Oliver Sacks – The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985)

oliver sachs

Neurologist Oliver Sacks presents 24 extraordinary stories about his patients. He tells their stories, how they deal with afflictions from Tourette to autism and beyond.

Most of us hold on to the idea that our body and our spirit are separated from each other, and that our identity is an indivisible whole, like a spirit of light that somehow hovers over the body, but neurological diseases seriously question that assumption. Changes in the brain simply change parts of your character, and that is simply something that we have to acknowledge. And it makes neurology unnerving and fascinating at the same time.

To read about people who have to fight to maintain their identity, their character, against the most bizarre symptoms of a damaged brain; to read about those that do not even realize that something has gone wrong, strikes a deep chord in anyone. Some of those people make the symptoms part of their identity. Tourette for example allows some people to be more creative than they otherwise would have been if they were to take medication.

Every case of neurological disease is a very personal one, because the very identity, the spirit, of the sick is at stake. In the 19th century it was common practise to present such a case as a life story to understand the whole and the role that the disease played in the patient. With the advent of the more cathegorical, distant neurology of the 20th century this practise disappeared. With this book, Oliver Sacks meant to bring the personal story back, to show how patients with neurological problems battle for their identity as heroes in a tale, and find their own ways of dealing with it.

Sacks as an observer is very thorough, human and sympathetic. His insights shine a light on the worlds of his patients who are sometimes so difficult to understand. His stories are heartfelt, exciting and arresting for anyone who values his own mind, and for anyone who ever suspected that sanity is relative and self-identity can be a fleeting thing, easily lost.

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