The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

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Themes and Colors
Neurology Theme Icon
Conceptions of Mental Illness Theme Icon
The Neurological Community Theme Icon
Equalization and Adaptation Theme Icon
Illness as a Gift Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Illness as a Gift Theme Icon

Another important point that The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat makes about neurological disorders is that not all disorders are uniformly “bad.” To classify something as an illness—much like conceiving of a mental illness as a deficit (see “Conceptions of Mental Illness” theme)—is not itself a scientific procedure, but rather an arbitrary decision. Notions of what is and isn’t bad or normal are subject to cultural forces, and therefore change over time (to cite one notorious example, the medical community classified homosexuality as a disease until the 1970s). Throughout his book, Sacks questions and complicates the very definition of the word “illness,” suggesting that some so-called mental illnesses could be construed as valuable gifts, rather than conditions to be abhorred. (For the sake of convenience, Sacks uses the words “illness,” “disability,” and “disorder” throughout the book, although he seems to disagree with the purely negative stigma they imply.)

In several of the case studies in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, patients “suffer” from diseases that not only don’t cause them significant problems, but which seem to enhance their lives in surprising ways. Particularly in Part Three of the book, Sacks shows how so-called neurological disorders can provide patients with a new sense of enlightenment, inspiration, or euphoria. Sacks brings up two famous historical figures, Dmitry Shostakovich and Hildegard of Bingen, who, in all probability, had neurological conditions that allowed them to experience vivid hallucinations, triggered by seizures in the temporal lobes of the brain. In the strictest sense, Shostakovich and Hildegard probably had mental illnesses, but their illnesses seem to have helped them find enlightenment and inspiration far more than they impaired their lives. Too often, the medical community ignores the talents of mentally disabled people or acknowledges these talents in only the narrowest sense, treating them as mere party tricks, instead of signs of sophisticated, mature cognitive ability.

Although mental disorders could sometimes be conceptualized as an across-the-board benefit, Sacks discusses other, more ambiguous cases, in which the neurological disorder could be construed as having some positive and some negative effects, almost as if the mind compensates for certain deficits. Particularly in Part Four of the book, Sacks shows how mental disabilities, such as intellectual impairment, sometimes coincide with prodigious gifts in another mental departments. In one case study, we meet a man named Martin A., who, despite—or, quite possibly, because of—his intellectual impairment, has become a leading expert on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In another case study, Sacks describes an intellectually disabled woman named Rebecca who possesses a tremendous talent for poetic imagery. Although most medical researchers interpret such patients’ mental gifts as existing independent of their intellectual impairment, Sacks hypothesizes that their gifts are, in fact, a product of intellectual impairment. Perhaps, in being incapable of abstract, categorical thought, a mentally disabled person can focus on the concrete and the particular, and attain powers of concentration or attention that the average person could never hope for.

Sacks stresses that he’s not trying to fetishize mental illness, and readily acknowledges that, in many, many cases—perhaps the majority—mental illness is a tragic phenomenon that causes the patient distress and pain. Nevertheless, he argues, society, and even the medical community, is too hasty in stigmatizing mental abnormalities as “illnesses.” Some mental abnormalities have benefits as well as drawbacks, others could even be considered special gifts, and—perhaps most importantly—all should be treated as a mark of the individual’s humanity.

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Illness as a Gift Quotes in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat

Below you will find the important quotes in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat related to the theme of Illness as a Gift.
Part 1, Chapter 9 Quotes

Here then was the paradox of the President's speech. We normals—aided, doubtless, by our wish to be fooled, were indeed well and truly fooled (‘Populus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur’). And so cunningly was deceptive word-use combined with deceptive tone, that only the brain-damaged remained intact, undeceived.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker)
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Sacks makes a rare political statement: he’s in the hospital, observing his patients, many of whom lack the ability to interpret words, mannerisms, or speech inflections, as they watch a televised speech by “the president” (presumably, President Ronald Reagan). As the patients watch the president’s speech, they laugh and grimace with confusion and distaste—from their perspective, Reagan is a fake, utterly unconvincing speaker. Some of them find Reagan’s vocabulary childish (since they can’t respond to his vocal inflections) while others find his delivery and inflection stodgy and insincere.

