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

‘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.’

The most famous quote from Dr. Oliver Sacks’ book is one which may require a second glance to fully comprehend. In this collection of memoirs and patient case studies, neurologist Dr Sacks recounts the narratives of several patients he has seen over the course of his career, from autistic children with amazing capabilities to a man who has trouble recognising even the most familiar of faces, often mistaking his wife for a hat. The book takes the form of ‘narrative medicine’ rather than ‘classical medicine’, and is as such suitable for general audiences (although there were quite a few technical words I had to look up!).

Neurology is the branch of medicine which focuses on the problems of the nervous system, and is an important and growing field in modern medicine. In his book Sacks speaks of the rise of the age of quantitative medicine, where society is becoming more and more focused on data and numerical results to diagnose and study patients, and how focusing on the numbers too much can often result in missing the whole picture. As doctors who see several patients a day, it can be easy to forget the social and holistic aspect of medicine, and instead become immersed in textbook definitions and research results. By looking at the patients as a whole, and witnessing them outside of the hospital environment as Sacks often did, one is able to gain a better sense of (or lack of) the character and personality of the patient, leading to a deeper doctor-patient relationship and better understanding of each other. Sacks highlights the importance of an empathetic approach to patients, especially in the field of neurology, where patients can often be dismissed as ‘hopeless’ cases without the proper support and guidance.

Oliver Sacks is often regarded as ‘the twentieth century’s greatest neurologist’, and to add credit to this statement he has written several other similar books. Through these books, he has helped revolutionise the field of neurology, giving doctors and patients alike a better understanding of what it means to have a disorder of the nervous system. He has, in my opinion, earned himself the title as one of neurology’s ‘greats’.

Until next time,

跆拳道 (Taiquandao)

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