03 July 2009

Neurology text (almost)

While reading another of Jonathan Kellerman's books (about which I'll write soon), I was taken with the opening section. It was the fictionalized, and probably idealized narrative of a course of therapy for a fictionalized, and probably idealized patient.

I thought I'd like to read more things like that. So I picked up Oliver Sacks' [left] The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. From what I recalled having heard about the book, I thought it might be full of stories therapy and analysis.

I was wrong. There are some notable stories, a couple of which I remember reading in the New York Review of Books: the man who couldn't tell the difference between his wife and his hat and the man whose memory extended back only about 20 seconds.

But, most of the book is clinical diagnoses of patients and very little about therapy. There were the inseprable autistic twins who amused themselves by sharing prime numbers. There was the savant who knew the music, words, performances, and stage settings for nearly every prominent production of Bach's choral music.

Sacks offers intriguing literary allusions to help explain details of many of these case studies. But I'm not familiar with them. Sacks' references are meant for a more literary audience.

Much of the book includes references to seminal works in neurology. I've never heard of any of them, and Sacks' comments are directed to a more informed audience.

However, what I didn't expect and found fascinating were Sacks' philosophical questions.
  • How is abstract reasoning different from simply knowing?
  • Are there advantages to visualizing knowledge over knowing things by their verbal labels?
  • What does it mean to know?
  • What does it mean to be able to calculate?
  • How do the talents of visual savants manifest themselves?
  • Is it good therapy to direct autistic savants away from their natural talents and direct them to more socially useful (though not very valuable) activities?
  • What makes it possible for someone to understand the narratives of stories but not the narrative of her own life?
  • How can a person who cannot do simple calculations identify 12-digit prime numbers?
  • Why are so many numerical savants preoccupied with prime numbers?
  • Are numbers part of our brain's biology?

I would be interested in more about many of those questions, but they're beyond Sacks' professional expertise, so he's just asking.

The book wasn't what I expected, but it gave me a lot of ideas to think about.

While I was reading the book, Sacks appeared on The Daily Show, publicizing his latest book and a television production based on it. It's about music and the role music plays in human thinking and understanding. I missed the television production and I'll have to watch for a rerun, but I'm intrigued.

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