Have you read ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’? If you haven’t, and you are at all interested in the human brain and the extraordinary knots into which it can tie itself, then you certainly should.
‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ is probably the best known, but by no means the only book of case histories by Professor Oliver Sacks – professor of neurology at half a dozen American and UK universities over the course of his life – who died aged 82 in August last year. Such was the empathy of his writing that not only did his books sell in millions but case histories in two of them, ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’ and ‘Awakenings’ inspired not only films but operas, plays and even pop music!
I have been vaguely aware of the book for years but only did something about it when I saw this eye catching edition in my local Daunt Books just before Christmas. And what a riveting read. How had I never got round to it before?
In the preface to the book Sacks says:
‘I feel myself a naturalist and a physician both; I am equally interested in diseases and people; perhaps too, I am equally a theorist and a dramatist, equally drawn to the scientific and the romantic, and continually see both in the human condition, not least in that quintessential human condition sickness…..’
‘…Hippocrates introduced the historical conception of disease and the idea that diseases have a course, from their first intimations to their climax, and thence to their happy or fatal resolutions. Hippocrates thus introduced the case history, a description of the natural history of the disease….. but such histories tell us nothing about the individual and his history; they tell us nothing of the person, and the experience of the person as he faces, and struggles to survive, his disease.’
And of course, this is what makes Professor Sacks’ case histories so compelling. Not only are the conditions from which his patients suffer extraordinary in their own right (Dr P genuinely did confuse this wife’s head with his hat although in all other respects he was perfectly normal) but in each case we learn about the patient themselves: Madeline J, ‘a high spirited woman of exceptional intelligence and literacy even though she had been blind from birth’; Jimmie G – ‘a fine looking man with a curly bush of grey hair, a healthy and handsome 49-year-old…..a genial soul, very ready to talk and answer any questions I asked him’; Mrs G, ‘an intelligent woman in her sixties who had suffered massive stroke….. but has perfectly preserved intelligence and humour – who cannot see anything to the left of centre even thought there is nothing wrong with her sight’.
But although the first half of the book, which deals with patients whose brains have ‘lost’ some faculty, is fascinating, I was even more interested in the second half, ‘Excesses’, where the patients’ brains go into overdrive. Stephen D who, high on amphetamines and cocaine, experienced so massively an enhanced sense of smell that he could literally sniff his way around New York like dog; Mrs O’C and Mrs O’M both of whom start to hear loud music in their heads which they could not turn off; and the Touretters whose oversize Tourettes personalities display themselves in ‘strange motions and notions, an odd elfin humour and a tendency to antic and outlandish forms of play’.
Sacks worked with some of his Tourettes patients (he describes the case of ‘Witty Ticcy Ray’) using drugs combined with talking therapies. And, as I was reading this case, into my in-box plopped my regular e-copy of Latitudes, the newsletter of the wonderful Associaton for Comprehensive Neuropathy about which I have raved before! Under the guidance of Sheila Rogers de la Mare, the ACN investigates how ‘nutritional imbalances, chemical exposure and allergies can affect neurological conditions’ – and they have had some extraordinary successes over the years. (As it happens, on their sign-up page is the story of Touretter, Carolyn, who has brought her tics under control with their help and without the use of the drugs which had had really bad side effects for her.) And amongst this month’s excellent offerings what caught my eye was: Meet Dave: The Inspiring Barber with Tourette Syndrome!
As you will probably know, one of the symptoms of Tourettes is an endless series of involuntary movements – so the idea of a barber with Tourette’s but still wielding a razor was scary! But Dave does – and very successfully! Check in to the Latitudes article here to see a short video of him at work and talking about Tourette’s!
And if you are interested in matters neurological – because you or someone you know has problem or just because you find it so fascinating – read Professor Sacks (you will find all his books at Amazon here) and sign up to Latitudes free newsletters here!