. P would not recognize students and as it progressed he could not recognize faces at all. He would mistake parking meters and fire hydrants for people and other mistakes such as those that he would just laugh off. His music was as good as ever and he had never felt better. He went to an ophthalmologist and there was nothing wrong with his eyes so he went to a neurologist (Sacks). Sacks performed many tests with him to figure out what was his problem. During the tests his eyes would dart from one thing to another, picking up tiny features. He wouldn’t see the whole thing. He kept making mistakes, even by mistaking his wife’s head for a hat. His other senses took the place of his vision and he was able to somewhat cope. Dr. Sacks concluded to Dr. P that he could not tell him what was wrong but to make music the center of his life because that’s what makes his vision unimportant. Later Sacks says that there was a degenerative process (massive tumor) in the visual parts of his brain which was the cause for all of the vision mistakes and embarrassments. Dr. P lived and taught music all the way to last days of his life.

The narrative “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” makes you think because this man lost such a vital sense that most people would suffer without and he is still attempting to continue his everyday as if nothing was wrong.. His vision caused embarrassment to him because he would talk to grandfather clocks thinking that they were people and make other mistakes similar to that. Despite all this Dr. P remained a very happy man and felt good about himself because he used music to replace his loss of vision.

Another interesting story was “Cupids Disease” where the patient, Natasha K., came to the clinic at the age of 90. Since the age of 88 she said she went through some kind of change where she became more energetic, alive, interested in younger men and frisky. At first she thought it as some kind of sudden euphoria in the latter part of her life but her friends thought differently. She thought about it and then realized she had Cupid’s disease, syphilis. She had acquired the disease over 70 years before but now it had come back. Dr. Sacks looked into it and found out that she had neurosyphilis. She asked that it not be controlled but not gotten rid of because she liked the way that the disease made her act and feel. It’s strange that in this case the neurological disease present ended up making the person feel better about herself and her life. Since it was the end of her life the treatment of this disease wasn’t necessary because she knew she didn’t have much time left and the effects that the disease brought to her made her happy during the last years of her life.

Another story that gained my attention was “The Dog Beneath the Skin”

(149-153) which was a case about a man named Stephen a 22 year old medical student who did cocaine, PCP, and other amphetamines. He had a dream one night that he was a dog. He had many characteristics that dogs have such as colorblindness and enhanced sense of smell. When he woke up he saw color again but his enhanced sense of smell was still present. He would recognize people now by their smells, he could find his way around New York just by smell. Suddenly after three weeks his sense of smell returned back to normal. Stephen wasn’t a patient of Dr. Sacks at the time but currently Stephen is a friend and colleague of his. There has been other cases similar to Stephen’s but most cases seem to have a loss of their sense of smell, rather than a gain.

The case that I happen to find the most interesting was “The Autistic Artist” (204-224). This story was about a man, named Jose, who was autistic. Dr. Sacks began seeing Jose and asked him to draw for him. Jose was very talented. His pictures were expressive and were more animated than many of the photos he had copied. Jose could not speak. He sometimes mumbled sounds to Dr. Sacks and he suffered from seizures. He hadn’t been outside voluntarily since the age of eight and he was considered to be untreatable and generally hopeless. It was so interesting to see how a person with all these problems and disorders could create art like Jose’s. This story was different than some of the others because this one had the actual pictures that Jose drew which made it’s a lot easier to relate to and realize the talent brought out here. Seeing the pictures drawn by the Jose makes one see how special some of these people are.

As I was reading these stories I thought about how hard it must be for all of the patients that were suffering from these neurological diseases but I failed to think about the loved ones of these patients who had to watch their friend or family cope with these diseases. It must be very difficult to watch a loved one who used to be completely normal and healthy think that you are a hat or that a clock is a person. I didn’t realize until now that these diseases and any disease in general effect so many more people than just the one carrying it. This collection of narratives was able to show me all the effects that neurological diseases have not only on the patients but the people around them. Many of the stories mentioned or included family and friends of the person with the disease to show the reader how is affects everyone surrounding the disease.

This collection of narratives caused me to be more interested in the brain and how it works, as well as, psychology because I wasn’t very familiar with it. Neurological diseases and the mysteries of the brain is a subject that I have taken a liking to. The actual story of the person and their disease I really enjoyed but then I would get a little lost when Sacks would go into some of the terms and diagnoses of which I was not familiar with. Sacks stories about the people and the way they coped with their diseases made me think a lot because we, as normal people with no neurological disease, really have no concept on how devastating these circumstances can be to our life. I realized how complex the brain is. Sacks’ stories makes us appreciate our working brains.

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The man who mistook his wife for a hat. (2018, Jul 03). Retrieved from