Over the summer Creature and I had been doing an Introduction to Psychology course on Coursera (I know I've mentioned Coursera several time recently, it seems to have appropriated rather a great deal of my time these days) and Steve (the exuberant Canadian tutor) recommended 'The man who mistook his wife for a hat' by Oliver Sacks as a good read.
While psychology isn't entirely about brain problems the fact is that psychologists seem to have learned most about brain function by studying the many and various ways in which it can go wrong. While this was a fascinating read, and certainly Mr Sacks has made a career out of writing and talking about the many and various ways the human mind can go awry, I was left not quite knowing what this teaches us about the way normal minds work. The book is divided into sections that focus on losses and excesses, people with temporary interruptions to normality and then others who have a whole different 'normality'. He takes us through a catalogue of different types of memory loss and altered perception, a variety of quirks and ticks, visions and hallucinations and totally different ways of understanding the world. I was left feeling slightly perturbed, as if I had just visited a freak show and was invited to gawp at the curious individuals inside, except that they had mental rather than physical peculiarities. So often it seemed nothing could be done and the people involved were often trapped inside the new version of reality that their brain perceived. Mostly they served to make you grateful for wholeness. Here he talks with Jimmie, a man who, through alcoholism, has lost 30 years of memory and exists believing it is 1945 and he is a young man:
"One day I asked him not about his memory or past, but about the simplest and most elemental feeling of all:
'How do you feel?'
'How do I feel,' he repeated, and scratched his head. 'I cannot say I feel ill. But I cannot say I feel well. I cannot say I feel anything at all.'
'Are you miserable?' I continued.
'Can't say I am.'
'Do you enjoy life?'
'I can't say I do...'
I hesitated, fearing that I was going down too far, that I might be stripping a man down to some hidden, unacknowledgeable, unbearable despair.
'You don't enjoy life,' I repeated, hesitating somewhat. 'How then do you feel about life?'
'I can't say that I feel anything at all.'
'You feel alive though?'
'Feel alive? Not really. I haven't felt alive for a very long time.'
His face wore a look of infinite sadness and resignation." (p.34-5)
Certainly a very readable book however, thought provoking and a window of sorts into the workings of the human mind.