The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat  

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The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales is a 1985 book by neurologist Oliver Sacks describing the case histories of some of his patients. The title of the book comes from the case study of a man with visual agnosia. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat became the basis of an opera of the same name by Michael Nyman, which premiered in 1986.

The book comprises twenty-four essays split into four sections which each deals with a particular aspect of brain function such as deficits and excesses in the first two sections (with particular emphasis on the right hemisphere of the brain) while the third and fourth describe phenomenological manifestations with reference to spontaneous reminiscences, altered perceptions, and extraordinary qualities of mind found in mentally handicapped people.


The individual essays in this book include:

  • "The Lost Mariner", about Jimmie G., who has lost the ability to form new memories due to Korsakoff's syndrome. He can remember nothing of his life since the end of World War II, including events that happened only a few minutes ago. He believes it is still 1945 (in the late 70s and early 80s), and seems to behave as a normal, intelligent young man aside from his inability to remember most of his past and the events of his day-to-day life. He struggles to find meaning, satisfaction, and happiness in the midst of constantly forgetting what he is doing from one moment to the next.
  • "The President's Speech", about a ward of aphasiacs and agnosiacs listening to a speech given by an unnamed actor-president, "the old Charmer," presumably Ronald Reagan. Many in the first group were laughing at the speech, and Sacks claims their laughter to be at the president's facial expressions and tone, which they find "not genuine." One woman in the latter group criticizes the structure of the president's sentences, stating that he "does not speak good prose."
  • "The Disembodied Lady", a unique case of a woman losing her entire sense of proprioception (the sense of the position of parts of the body, relative to other neighbouring parts of the body).
  • "On the Level," another case involving damaged proprioception. Dr. Sacks interviews a patient who has trouble walking upright and discovers that he has lost his innate sense of balance due to Parkinson's-like symptoms that have damaged his inner ears; the patient, comparing his sense of balance to a carpenter's spirit level, suggests the construction of a similar level inside a pair of glasses, which enables him to judge his balance by sight.
  • "The Twins", about autistic savants. Dr. Sacks meets twin brothers who can neither read nor perform multiplication, yet are playing a "game" of finding very large prime numbers. While the twins were able to spontaneously generate these numbers, from six to twenty digits, Sacks had to resort to a book of prime numbers to join in with them. This was used in the film House of Cards starring Tommy Lee Jones. The twins also instantly count 111 dropped matches, simultaneously remarking that 111 is three 37s. This story has been questioned by Makoto Yamaguchi, who doubts that a book of large prime numbers could exist as described, and points out that reliable scientific reports only support approximate perception when rapidly counting large numbers of items. Autistic savant Daniel Tammet points out that the twins provided the matchbox and may have counted its contents beforehand, noting that he finds the value of 111 to be "particularly beautiful and matchstick-like."
  • "The Dog Beneath the Skin", concerning a 22-year-old medical student, "Stephen D.", who, after a night under the influence of amphetamines, cocaine, and PCP, wakes to find he has a tremendously heightened sense of smell. Sacks would reveal many years later that he, in fact, was Stephen D.

In popular culture

Christopher Rawlence wrote the libretto for a chamber opera—directed by Michael Morris with music by Michael Nyman—based on the title story. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was first produced by the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1986. A television version of the opera was subsequently broadcast in the UK.

Peter Brook adapted Sacks's book into an acclaimed theatrical production, L'Homme Qui..., which premiered at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris, in 1993. An Indian theatre company performed a play entitled The Blue Mug, based on the book, starring Rajat Kapoor, Konkona Sen Sharma, Ranvir Shorey, and Vinay Pathak.

The subject of one chapter of this book is a man named Jimmie G. with anterograde memory loss; this name is similar to that of John G, a character in Memento, a movie in which the main protagonist has the same defect.

The Man Who, an album by the Scottish indie pop band Travis, is named after this book.

In the 2009 claymation film Mary and Max, the title character Mary is studying neurological disorders while attending college. She can be seen reading the book on a park bench during a later scene in the movie.

In the 2011 Stephen King novel 11/22/63, it is mentioned that Jake was not "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat", but rather "The Man Who Thought He Was In 1958".

See also

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