As I unpacked one of the boxes of my books I found Oliver Sack’s collection of clinical stories of human neurological dysfunctions. I remembered how I was fascinated by these amazing stories though I did not finish reading all the stories – probably because I was distracted by other necessary readings. So I restarted reading them, and again I was captivated by the mysteries of human brains/ minds as well as Oliver Sacks’ highly engaging writing style (he is such a good writer!).
To begin, the title itself is highly intriguing. What kind of man mistakes his wife for a hat? Is this a sort of wacky satire on uber-sexist men? (I cannot help but suspect that some male editors found perverse joy in such a concept as expressed in the title. After all, this book was first published in 1985, when feminism was still raw, inviting some backlash.) As I read the short tale, I came to see that the man who mistook his wife for a hat was not a metaphor for sexism but a literal fact, describing one of the symptoms of a patient’s neurological dysfunction: he could not identify people and objects as familiar and particular because he saw everything as abstract. Sacks writes: “Dr. P… functioned precisely as a machine functions. It wasn’t merely that he displayed the same indifference to the visual world as a computer but – even more strikingly – he construed the world as a computer construes it, by means of key features and schematic relationships. The scheme might be identified – in an ‘identi-kit’ way – without the reality being grasped at all.” “Dr. P” occasionally had problem functioning in his daily life because he could not identify particular persons or even particular food. But, as far as the basic daily functions such as eating and clothing himself are concerned he managed by attaching “inner music” to these daily activities. As a music teacher he did not lose his musical capacity amidst of his visual agnosia. Presented as the first clinical tale, the case of this man who suffers from the visual agnosia is presented as a sort of warning parable for the science that “eschews the judgmental, the particular, the personal, and becomes entirely abstract and computational.”
Oliver Sacks is a scientist, but as his sympathetic narratives reveal he is deeply compassionate and human, that is, the opposite of computational and mechanical.