“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, is a book that describes a few different patients that Oliver Sacks has had over the course of his work. These descriptions each describe the problem the patient faces, how Oliver reacts to these problems, and then how the daily life of the patient proceeds to be like. Then there is the postscript that has anything else that has to be noted, or anything else that needs to be learned, like if there have been any new patients suffering from the same problem. And, of course, the entire time there are plenty of questions that he wonders about which might get you wondering about their answers.
I would recommend this book to those who want to not only learn more about problems that occur with people’s brains and nerves, but also to those that want to see a view of the world through the eyes of people who see it completely different to us. And honestly, it is quite an experience, which is sure to get you thinking about everything in a new light.
Although it gets a bit annoying when he begins to talk about the brain in detail, while using all sorts of words that make little sense to me. I just want to put up a warning that many things will be difficult to understand if you don’t have sufficient background knowledge. Like a rather large vocabulary, and a basic understanding of the brain and the body’s nervous system.
I shall focus on the first section of the book, ‘Losses’. For the section “Losses”, we get to read about people who are missing something from their lives, like particular senses, or parts of their view of the world. With this section, we can begin to wonder what it would be like to live in a world that is completely different to our own view of it. The reason being that these missing parts have something to do with the brain. The brain controls how we understand the world, and so if the brain starts doing things differently, then the view of the world will change. And as we are reading about those people who have had their brains change in rather ‘interesting’ ways, we can try to catch a glimpse into these completely different worlds. Below will be my views on how these concepts of the world affect us, and how they changed my understanding of reality. Or at least, what got me thinking a little.
Imagine if you were to find yourself in some random hospital, with old people all around you. Then this doctor like person begins talking to you. And of course, you will ask why you are there, right? Well, I wonder what you will think when that doctor says that they have lost count of how many times you have said those very words. And then they proceed to hold up a mirror, showing some random old guy staring right back at you. Wouldn’t that freak you out immensely? Probably would for most people, so I guess its a good thing you won’t be remembering that for long.
For this point I wanted to explain to you how terrifying it is to forget. And how interesting it is to wonder what you personally would think about it. For one of the patients of our author, we get to see someone in this very situation. They have forgotten everything after 1945. Well, more like their memory regressed a few decades at one point after too much drinking, until they reached this point in their memory. This lead to said memory loss, and the inability to make new memories. And so, they are left in a ‘home’, which will take care of him, and other, older, people. I won’t go too much more into detail, but basically, he is fine here. He becomes more ‘animated’ when talking to his brother(Although he thinks his brother is aging kind of fast), and he is also happier when staying at his old house, with his family(Although it sucks for a couple of minutes when he is dropped back off again, since he thinks his wife is abandoning him in a place full of strangers). Now the interesting thing here is what this made me think of. Which is to say, what would I do if I learnt that every few minutes I forgot everything. Like, still got my current memories, but no new ones can be made. Well, the possibilities were few to be honest. Either get depressed over how my life will never develop in any direction. Or begin a document(Or continue it) that will detail my every thought, and everything that is going on. Like, anything I find funny, or interesting. The point being, this document will fill up over time with all these different, and interesting things. And each of these things, I will never of heard of before. It would be like reading over a life of some other person, with the same ideas as me, just that I haven’t thought of them yet. Cool, yeah? These are my thoughts on what I would do. So now here is a question for you: What would you do in this situation?
“She knows it intellectually, and can understand, and laugh; but it is impossible for her to know it directly.” The next point I need to make, is that this is your brain which is missing something. YOU ARE YOUR BRAIN. Your entire consciousness is affected, and controlled, by the way your brain works. And as this is so, if your brain is missing some important piece, then how the hell are you supposed to tell?! The quote I started this point off with pretty much says what I want to say. You are intelligent, or at least, if you can read this, you possess the ability to understand things. However, that doesn’t mean you truly get it. Like if I was to try and explain puberty to a 7 year old. They would say that they get it, but they don’t. Not really. They haven’t experienced what it is like. They have never experienced it, so it would be near impossible to understand what it would be like. And it is the same if you lose something from your brain, or if something stops working. Your entire concept of that thing is gone. You will be like that 7 year old, who can understand the idea behind it, but it is still something outside of your reality. The only saving grace for this kind of situation is that if you posses memories of it, then it could be fixable. But if even your memories of it are gone; or changed into something else; then you might never be able to experience it again, as you won’t know if what you just thought, or did, was that thing. And, okay, this whole paragraph here is something that has always been in my mind, it is just that this book brought it back up with that quote. The idea that something central in my brain(Or maybe someone else’s) could be missing, and I would never know. And if no one ever told me, then I would never notice. I could end up living my entire life, with no idea what that one thing is. And so I mention this here, in the attempt to get you to understand that not everything is understandable. Our brains can only do so much, and they could easily be missing something important, or not so important. There is nothing we can do about this, except question others as to how they see the world and compare it to our own views of it. And then marvel at how different some people’s worlds are.
