Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The ways in which our brains can go wrong are both frightening and awe inspiring





The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales – Oliver Sacks (1985)

            Having seen this book referenced in several of my recent reads, I put a request for it at my library.  The author, Oliver Sacks, is a pioneer in the fields of neuropathology and the various disorders and afflictions that can arise due to brain trauma.  This book collects a few dozen case studies, each one describing a different patient of Dr. Sacks, their mental issues and treatment (if possible), as well as providing postscripts on many of the patients.
            We humans seem to go through life thinking that our “self,” our “identity” is a rigid entity.  People talk about how they have been the same person and liked the same things, their entire lives.  They do this without realizing that not only is the physical body not the same from birth to death, but that the mental self is constantly being changed.  Sometimes this happens for the better through personal growth, or life-altering experiences that force one to expand one’s consciousness in ways never done before.  Other times, it is the trauma of an automobile accident, or a tumor in the brain, or a bacterial infection of the spine that alters one’s reality and changes who you are.
            Dr. Sacks divides the case studies up into different sections.  One of the sections details people who suffered cognitive/emotional/mental losses to their faculties.  Others describe patients who seem to have gained more sensation/knowledge/capability than what is otherwise considered normal.  A third section discusses patients whose brain trauma/disease affects their ability to understand their place in time, forcing them to relive old, buried memories as if they were happening now.  This is for some a beautiful thing, and for others a horrible curse.  The last section of this book deals with Dr. Sacks mentally retarted patients who exhibit deeply unusual mental capabilities, such as the analysis of prime numbers, the ability to memorize vast amounts of data eiditically but without any intellectual or emotional connection to the data, or the prodigious talents of an artistic virtuoso, all this in spite of their sometimes crippling retardation.
            This book was written over 30 years ago.  Dr. Sacks talks at length about the deep need to understand these brain disorders, especially the ones that cannot be empirically tested and explored.  He feels that much of neurology at the time was concerned with the nuts and bolts of the brain without being able to explore the essence of mind that makes us humans.  It is through sharing these case histories that he hoped other researchers would be enticed to work in this field, to treat and help those whose minds are damaged but whose inherent humanity deserves respect and love.  Some of these stories are deeply sad.  Others shine a light on the wonders that simple companionship and care can bring forth in the care of people who have suffered what is essentially a destruction of their personal self.  It is a great book and I am glad that people like Dr. Sacks exist and do the work they do. 

(This book can be downloaded in PDF format by clicking HERE )

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