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Synapse: Book Club Review

23.08.2022

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks; and Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith. Reviewed by Alexandra Petrache, Senior Behavioural Science Analyst and Vincent Huart, Senior Research Manager.

Our group of neuroscience experts, HRW Synapse, are passionate about expanding our expertise and engagement with this fascinating therapy area. This month, two members of our team, Alex and Vincent, enjoyed reading two books on subjects as diverse as anxiety and a patient plagued by the folk songs of her childhood… Read on for their reviews! 

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, Oliver Sacks – Review by Alexandra Petrache 

“This book was written by a neurologist in 1985, which is impressive, as the book reads and feels as if it has just come off the printer’s press. It is a series of essays on disorders of the brain- some more known, such as Tourette’s Syndrome, others less known, such as visual agnosia. The latter is evidenced in the case study that gives the name of the book and presents a highly accomplished music teacher who has lost the ability to perceive whole objects, but rather deconstructs them in their geometrical shapes- for example, he is able to identify a circle surrounded by oval shapes, but is unable to recognise it as a flower.  

The book is very accessible and engaging, as Sacks goes a step further and doesn’t just present interesting clinical cases but delves into the pathology of the disorders in clear and simple terms, touches on the way these disorders are perceived in society, how they would affect the lives of his patients, and brings in concepts from psychology and sociology.  

 “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat” is divided into four parts, each part detailing disorders of the brain grouped around one topic: “Losses”, “Excesses”, “Transport” and “The World of the Simple”. The first one talks about things that “lack”, for example, a person losing the ability to perceive their own leg and to recognise it as their own when they see it. “Excesses” is the other side of the coin, touching for example, on disorders with a component of overexcitability. The third part has to do with the internal worlds that our brains conjure- for one of Sack’s patients, that meant waking up after a dream to find out that they could remember Irish songs from their childhood, only the songs they were hearing did not stop when they woke up. This is important as, as Sacks explained, some of these conditions don’t tend (or at least did not, at the time) to be thought of as “something medical, let alone “neurological”. The fourth and last part of the book details cases of developmental conditions.  

For me, this is a five-star read that really makes you think about the brain, society, and stigma. Expect to find an all-encompassing, enrapturing experience when reading Sacks’ book. It’s a lesson in neurology turned into a holistic learning experience. Noteworthy is also Sacks’ language around neurological conditions and how he talks about some of them as a gift or as something that just “is”, something that does not need to be considered an issue. He shows real appreciation and curiosity for the workings of the brain and gives each condition the respect it deserves”.

 

Monkey Mind, Daniel Smith – Reviewed by Vincent Huart 

“This book follows the journey of the author from childhood, through to puberty and adulthood, exploring how his experiences with anxiety initially manifested, evolved, and grew alongside him throughout these phases of life. The story starts with a near-death experience as a child and introduces the interesting context of his mother’s occupation- a psychotherapist! Smith’s growing awareness of anxiety and his relationship with it provides the narrative as he brings us to the present day, and his relevant acceptance of his experiences. 

I know lots of people who suffer from anxiety, and this book offers an interesting way to shine a light on the incredible common experience of anxiety: how it can feel absolutely crippling to make mundane daily choices such as ketchup or BBQ sauce on a sandwich, through to the more significant impacts such as experiencing panic attacks at university. Even the decision to engage with psychotherapy is marked by anxiety (particularly when Smith initially selects his mother to conduct therapy for him!) 

In a shared theme with Alex’ book, one of the key realisations and themes in the Monkey Mind is that Smith comes to terms with having anxiety and that it may never really go away completely and should rather be accepted and managed. Over time, in place of escalating thoughts that get out of control very quickly, his psychotherapy trains him to logically think through his thoughts to de-escalate the anxiety- what happens if the “worst” happens, and would it really be that bad? Over time, he is able to calm himself using these techniques in day-to-day life and avoid the feelings of paralysis that have plagued him for years. 

It’s five stars from me! One could assume that a book about anxiety is going to be a bit intense, but the writer is really funny- whilst managing to communicate how important discussing and handling anxiety can be.  Smith makes you almost feel at ease with the concept of anxiety, and want to keep reading to the end of his journey” 

What’s next on our reading list? 

Alex: “I’m planning on reading ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’, by Norman Doidge. It’s about neuroplasticity, when the brain changes its networks it neural networks to rewire itself and function differently. We know this can happen after trauma, during development, and during childhood; and now we know it happens in adults as well” 

Vincent Huart: “I’m looking forward to reading ‘I Might Be Wrong’, by Björn Natthiko Lindeblad. Sadly the author has passed away, but it’s about a man who led a normal, successful life with a career in finance, before changing his whole lifestyle and becoming a forest monk in Thailand. It’s about his journey with this change, and the lessons we can take away from his experience” 

 

By Alexandra Petrache and Vincent Haunt

   

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