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Editorial Reviews

Groundbreaking neurologist Oliver Sacks has written a number of best-selling books on his experiences in the field, some of which have been adapted into film and even opera. Often criticized by fellow scientists for his writerly and anecdotal approach to cases, he is nevertheless beloved by the general public precisely for his willingness to exercise compassion toward his unusual subjects. In his introduction to this audiobook, Sacks himself explains that much of the content is now quite outdated, but he hopes, proudly in his soft British lisp, that The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat still resonates for its positive attitude and openness toward the neurological conditions described therein.

Audible featured narrator Jonathan Davis is more than up to the task of bringing these case studies to life. He adopts a tone that is both sympathetic and authoritative. In fact, he sounds very much like the actor William Daniels, who voiced the car in the television show Knight Rider, or for a younger generation, played Principal Feeny in the television show Boy Meets World. The stories in this book concern matters of science, to be sure, but they also contain quite as much adventure into uncharted territory as either of those television shows.

The cases are divided into four sections: losses, excesses, transports, and the world of the simple. "Losses" involves people who lack certain abilities, for example, the ability of facial recognition. "Excesses" deals with people who have extra abilities, for example, the tics associated with Tourette's Syndrome. "Transports" involves people who hallucinate, for example, a landscape or music from childhood. "The world of the simple" deals with autism and mental retardation. Though this last section is perhaps the most obviously scientifically outdated section of the book, it also best demonstrates Sacks' deep feeling for the unique gifts of his subjects. Indeed, Davis anchors his delivery of the facts in these admirable empathies, demonstrating that in terms of the cultural perception of neurological conditions, Sacks' early work still has much to teach us. —Megan Volpert

Publisher's Summary

In his most extraordinary book, "one of the great clinical writers of the 20th century" (The New York Times) recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders. Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat tells the stories of individuals afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations: patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien; who have been dismissed as retarded yet are gifted with uncanny artistic or mathematical talents.

If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales remain, in Dr. Sacks' splendid and sympathetic telling, deeply human. They are studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, and they enable us to enter the world of the neurologically impaired, to imagine with our hearts what it must be to live and feel as they do. A great healer, Sacks never loses sight of medicine's ultimate responsibility: "the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject".

PLEASE NOTE: Some changes have been made to the original manuscript with the permission of Oliver Sacks.

©1970, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985 Oliver Sacks (P)2011 Audible, Inc.

Critic Reviews

"Dr. Sacks's best book.... One sees a wise, compassionate and very literate mind at work in these 20 stories, nearly all remarkable, and many the kind that restore one's faith in humanity." (Chicago Sun-Times)
"Dr. Sacks's most absorbing book.... His tales are so compelling that many of them serve as eerie metaphors not only for the condition of modern medicine but of modern man." (New York magazine)

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  • Alissa
  • Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
  • 03-26-12

Amazing!

Oliver Sacks is such an engaging, exciting, and thoughtful author. These stories far surpassed scientific documentation of odd mental illnesses and instead discussed the lived experience of his patients as people. Sacks is a formidable writer. I highly recommend this book.

7 of 8 people found this review helpful

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The Intersection of the Scientific & the Romantic

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1985) by Oliver Sacks is a collection of mostly fascinating and moving case study narratives about patients Sacks treated during his career as a neurologist.

In his Preface (nicely read by Sacks), Sacks explains that he's equally interested in diseases and people, being a theorist and a dramatist who sees both the scientific and the romantic in the human condition, especially in human sickness. Why "tales"? Because although case histories of diseases are important, they usually lack the human subject, and to restore the human subject to the center requires a story: "Classical fables have archetypal figures—heroes, victims, martyrs, warriors. Neurological patients are all of these—and in the strange tales told here they are also something more…. We may say they are travellers to unimaginable lands—lands of which otherwise we should have no idea or conception. This is why their lives and journeys seem to me to have a quality of the fabulous. . . and why I feel compelled to speak of tales and fables as well as cases. The scientific and the romantic in such realms . . . . come together at the intersection of fact and fable, the intersection which characterizes. . . the lives of the patients here narrated."

