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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a HatBy Oliver Sacks
Review by Hannah T (Biomedical Sciences)

One book that particularly inspired me to study Biomedical Sciences was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by neurologist Oliver Sacks. This is a series of short case studies of some of the most notable patients Sacks encountered during his career.

The title of the book gets its name from one of the patients, Mr P, who is suffering from visual agnosia. Visual agnosia is effectively the inability to recognise objects by sight alone. For example, if Mr P were presented with an object he would not be able to tell what it was by just looking at it. However, if he were able to touch it or it made a sound, he would immediately recognise the object. Therefore, Mr P really is unable to distinguish between his wife and a hat! For me, this was the first time that I considered that different senses are associated with different areas of the brain.

Another particularly interesting case in this book describes a Jimmie G who has Korsakoff’s syndrome and is unable to form new memories. As a result of this, he believes he is still a solider in the Second World War, as he is unable to remember anything that has happened since that time. This study provided a really interesting insight into the difference between long and short term memory and the formation of new memories.

The way that this book is written really makes you relate to each case study on a very personal level, whilst still giving a lot of detail about the clinical aspects of each case. It is a fantastic book to make you begin to think about the way in which our brains function.


Review by Lizzie (Experimental Psychology)

The book that I would definitely recommend and have enjoyed reading again and again is The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hatby Oliver Sacks, which was recommended by my college tutor. This follows cases that Sacks has come across as a Neurologist and each chapter first gives the story and the characters within the case and then explains the clinical aspects behind the disorders described.

The first story is of a man who has slowly lost his ability to access his knowledge via vision, known as visual agnosia, and the many other stories include amnesia, Tourrette’s syndrome, Neglect due to right hemisphere damage and Autism. The story telling style along with the clinical notes makes this book really enjoyable to read and I found it made the conditions incredibly memorable. This book links to the more clinical/neuropsychology side of the course, and so compliments Opening Skinner’s Box very well as the books show you different facets of psychology. It is a very approachable book and I have lent it to many of my non-psychology friends, who have also really enjoyed it because while it does explain the more detailed clinical side of things, it doesn’t overcomplicate them.

Although in the interview they definitely do not expect you to have a detailed knowledge of psychology, it is really good to have some idea of how people have approached research questions and to have had a look into areas that you might find particularly exciting.


Review by Alice (Experimental Psychology)

The first psychology book that I ever read was The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks – I picked it up one day out of curiosity and it completely drew me in! Oliver Sacks was a neurologist who worked with patients with varying neurological disorders over the course of his career, and wrote about the most interesting ones.

Each chapter is about a different patient, all of whom have unique stories. One of the patients that stood out to me was Dr. P, the man who the book is named after.  Dr P suffered from prosopagnosia (face blindness), which is a condition that prevents people from recognising familiar faces. However, he had a rare form of prosopagnosia which meant that he was unable to distinguish between objects too (for example, when shown a glove by Sacks, he identified that it had a main section with 5 projections and described the shape in great detail, but he couldn’t see that it was a glove until Sacks gave him information about its use!). The title comes from his confusion when he attempted to reach for his hat, and instead reached for his wife – his inability to distinguish between such different things really made me think about how perception works, and how we identify objects in every day life.

The book is divided into four different sections, with each section focussing on different “types” of neurological disorders: deficits, abundances, perception and intellectual disabilities. Sacks writes with a fluid, narrative tone that makes the book feel light and easy to read (rather than being bogged down by complex science) whilst still explaining the science behind each disorder and keeping a medical “feel”. Furthermore, because each chapter is stand-alone it’s really easy to dip in and out of over the course of a month or so, which is great as you don’t have to find the time to consistently plough through it whilst juggling A levels/GCSEs!

Overall, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a real classic of a popular psychology book and is well worth a read.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks
ISBN-10: 0330523627
ISBN-13: 9780330523622

Try checking the availability of this book at your school or local library or explore second hand bookshops and websites. You may also wish to purchase from either Amazon or Blackwell’s.

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