Sacks, we can deduce, was no fan of Reagan, and so, in a way, he admires his patients for “seeing through” the political pageantry and recognizing the truth: Reagan is an actor, whose job is to seduce people into believing him. (The Latin phrase in this passage roughly translates to, “The people want to be deceived, so let them be deceived.”) Unlike the bulk of the American population, the patients in Sacks’s hospital see through Reagan’s act. Thus, the passage is the first of many examples of how a neurological “disorder” can actually be an advantage in some parts of life.


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Part 2, Chapter 10 Quotes

As this pattern became clear to him, and after discussing it with me, Ray made a momentous decision: he would take Haldol ‘dutifully’ throughout the working week, but would take himself off it, and ‘let fly’, at weekends. This he has done for the past three years. So now there are two Rays—on and off Haldol. There is the sober citizen, the calm deliberator, from Monday to Friday; and there is ‘witty ticcy Ray’, frivolous, frenetic, inspired, at week- ends.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker), Ray
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

At the end of the chapter, Oliver Sacks adds a surprising coda: his patient, Ray, who suffers from Tourette’s Syndrome, has accepted the drug Haldol, which he takes regularly. As a result of ingesting Haldol, Ray has made a new, functional life for himself—he has a good job and a loving wife (where previously he struggled to form friendships or relationships with others). However, Ray isn’t entirely happy with his new life—although he didn’t always like having Tourette’s, he’s nostalgic for the heightened awareness and quick thinking that Tourette’s provided him. Therefore, on weekends Ray refuses to take his Haldol, and savors the liveliness and energy of Tourette’s Syndrome.

Throughout the book Sacks suggests that, in spite of the connotations of the word “dis-order,” not all neurological disorders are purely malicious; indeed, some disorders could be construed as rare gifts. Tourette’s impairs Ray’s life in many ways, but it also makes him feel happy and alive at times. In the end, Ray chooses to split the difference and move back and forth between his sedated, “normal” existence and his Tourette’s existence.

Part 3, Introduction Quotes

All the transports described in this section do have more or less clear organic determinants (though it was not evident to begin with, but required careful investigation to bring out). This does not detract in the least from their psychological or spiritual significance.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker)
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:

In Part Three of the book, Oliver Sacks turns to discussing neurological “disorders” that, in spite of their misleading name, aren’t necessarily negative at all. Sacks is interested in neurological abnormalities that alter the patient’s perception of the external world. Furthermore, he argues that throughout history people who’ve claimed to experience religious visions or achieve divine inspiration may have had a rare neurological condition, such as a seizure of the temporal lobes, that altered their perception of reality. Sacks isn’t trying to suggest that there is anything disingenuous about mystics’ claims of divine inspiration; as he says here, finding a concrete, neurological explanation for a vision does nothing to interfere with the legitimacy or significance of that vision.

Part Three of the book is especially interesting insofar as it challenges the dogma that neurological disorders exemplify “something wrong” with the brain. Sacks instead argues that, at times, neurological disorders give the patient a rare form of inspiration.

Part 3, Chapter 17 Quotes

Another week passed, and now Bhagawhandi no longer responded to external stimuli, but seemed wholly enveloped in a world of her own, and, though her eyes were closed, her face still bore its faint, happy smile. ‘She's on the return journey,’ the staff said. ‘She'll soon be there.’ Three days later she died—or should we say she ‘arrived’, having completed her passage to India?

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker), Bhagawhandi P.
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 17, one of the most moving in the book, Sacks describes a likeable young woman named Bhagawhandi, who had a terminal tumor and had only a few months left to life. As her tumor grew, however, Bhagawhandi began to experience strange visions, during which she felt that she was traveling back to her old village in India. While Sacks speculated that these visions originated as seizures in her temporal lobes, he was unable to account for the vividness and complexity of the visions.

Sacks describes Bhagawhandi’s eventual death as a return—the completing of her “passage to India” (an allusion to the famous E. M. Foster novel A Passage To India). In doing so, he reminds us that not all neurological abnormalities are necessarily bad—in Bhagawhandi’s case, for example, her hallucinations put her in a calm, peaceful state of mind and relaxed her as she approached death. Furthermore, Sacks reminds his readers that he’s not writing a strictly scientific book—here, as in other parts of the book, Sacks raises philosophical, religious, and even mystical themes that other neurologists might dismiss as “unscientific.”

