Somehow I managed to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in psychology damn near 15 years ago, yet I’ve never read this seminal work by Oliver Sacks. Time to change that.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1970) is a collection of essays portraying the various patients neurologist Sacks has had over the years. The titular essay focuses on Dr. P, a musician, singer, and teacher with prosopagnosia – he is unable to recognize faces. Dr. P sees nothing wrong with himself, citing that some have noticed problems with his vision, but Dr. Sacks discovers that it’s through the use of other visual clues that Dr. P is able to recognize people. Whether it’s by a tell-tale voice or hairstyle or other characteristic, he found a way to cope with his deficit. With this essay, somewhat humorous in tone and not terribly detrimental to the patient, Dr. Sacks bring us into the world of neurological disorders.
If only all disorders were so easily transcended. The book is separated into different sections based on the type of disorder. “Losses,” “Excesses,” “Transports,” and “The World of the Simple” comprise the book and offer varied looks at the weird mechanics of the brain. In “Excesses” we learn of Wiccy Ticcy Ray, whose Tourette’s Syndrome allowed him to be a virtuous jazz drummer. Treating the Tourette’s robbed him of his impressive improvisational skills, such that he agreed to take medication during the week and live freely on the weekends. “Transports” brings us the story of Stephen, a user of cocaine and PCP, who after having a vivid dream in which he was a dog, awoke to find his olfactory skills significantly enhanced. He could smell emotions, identify a location by its scent, and found that smell could incite intense pleasure and displeasure. Mysteriously the ability disappeared after three weeks and never returned. This section also describes the migraine hallucinations experienced by Hildegard of Bingen, a religious mystic whose visions were believed to have come from God. What’s notable about this to me is that I have experienced this! Of course, I knew something was wrong with either my eyes or brain, and not that God was talking to me, but I did not expect to find myself amongst these pages.
The essay that I found most touching was “The Disembodied Lady” in the first section. Having lost her proprioception – the ability to locate one’s body in space – Christina had to relearn to use her body using only visual cues. If she could not see her hand holding a knife, she was physically unable to hold the knife. It’s not that the disorder is so astounding that strikes me, though it certainly is, but the way Sacks describes Christina’s attempts to cope in everyday life:
Society lacks words, and sympathy, for such states. The blind, at least, are treated with solicitude – we can imagine their state, and we treat them accordingly. But when Christina, painfully, clumsily, mounts a bus, she receives nothing but uncomprehending and angry snarls: ‘What’s wrong with you, lady? Are you blind – or blind-drunk?’ What can she answer – ‘I have no proprioception’? The lack of social support and sympathy is an additional trial: disabled, but with the nature of her disability not clear…she tends to be treated as a phony or a fool. This is what happens to those with disorders of the hidden senses.
I assumed this book would just outline strange cases that would shock us, and yet here’s this great call for sympathy for those with hidden illnesses. Sacks leaves us with something to remember when we see someone park in a handicapped spot who isn’t obviously mobility-impaired or someone who takes a little more time than usual in line at the grocery store or who isn’t the swiftest in ascending the el stairs. I need these reminders as much as anybody. And so, I would say for any newcomers to this book, come for the bizarre things the brain can do (or fail to do), but stay for the lesson in how to be an empathetic human being. I think we can all stand to learn a little bit more about that.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a nonfiction book about science]