Thursday, May 26, 2011

Books Yay!: The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, by Oliver Sacks

I took a class at American University called "The Senses."  I had to take a science class to fulfill a core requirement, and "The Senses" sounded like a political science major science class if I ever heard of one, so I signed up.  This turned out to be a massive tactical error.  That class was incredibly hard, and I crawled out of it by my fingernails with a solid C.  It was also totally fascinating - it was all about how we take information in through our various senses and process it. One of the things you have to address when you're studying the senses is how weirdly out of whack they can go; while we know a lot about how things are processed in the brain, there's still a good amount of stuff going on in there that's not entirely clear, and obviously, when you aren't 100% sure how things work when all systems are running normally, you will definitely have trouble figuring out what's wrong with them.  When the professor talked about the "...whoa, what the heck is going on here?" cases, she often referenced this book, which after about nine years I finally got around to reading.  I see why she didn't actually assign the text, but I also see why it was recommended. 

One of the things that I kept thinking about as I read was the fact that this book was on the New York Times Bestseller List for an extended period of time.  Maybe I don't have enough faith in today's reader (Cannonball Readers exempted, of course), but I have a hard time imagining such a book returning to the NYT's Bestseller List.  It's basically a collection of case histories, and can be quite technical.  Though they do have the Wow Factor, I can't imagine a book that is so technical gaining so much popularity.  That's a shame, because I found this to be a really interesting read.

Dr. Oliver Sacks has assembled this collection of 24 stories, which deal with various "weird mental things."  The book is roughly chunked into sections by affliction, so there's a section on the brain doing too much of something, one on it doing too little (or none) of something, and one the deals with more universal perception issues.  Supposedly there are four sections, but I find that the latter two are much of the same type.  This might just be because I am not a psychology enthusiast and thus don't have the appropriate vocabulary and knowledge to make the distinction.  This includes all kinds of things, like the titular man who was unable to distinguish things as things, people with phantom limbs, problems understanding parts of their bodies in relation to other parts, Rainman-like fixations with naming massive prime numbers, etc.  All of the studies are interesting, and Dr. Sacks provides a great explanation of his thought process in each one.  It's kind of like a non-dickbaggy, non-Vicodin-addicted House.  I really liked seeing how he drew connections between known disorders in an attempt to figure out where the damage or malfunction might be in the brain, and then how he was able to take that info and extrapolate it out into an understanding of the patient's problem. 

One of the things I liked about Dr. Sacks' accounts of these folks is the way he is clearly concerned with their quality of life.  For all I know, he's a callous jerk looking to make a buck off publishing these stories, but the way he talks about his patients and works through the problems for the sake of their improved lives suggests the opposite.  Some of the problems aren't even crippling - several of the patients arrive at Dr. Sacks' office with coping skills already in place - but Sacks works through the problems with his patients regardless.  It's nice to see such compassion on display, especially in a field where there's a lot of stigma and misunderstanding.  

I'd definitely recommend this book to people interested in how the brain works and the weird stuff it can do.  It's a good read, and Dr. Sacks' voice is clear and entertaining.  He appreciates some of the goofiness these challenges present and admits it with gentle humor, keeping the book light and pretty entertaining for a fairly technical accounting.  It's a great read!

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