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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales

And Other Clinical Tales

By Oliver Sacks
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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales by Oliver Sacks

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (1985) explores the fascinating effects of brain damage on our perception, capabilities, personalities and behavior by examining some of the world’s most interesting (and bizarre) psychological and neuroscientific cases.

Key idea 1 of 8

Brain damage changes the personality and the behavior of a patient.

Imagine you’re a neuroscientist and you come across these three cases:

First, a man mistakes parking meters for children at play, and affectionately caresses their “heads.” He also mistakes his wife's head for a hat and causes quite a commotion when he tries to put it on.

Second, a patient at your hospital lives in constant fear, as she believes someone has left their leg in her bed. In reality, the offending limb is her own.

Third, a man understands body language, facial movements and tone perfectly, but has absolutely no comprehension of language.

So, what connects these people? They all suffer from some form of brain damage.

Damage to the brain can severely alter or impair our abilities, regardless of whether it was caused by a tumor, poison, inflammation or a stroke.

For example, if your brain overproduces the neurotransmitter dopamine, then you’re likely to develop compulsive twitching, imitate others and grimace and curse without being able to stop it.

Even brain damage caused by alcoholism can have severe impacts on the mind. For example,  Korsakow syndrome (which is named after a Russian psychiatrist and neurologist who studied alcoholics) is caused by alcohol-inflicted damage to the hippocampus. Many sufferers of Korsakow syndrome lose years’ worth of memories and can’t retain new information.

Brain damage can lead to the most grotesque and absurd sounding impairments, but in rare cases it can actually have a positive impact on a person’s life.

Such was the case for an 89-year-old woman who suddenly started to feel energetic and more open than ever, and even started flirting with younger men. The cause was neurosyphilis, which stimulated her ancient cerebral cortex.

On one hand, she wanted to stop the disease from getting worse, as neurosyphilis can be fatal; but she also desperately wanted to maintain the positive effects of feeling youthful, self-confident and happier than she had ever been.

Clearly, brain damage can cause people to act very strangely. In the following blinks, we’ll look at some specific examples of the other bizarre behavior it can cause.

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