Okay, so now we can do something a little different. Imagine if one day you go to have a surgery, to remove some kidney stones or something like that. And then you begin to feel a bit odd. And, you fall unconscious. the next time you wake up, well, your fine, but you have no idea what is up with your body. So obviously you try to get up, but you fail to move as far as your concerned. However, to the others around you, your body is flailing about, with no idea where it is supposed to go. Now what am I talking about? This patient had some of their nerves in their spinal column irreversibly damaged. This lead to losing her ‘6th sense’. That is, the ability to know where each of your body parts is, even when you can’t see them. Without this, you can’t do much at all. Like, you can’t walk without constantly looking at your feet. And even then, it will require you to relearn how to walk, as you won’t know where your feet are if you don’t look at them. So what do you think about this? Actually, have you ever spared the time to think about this sense? You should, it is really important. Sure, your sense of balance, and your other 5 senses are really important, and they can make up for it(Spare the time to think about them too). However, they can’t replace it. Sure, they get stronger, like how a blind person can have super hearing, but I still am going to want to keep my eyesight. So yeah, think about it. Without this sense, your life would be so different. So you should think about how important it is to you, and how annoying it would be to not have it.(Apparently the patient in question had to convince herself that was even her body, as she didn’t really know if it was. I mean, how do you prove it? It won’t do as you want unless you look at it, so how do you know if it is even yours?)
And finally, let us talk about phantoms. And even more interestingly, hands. And even more interestingly, corpse legs. Phantoms being where an amputee has lost a limb or something, and begins to imagine that part of their body still exists. And the hands is where 1 person never used their hands, leading to not even seeing a point in them. And the corpse leg being when people think their leg is someone else’s, so they kick them off the bed, only to fall out with it. So let’s get to the point of this paragraph. That is, do you really understand your limbs? Is it you controlling your limbs, or is it your brain convincing you that your body is your body? The first point to prove this is the amazing fact that there was a patient of our author who hadn’t used their hands for 60 years(They were 60 years old). This left them thinking that hands were as useful as ‘a lump of clay’. And so, this story continues on, to show her how useful hands can be, in the way that you can feed yourself. And then, you can touch and feel other objects, and learn what they ‘are’. Ended up turning out she is a pretty good artist, with great ability to sculpt. This patient got me wondering about ‘what if we never used one of our body parts?’ Would we end up the same as her, not knowing what the point is in that body part, and just keeping them around us because we don’t know what else to do with it? Anyway, the next point is the corpse leg. Some people have been known to fall out of bed every now and then. The reason why they did so is because they found the leg of a corpse in their bed, and so in their panic, they threw it out of the bed. Then, they found themselves falling out of bed. And all the while, this terrible, ghastly, leg is still there, still freaking them out. In their panic, they might notice that this leg is attached to them, making them think that someone attached someone else’s leg to them. All the while, not even noticing that they are missing a leg. What this got me thinking about is ‘What do we do when we forget about a limb we still are using and have on us?’ Is it possible to forget about a particular body part, and assume that it is someone else’s? And finally, phantoms. That is when someone has lost a particular body part, however the person themselves can still feel the body part, can still sense where it is, and what it is doing. Interestingly enough, for people who have to use a ‘replacement’ arm or leg, these phantoms can be really useful, as it allows you to use that body part without having to look at it constantly(Reminds me of that women who lost her 6th sense. Like she lost her body phantom, and so couldn’t sense her body any more.) This gets me wondering about if it is possible to remember and use a limb you don’t even have anymore. In any case, all this draws me to the conclusion I wanted to make about limbs, and in general, your body. Your body is something you don’t own. Your brain sets up all this information that allows you to believe that your leg is your leg, and that it still is there and exists. So when it doesn’t exist, well, your brain still thinks it does. And if your brain comes to the conclusion that your leg doesn’t exist, well, clearly that lump in your bed isn’t a part of your body, but somebody else’s. And in the event that you never use your legs, like, at all, then clearly your brain can only come to the conclusion that your leg must be useless, and so it is basically just a lump of clay. What I’m trying to get at here is that your brain decides if your body is your body, and so if your brain decides that it isn’t, then too bad, you don’t have your body. And if it thinks it is your body, then good for you, you have a body, even if you really don’t. And the only thing you can do is trick your brain into thinking something different if you want that limb back, or not at all.
“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks, is a very good book. Just the first section alone, and you can already draw so many different ideas, and world views from it. Like what it would be like to lose the ability to make new memories. Or how your brain is you, and deciding to change it is near impossible, as impossible as describing colour to a blind person. Then there was the idea of what it would be like to not own your body anymore, and the revelation of how your brain controls all the data for your body, so it is not you that you need to convince about it, but your brain. However, there are so many more things I could of talked about, like the concept of the abstract and what sight has to do with it. Or how an entire view of the world, the very concept of left, can just disappear. Oh, and I haven’t even begun on the other sections of the book.
In the end, this book is really quite good. Read it, I guarantee that what I have so far said hasn’t even begun to spoil all the new ideas you stand to gain from reading this book.