Part 3, Chapter 20 Quotes

Invested with this sense of ecstasy, burning with profound theophorous and philosophical significance, Hildegard’s visions were instrumental in directing her towards a life of holiness and mysticism. They provide a unique example of the manner in which a physiological event, banal, hateful or meaningless to the vast majority of people, can become, in a privileged consciousness, the substrate of a supreme ecstatic inspiration.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker), Hildegard of Bingen
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 20, Sacks discusses the life of Hildegard of Bingen, a famous Christian mystic who claimed to have experienced divine visions. Hildegard, Sacks speculates, had a neurological condition that allowed her to experience frequent seizures and vivid hallucinations. One could argue that a medical explanation of Hildegard’s visions interferes with her claims of divine inspiration. But, as Sacks argues here, the “banality” of a neurological explanation says nothing about the true source of the visions—one could conceivably argue that Hildegard really was receiving divine inspiration, and that God chose to communicate with her by giving her a seizure of the temporal lobes. And, of course, even if one disputes the divine nature of Hildegard’s visions, one can respect the sophistication of her writing, the sincerity of her piety, etc. In all, Sacks uses the life of Hildegard to emphasize his point that studying the physiological sources of inspiration do nothing to trivialize inspiration itself.

Part 4, Introduction Quotes

But of much greater interest, much more human, much more moving, much more ‘real’—yet scarcely even recognized in scientific studies of the simple (though immediately seen by sympathetic parents and teachers)—is the proper use and development of the concrete.

The concrete, equally, may become a vehicle of mystery, beauty and depth, a path into the emotions, the imagination, the spirit.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker)
Page Number: 176
Explanation and Analysis:

The final quarter of Sacks’s book begins with an extended discussion of the concept of the “concrete.” Like the concepts of deficit or abundance, concreteness is not in itself a scientific phenomenon—rather, it’s a conceptual tool, with its own unique strengths and weaknesses, that helps neurologists get a better sense for their patients’ conditions. When applied to cases of mental disability, however, Sacks has found that the concept of concreteness is a good way to understand his patients’ worldview. Sacks argues that many patients with mental disabilities have a special connection with the concrete world, almost as if, in the absence of the ability to conceive of abstract concepts, their minds focus on the physical, tangible realm.

It’s important to keep two things in mind, however: first, Sacks isn’t necessarily saying that all mentally disabled people compensate for their conditions by focusing on the concrete realm; second, Sack’s isn’t trying to fetishize or condescend to intellectual disabilities. Rather, he’s trying to complicate traditional understandings of mental illness by showing how, in some cases, a deficit in some cognitive faculties may be accompanied with an overabundance of others.

Part 4, Chapter 21 Quotes

‘I’m like a sort of living carpet. I need a pattern, a design, like you have on that carpet. I come apart, I unravel, unless there's a design.’

Related Characters: Rebecca (speaker)
Page Number: 184-185
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 21, we meet Rebecca, a mentally disabled woman who possesses a phenomenal ability to speak in poetic, metaphorical phrases. After the death of her beloved grandmother, for example, Rebecca describes her emotions as wintry, and confesses to Sacks that she thinks of her life as a carpet, requiring intricate patterns and designs to give it order and meaning.

Sacks’s characterization of Rebecca as a great poet and metaphorical thinker might seem counterintuitive, given his emphasis on the concrete in the Introduction to Part Four—one could reasonably argue that poetry is the exact opposite of the concrete (literal versus non-literal). However, as Sacks sees it, Rebecca’s talent lies in her ability to represent challenging, abstract concepts such as grief, change, and nostalgia in immediately accessible, concrete terms. The passage is notable, furthermore, in conveying the sophistication and dignity with which Rebecca conducts herself after her grandmother’s death. Contrary to what many in both the medical community and the public might think, there is nothing immature or “deficient” about Rebecca’s emotional response to her experience with grief and depression.

