The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

Reading this book has proven a natural progression onward from the heavy time I’ve invested in the psychology and philosophy canons over the past few years. Although not strictly about either of those subjects, the book makes plenty of philosophical meanderings asking questions as broad as what it means to be human, what it’s like to be blessed with complete control of our senses and the role that nature and art play in delivering us a ‘deeper’ connection with the world and that which surrounds us.

Oliver Sacks’ work in Neurology and his exploration into the world of his patients is a revelation if you’ve most likely never come into contact with people suffering from a range of neuropsychological disorders like dementia, Tourette’s, autism, amnesia and more. The way he recounts his meetings and psychiatric assessments of the broad range of people whose stories are recounted in the book hit a range of emotions from deep sadness to resounding joy. The biggest take-away? Just how fragile and open to interpretation questions of consciousness and perception can be.

Choice Quotes:

p.17) “Dr P. was not fighting, did not know what was lost, did not indeed know that anything was lost. But who was more tragic, or who was more damned – the man who knew it, or the man who did not?” – Sacks’ rumination on the man from the book’s title, who could not recognise faces but no less felt any misery or discontentment for failing to do so.
p.19) “You are a wonderful musician, and music is your life. What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music. Music has been the centre, now make it the whole, of your life.” – Sacks’ proposed remedy to the same patient who recognised the world through musical symphony, ascribed people and processes sonatas in order to be recognised.
p.38) “(If a man has lost a leg or an eye, he knows he has lost a leg or an eye; but if he has lost a self – himself – he cannot know it, because he is no longer there to know it.) – Sacks’ rumination on dementia and his patient Jimmie, the lost mariner, who is frozen in a past memory and has no awareness of the present.
p.40) “Jimmie found himself, found continuity and reality, in the absoluteness of spiritual attention and act.” – Sacks’ observation on how Jimmie came to life through communion, through spirituality and let go of his present amnesia to the extent it no longer incapacitated him.
p.40) “A man does not consist of memory alone. He has feeling, will, sensibility, moral being…It is here…you may touch him, and see a profound change.” – Sacks’ conclusion on the notion of soul and whether someone, perhaps those suffering from amnesia, has one.
p.42) “empirical science, empiricism, takes no account of the soul, no account of what constitutes and determines personal being.” – Sacks’ developed thoughts on that notion, after considering what nuns and religious laypeople make of the condition of amnesiacs or dementia patients.
p.76) “We have five senses in which we glory and which we recognise and celebrate, senses that constitute the sensible world for us. But there are other senses – secret senses, sixth senses, if you will – equally vital, but unrecognised, and unlauded.” – Sacks’ consideration of realms beyond the five senses, other-wordly connections that bind us to life.
p.117) “Each of us is a singular narrative, which is constructed, continually, unconsciously, by, through, and in us – through our perceptions, our feelings, our thoughts, our actions; and, not least, our discourse, our spoken narrations. Biologically, physiologically, we are not so different from each other; historically, as narratives – we are each of us unique.”  – Narrative and memory is what differentiates us, adds colour to our lives.
p.172) “Donald has now returned to gardening. ‘I feel at peace gardening,’ he says to me. ‘No conflicts arise. Plants don’t have egos. They can’t hurt your feelings.’ The final therapy, as Freud said, is work and love.” – Work as remedy, nature as cure.
p.243) “Is being an island, being cut off, necessarily a death? It may be a death, but it is not necessarily so. For though ‘horizontal’ connections with others, with society and culture, are lost, yet there may be vital and intensified ‘vertical’ connections, direct connections with nature, with reality, uninfluenced, unmediated, untouchable, by any others.” – Returning to nature we find the essential component of ourselves.

p.244) “For, as the stars stand, he will probably do nothing, and spend a useless, fruitless life, as so many other autistic people do, overlooked, unconsidered, in the back ward of a state hospital.” – The stigma attached to ‘idiot savants’ or those under mental duress, despite their heightened abilities in art and greater appreciation of nature. What is sanity and is the conventionally sane man envious of the one who has lost their mind?