The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (Oliver Sacks) 3*

Interesting but boring, a casebook of neurological tragedies without a narrative line.  The title patient had perfectly good eyes but couldn’t see.  He could describe everything in terms of color and shape, but his right brain was fucked up so he found no qualitative difference between a foot and a shoe, a face and a clock.  He saw like a computer, meaninglessly, and navigated his life by sound and music.  When confronted with a glove, he described it as a continuous surface with five compartments, maybe some sort of container?  But what manner of object is it meant to contain?  Oliver Sacks is not as fine a writer as he is a doctor, but I bet he’s the star of the cocktail party.

I felt an urge to buy a helmet and wear it everywhere. The saddest story was “The Disembodied Woman,” about a young woman whose proprioceptors went kaput.  I remember the day we covered proprioception in anatomy class.  You blindfold yourself by the chalkboard, make a chalk mark, wave your arms, and then hit the chalk mark again.  Your arm remembers the spot; you open your eyes to find two dots next to each other.

Without proprioceptors, she operated her body like an electric crane.  She had to concentrate to keep herself upright, to modulate her voice via feedback from her ears, and to control her grip via visual feedback.  If she ate and talked at the same time, her hand would go white with pressure or drop the fork or drift off like a malingering employee.

It’s a book to make you marvel at the perfection of your own body.  Is there anything more elegant and powerful than the way my mind fits seamlessly into my body, processing worlds of sensory data into sense, waking and sleeping, every millisecond of my fortunate life?  Almost everyone, but not everyone, has this as birthright.


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