Man Who Mistook His Wife For Hat Men ought to know that from nothing else but the brain come joys, delights, laughter and sports, and sorrows, griefs despondency, and lamentations. And by this, in an especial manner, we acquire wisdom and knowledge, and see and hear and know what are foul and what are fair, what are bad and what are good, what are sweet and what are unsavory….And by the same organ we become mad and delirious, and fears and terrors assail us.. All these things we endure from the brain when it is not healthy.. In these ways I am of the opinion that the brain exercises the greatest power in the man. –Hippocrates, “On the Sacred Disease” (4th century B.C) “It is human nature to be curious about how we see and hear; why some things feel good and others hurt; how we move; how we reason, learn, remember, and forget; the nature of anger and madness”(Bear, Connors, Paradiso 3).
This quote, found in my neuroscience textbook, basically sums up why we study and write about the brain. The brain has been a curiosity to man since the beginning of science. The actual term”neuroscience” is as recent as the 1970s, but the study of the brain is as old as science itself. Evolving over time, the discipline of neuroscience has undergone significant changes to become what it is today. New findings, new discoveries are always changing what we know, or think we know, about the brain.
It is with this in mind, that I attempt to discuss Oliver Sacks collection of narratives. Referring to himself as a physician, Oliver Sacks has dedicated his entire life to studying the person behind neurological deficits. His interest lies not in the disease itself, but also in the person-“the suffering, afflicted, fighting, human subject-” and he presents these people in short narratives collected in The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Oliver writes these stories to teach the reader about the identity of people who fall victim to neurological diseases. He describes the experience of the victim as he/she struggles to survive his/her disease.
It is this struggle, this description of persona that leads to the notion of “neurology of identity”(viii), which arouses the historic concept of the mind and the brain. In neurosciences earliest years, a neurologist by the name of Descart spoke of the notion that there was a governing body that existed outside of the physical brain. This governor, the mind, was thought to be some sort of spiritual phenomena that worked with the physical brain to control actions, “interactional dualism”. This concept of the mind led to numerous studies regarding its actual existence. Reading Oliver Sacks narratives forces me to believe that there just might be an outside force working together in some sort interactional dualism.
The existence of a mind would support Sacks idea of identity; that is, that a personal identity is formulated through perceptions, our own perceptions. Oliver presents numerous stories where neurological disorders have completely impaired a persons physical ability; the ability to remember, the ability to comprehend, the ability to speak, hear. These patients, however, never lose their spiritual ability. Their ability to rejoice, to appear spiritually fulfilled, is never lost, it is only hidden. An example of this spiritual phenomena is the case of Jimmie, who had suffered from amnesia, and could not remember anything for more than two minutes, except that which was thirty years old. Jimmie had no continuity, no reality.
He lived in the eighties, but his mind was in the thirties. Jimmie would erupt into panic attacks of confusion and disbelief, only to forget them a few minutes later. After frequent visits with Dr. Sacks, however, Jimmie began to fine some continuity, some reality, in what Sacks refers to as “the absoluteness of spiritual attention and act”(38). Jimmies spirit, regardless of the brain deficit, was never completely lost. His spirit, which may very well exist in his mind, or outside of the physical brain, allowed him to have temporary realities. Sacks writes about neurological deficits and how people cope with these diseases to allow us, the reader, to adventure into an unknown world.
We, as normal people with no neurological disease, really have no concept of how devastating these circumstances can be to our life. Sacks, however, provides us with stories that make us appreciate our working brains. Thus it is extremely important to continue writing about the brain and its mysteries to inform the everyday person of the disasters that at some point may occur.