Part 4, Chapter 22 Quotes

One speaks of ‘idiot savants’ as if they had an odd ‘knack’ or talent of a mechanical sort, with no real intelligence or understanding. This, indeed, was what I first thought with Martin—and continued to think until I brought in the Magnificat. Only then did it finally become clear to me that Martin could grasp the full complexity of such a work, and that it was not just a knack, or a remarkable rote memory at work, but a genuine and powerful musical intelligence.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker), Martin A., Johann Sebastian Bach
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sacks describes some of the stereotypes about the mentally disabled. One common stereotype is that mentally disabled people who exhibit profound talent in some other cognitive area—“idiot savants” as they’re often known—aren't truly gifted at all. In other words, many people—including both doctors and lay people—think of “idiot savants’” mental abilities as mere party tricks or mechanical processes, demonstrating no profound ability or sophistication. Sacks shows that, in fact, people with both significant mental talents and mental impairments can make sophisticated, mature judgments—they’re more than just parrots. In the case of Martin A., for example, Martin’s judgments about the music of J. S. Bach show deep understanding of Bach’s music. His opinions about music are no less valid than those of any other music expert—his mental impairment is, in this case, a non sequitur.

Part 4, Chapter 23 Quotes

This is the positive side—but there is a negative side too (not mentioned in their charts, because it was never recognized in the first place). Deprived of their numerical ‘communion’ with each other, and of time and opportunity for any ‘contemplation’ or ‘communion’ at all—they are always being hurried and jostled from one job to another—they seem to have lost their strange numerical power, and with this the chief joy and sense of their lives. But this is considered a small price to pay, no doubt, for their having become quasi-independent and ‘socially acceptable’.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker), John, Michael
Page Number: 209-210
Explanation and Analysis:

In this moving chapter, Sacks describes the lives of “the twins,” John and Michael, who had phenomenal mathematical talents. John and Michael could remember long numbers and calculate the day of the week for any date in history. However, later in their lives, John and Michael were split apart and forced to work in menial jobs. As a result, they lost their ability to do complex math—which, previously, had been a source of tremendous joy and comfort for them both.

The passage is particularly noteworthy because one can sense Sacks’s bitterness and disillusionment with society. He’s shown that John and Michael are talented, if idiosyncratic mathematicians—and instead of nurturing their gifts and encouraging them to put their talents to use, society has first treated John and Michael’s genius like a mere party trick, and then rejected it altogether in favor of making them “socially acceptable.” In this chapter, and particularly the next one, Sacks suggests that society needs to rethink the way it conceives of neurological disorders and find better ways of encouraging neurodivergent people to develop their unique gifts, rather than marginalizing them and forcing them to conform to lifestyles that aren’t meant for them.

Part 4, Chapter 24 Quotes

Could he, with his fine eye, and great love of plants, make illustrations for botanical works or herbals? Be an illustrator for zoology or anatomy texts? (See the drawing overleaf he made for me when I showed him a textbook illustration of the layered tissue called ‘ciliated epithelium’.) Could he accompany scientific expeditions, and make drawings (he paints and makes models with equal facility) of rare species? […] He could do all of these—but, alas, he will do none, unless someone very understanding, and with opportunities and means, can guide and employ him. For, as the stars stand, he will probably do nothing, and spend a useless, fruitless life, as so many other autistic people do, overlooked, unconsidered, in the back ward of a state hospital.

Related Characters: Oliver Sacks (speaker), José
Related Symbols: José’s Drawings
Page Number: 231-232
Explanation and Analysis:

In the final chapter of the book, Sacks discusses an autistic patient named José. For most of his life, José has been treated like a waste of space—he’s regularly called “hopelessly retarded.” And yet, Sacks discovers, he’s a very gifted artist. In short, because of society’s ignorance of neurological disorders, José, a great artist with a lot of talent to offer the world, has been placed in a hospital and forced to live a “useless, fruitless life.” As with the previous passage, you can almost feel Sacks’s quiet fury.

In the thirty years since Sacks’s book was published, Western society has indeed become more understanding of autism. Autistic people have achieved success in many walks of life, rather than living out their lives in hospitals. However, people continue to have many misconceptions about autism and mental illness in general. In the end, Sacks seems to be making a plea for understanding: if people would only take the time to recognize the talent and ingenuity of people like José, he seems to be saying, people with neurological disorders could live more fulfilling, productive lives, and the world would be a happier place for everyone.