The book, then, is divided into four sections of "clinical tales." Part One, Losses, features accounts of people who through disease or accident have lost the ability to recognize faces or to remember anything after the year 1945 or to perceive their body (or a body part) as theirs or to stand upright or to see anything on their left, and so on. This section demonstrates that the things traditionally viewed as lacks or deficits are in fact much more complex, because they involve the victim trying to compensate, "trying to preserve his/her identity in adverse circumstances."

Part Two, Excesses, concerns the opposite kind of cases, disorders of excess in which patients exhibit extravagant proliferation, generation, enhancement, etc. in abilities or perceptions, problems arising when such growth becomes monstrous or disabling. Examples are patients suffering from Tourette Syndrome (excess of energy and hyper-quickness of thought and action, etc.) or Syphilis (excess of "frisky" euphoria), or too fertile, rapid, and incontinent an imagination for making up stories about oneself and other people.

Part Three, Transports, is about "the power of imagery and memory to transport a person with abnormal stimulation of the temporal lobes and the limbic part of the brain." Examples concern people who suddenly start hearing loud music they had forgotten hearing as children, a man who suddenly regains the vivid memory of murdering his girlfriend, and epileptic or migrainic visions, Sacks arguing that the organic or physical causes of such reminiscences and visions don’t detract from their spiritual power and meaning for the people involved.

The last part, The World of the Simple, concerns the perception of the world and special abilities of the "mentally retarded," autistic, and idiot savants, people who may seem to be dysfunctional "morons," but who actually are innocent, imaginative, and creative. Treating such "simple" patients taught Sacks that the traditional approach of "defectology" (exposing their lack of conceptual ability to, in effect, undermine them) is inferior to the romantic approach of "narratology" (permitting their natural affinity to the concrete to ground and free them via music, art, and narrative).

Throughout Sacks shows himself to have been an intelligent, resourceful, and caring doctor, trying to observe his patients with an open mind, asking them how they feel, reading and or hearing their life stories, respecting their individual manifestations of various brain-centered malfunctions, taking a romantic-scientific approach to their treatment including new drugs and empathic communication, wanting to encourage the growth of their souls by helping them find or letting them do what they love doing.

Along the way he writes some thought provoking lines, like "Wellness can be genuine even if caused by illness," and "Who's more tragic? The man who knew he was damned or the man who did not?"

Along the way he references and quotes from a variety of thinkers about the human brain and mind, including Freud, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Russell, James, Leibnitz, and, of course, various earlier neurologists. He occasionally uses technical terms, but usually defines them, and his clinical narratives are absorbing rather than difficult.

Not all his clinical tales have happy endings! Sacks conveys the horror and sadness of losing control of one's perceptions or actions or memories, and doesn't shy away from the fact that we still (too often) can't find effective places for autistic "island" dwelling people in our society. But most often the human soul finds a way to survive.

Jonathan Davis gives his usual consummate reading of an audiobook.

Anyone interested in the human brain and its mysterious and wonderful and terrible permutations should find much of interest in this book.

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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Started out strong

Would you recommend this book to a friend? Why or why not?

Only the first half of it.

What was most disappointing about Oliver Sacks’s story?

The first half of this book was so interesting. It always amazing me what can go wrong with the human body. But about mid-way through it just became repetitive and I felt like "you've heard one neurological study you've heard them all".

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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  • Phillip
  • Moorabbin, Australia
  • 05-13-12

True stories about how our brains effect us

What did you love best about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales?

I like the fact that this book was written by a doctor who sees his patients as persons, not things. These are real case histories, and these people are suffering from various forms of brain damage and defects. It is interesting to learn how they are coping, and how their personalities are being effected.It is also so fascinating to learn how much our organic physiology effects our personality.

What was one of the most memorable moments of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales?

The book ends by pointing our how many ways one of the authors patents could have their very special gifts employed in fruitful work, but also points out that instead the patents will probably (like many others) be overlooked and discarded for life to the back room of a public hospital.

Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

It made me happy to know that some doctors really do care, and see potential, for the handicapped. It made me sad to think that so many people are discarded.

9 of 11 people found this review helpful

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  • Mark
  • Raglan, New Zealand
  • 06-11-15

A bit of a disappointment

This book has its moments, but overall I would have to say that it is a disappointment. In it a neurologist reflects on some of his most bizarre cases. Some of them are certainly interesting, and it does help you to understand the way brains work and also shows how humans are capable of coping with some cruel disabilities, such as not having any awareness of their own body (proprioception), walking at a tilt, having music playing constantly inside the head, and living without any short term memory.
Some of the therapies he uses to help people live with their problems are ingenious and the stories of recovery are uplifting, but they weren’t enough to make this audiobook a hit for me.

I guess the disappointments are as follows:

1. It’s just one story after another. After a while you realise that if the part of the brain controlling some particular function is destroyed or damaged by a disease such as a stroke or a tumour, then that function will be lost or affected in some way – once you realise this, the stories become a bit repetitive

2. It’s very dated (from the 1980s I think). This gives it a quaint ‘old-time’ feeling, but you do feel you are missing out on many insights of modern neurology

3. While being a neurologist, he treats the existence of a spiritual soul as if it is a scientific fact. He even consults nuns to ask if a patient with a severe memory disorder still has his soul. I find this bizarre. I don’t have a problem with him believing in the concept of a ‘soul’, but to incorporate it into his neurological analysis is very strange

So, if I was suddenly stricken with a neurological disorder whereby I immediately forgot the last audiobook I listened to, it wouldn’t be too much of a problem in this case.

8 of 10 people found this review helpful

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Deep, fascinating, and fun.

Just the right balance between fun stories and educational neuroscience that won't let you look at human consciousness the same way ever again. The book is a collection of clinical stories that are sad, funny, and uplifting. The stories are well read, and altogether enjoyable.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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The brain is fascinating

If you're interested in the brain, this book is for you. If you like clinical case study, this book is for you. I had a little bit of difficulty getting started but once the case studies started rolling, this was fascinating. The brain is mysterious and wonderful. This isn't so much about mental illness as it is about biological changes in the brain affecting behavior and interaction. Amazing diagnoses throughout.
The narrator did an excellent job personalizing it as though it was his case studies.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Surprisingly well-written, thoughtful and touching

I had assumed that this book would be an interest, yet depressing and clinical examination of fascinating brain disorders. I was wrong. Oliver Sacks has written an uplifting, and unexpectedly beautiful book here.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Ruth
  • United States
  • 11-06-12

An Amazing Look at the True Final Frontier

Two of my sister's professors recommended this book to her and she recommended it to me. As the mother of a child who has some problems similar to some of the neurological disorders in this book it has special significance for me. I do think that the Brain is the TRUE final frontier. For so many years we were told about our five senses and this book shows that truly there are more than that. These disabilities, many of them, are invisible. Imagine an individual who looks fine and still struggles to function. No one knows how to act or what to expect and many times people are either surprised, confused or offended. Many people and agencies won't even recognize what is going on as a true disability.

The vocab is steep and I looked up more than a few words online guessing at spellings. Even when I didn't know every single word, I got the general meaning of things. The narrator is awesome. My husband has heard so much about the book, he's told me he's going to read it next.

I was continually amazed by the poignant and compelling stories told. I was also extremely grateful for the author's compassion and recognition of the humanity of his patients. The common thread of each person trying to find the balance and their own version of normal was very interesting. Going through testing and trying to get services is so dehumanizing, and yet, each life sings its own melody; each life must be appreciated for its own goodness and uniqueness. This is an aspect which so often gets lost in society or modern medicine's quest for what they call normal.

This book is truly amazing in every way. The author alludes to so many other works and studies and makes even the bizarre behavior of these real-life characters understandable. The patients and the problems are interesting. The way the author talks about them is interesting. The way some of them find "normal" is interesting.... Interesting is too bland a word. Maybe Fascinating, Surprising, jaw-dropping, eye-opening, as well as heart-rending. It gave me hope that surprising answers are still being found.

