The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Although the previously reviewed Your inner fish still wins my vote as best weird book-title, The man who mistook his wife for a hat must come a close second. Oliver Sack's volume about the weird and wonderful things that the brain can do is a fascinating, if sometimes rather uncomfortable, read, in which he explores some of the strangest manifestations of neurological problems including the aforementioned man, who mistook his wife for a hat. In this particular case the patient saw faces where none existed, such as on lamp-posts or traffic lights, but failed to see faces where they did exist, and so assumed that they were inanimate objects, hence the hat/wife confusion.

Two-thirds of the book deals with this sort of very peculiar manifestation, and although interesting and readable, I did find it uncomfortable. It sometimes felt less like popular science and more like watching a freak show at a circus, I did actually think "why am I reading this?", as it felt almost insulting (to the patients) to have my "normal" brain ogling in wonder at their abnormal and quite extraordinary brains.

The book sits on the border line between physiology and psychology, although most of the case histories included here have an underlying physiological basis. The parts of the book that I most enjoyed, and actually did find helpful were those dealing with idiot savants and strange neurological effects from more everyday illnesses. For example, I never realised before that it is believed that some of the spiritual experiences of Hildegarde of Bingen are attributed to migraine. As a fellow migraineur, it feels good to be in such exalted company, and there were some of the aspects of aura that I could definitely relate to, although I had been unaware that they were possibly connected to my migraine.

The other big insight that I got from this book was the use of music in neurological problems, as a musician and music teacher myself, it was stunning to see how deeply embedded music is in even the most unmusical-seeming of people.

One major criticism of the book is that it is largely comprised of chapters that were originally published elsewhere, now although this is not per se a problem (many short story collections have been part published before, as was much of the content of Your Inner Fish), what is a problem is that there are mentions within the chapters of content that was clearly published either in these earlier outings of the chapter, or was published elsewhere. This is down to poor editing more than anything else, but I wasted quite a bit of time trying to find references that appeared to be internal but were actually never in the book in the first place.

So, in summary, great title, fascinating, if uncomfortable reading, but the sort of book that will appeal to a wide audience, as everyone will take something completely different away from their reading of it. If nothing else you will be moved to complete astonishment by the sheer power of the brain, and how it impacts on our lives both positively and negatively.


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