This book is definitely worth your time and credit. I good solid break from fantasy, sci-fi, mysteries and YA fiction.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Myk
  • Canberra, Australia
  • 09-12-12

Fascinating glimpse of the brain's failings

The details of the case histories presented are the gems in this book. I was slightly put off by the author's self-congratulatory tone describing his breakthroughs with individual patients, but that's a minor annoyance.

Jonathon Davis's narration was excellent, hitting just the right whimsical curiosity and wonder while keeping a respectful tone.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Martyn Casserly
  • 08-11-17

Loved.

Loved this book, so fascinating to learn more. Helped make my cleaning go much quicker.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Michael C.
  • 08-04-17

Really a medical text book. Depressing.

It was a struggle to get through. For me the narrator had a creepy quality to his voice.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Catriona Kelch
  • 08-03-17

A difficult read/listen

I struggled because this book is very technical and I'm dyslexic. It uses lots of terms specific to neurology and doesn't take time to explain them very clearly. Feels like this book is more aimed at people who have proper prior knowledge of the subject than people with a casual interest.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • shutterclick
  • 08-02-17

Outstanding - a compulsive listen

Well written and read. Some of cases described as so bizarre that you would not think the brain was capable of such distortion and collapse. No spoilers here. My best wishes go out to those suffering similar afflictions.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Suswati
  • 07-30-17

Fascinating and tragic

Oliver Sacks, the late eminent British neurologist, is wonderfully curious and compassionate while journeying into people's experiences of the human brain. It is both humorous in some aspects but mostly tragic and terrifying to see how fragile human beings truly are. It is explained in the simplest of terms, though there is still a lot of scientific jargon. And some particular cases such as the disembodied woman and the man with nightmares is rather frightening. Fantastic read.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Alek
  • 07-19-17

Catchy name, disappointing storyline

Even though I'm a big fan of stories of clinical psychiatry, this particular story was way below expectations: not only it was not as exciting as the name suggested, but also the performance was dull and at times too soft and solemn AND the author left remarks saying had not known there was literature on the subject and it was abundant before writing the chapter. Why not correct it from what he'd learned from the literature?!?!?!
Some parts are curious, inspiring and informative, but I would not recommend anyone to spend time on this particular book.

7 of 12 people found this review helpful

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  • Louisa
  • 01-16-15

Actually rather dull and quite upsetting

What did you like best about The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: and Other Clinical Tales? What did you like least?

I thought some of the stories were interesting, but overall it's all rather anecdotal and unresolved which is rather unsatisfactory for the reader/listener. There are also some long passages where reference is made to experts in the field which are somewhat obscure to the listener (there are probably footnotes in the paper edition). The stories are fascinating as far as they go but we often have no idea if there was a cure or any hope for the sufferer. The truth is also that these poor people were/are very ill and sometimes their cases are very sad.

Would you ever listen to anything by Oliver Sacks again?

Probably not - you do need a certain level of expertise.

What about Jonathan Davis and Oliver Sacks (Introduction) ’s performance did you like?

He reads well and has a very gentle style which is well suited to this type of book.

10 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Linda
  • 01-16-18

The man who mistook his wife for a hat

I have to be honest, it is way too easy to zone out while listening to this book. Some bits were interesting, but mostly I found myself irritated by him consistently repeating words I really dislike. I found myself wanting to finish the book as fast I can, just to get it over with.

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  • Kate Turner
  • 01-05-18

Insightful and fascinating

What a marvellous read...some parts where harder than others to understand fully but beautifully written by a kind, insightful and generous spirit of a man. I have so much respect for him and thank him for this window into the bizarre and beautiful complications of the human mind.

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  • Chiikita
  • 11-26-17

Incredible stories of people

I am a student in psychology and many of the stories in this book are classics in my studies. However, I have discovered other people who have experienced difficult things. This book is a beautiful introduction to human brain deficiencies, totally accessible to anyone. The narration is nice and gives life to people.