The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

As I was finishing the book, I was thinking that blogging it would be harder than it usually is to blog a book, because I felt I had a lot of reasons to dislike the book. Pointing out those reasons would mean that I’d both have to actively look for the worst stuff in the book and that I’d have to reread that stuff (I usually underline/paint/remark upon good stuff in a book I read – I rarely emphasize that ‘this is crap and this is why you shouldn’t read the book’). So with that in mind I sort of subconsciously started looking for bad stuff in the last third, so that I could quote it in a post here. At that point I knew very well that I wasn’t going to recommend the book; I was seriously considering not finishing it. I found the quote below to be a good illustration; I include it here to make you realize what kind of waffle the book is filled with:

“Hermann von Helmholtz, speaking of musical perception, says that though compound tones can be analyzed, and broken down to their components, they are normally heard as qualities, unique qualities of tone, indivisible wholes. He speaks here of a ‘synthetic perception’ which transcends analysis, and is the unanalysable essence of all musical sense. He compares such tones to faces, and speculates that we may recognise them in somewhat the same, personal way. In brief, he half suggests that musical tones, and certainly tunes, are, in fact, ‘faces’ for the ear, and are recognised, felt, immediately as ‘persons’ (or ‘personeities’), a recognition involving warmth, emotion, personal relation.

So it seems to be with those who love numbers.”

The book feels unstructured and it would have been a lot better if he’d written more about ‘the biology’ and ‘the neurology’ and he’d included a lot less of this kind of stuff: “the Kierkegaardian categories” (p.42), “What Wittgenstein writes here, of epistemology” (p.47), “‘In the beginning is the deed’ Goethe writes. The may be so when we face moral or existential dilemmas…” (p.65), “It is one which has fascinated a number of artists, especially those who equate art with sickness: thus it is a theme – at once Dionysiac, Venerean, and Faustian – which persistently recurs in Thomas Mann – from the febrile, tuberculosis highs of The Magic Mountain, to the spirochaetal inspirations in Dr Faustus and the aphrodisiac malignancy in his last tale, The Black Swan.” (p.94). And on it goes. He writes more than once about Penfield and Perot’s ideas about memory (“We surmise that our patient (like everybody) is stacked with an almost infinite number of ‘dormant’ memory-traces, some of which can be reactivated under special conditions, especially conditions of overwhelming excitement. Such traces, we conceive, like the subcortical imprints of remote events far below the horizon of mental life – are indelibly etched in the nervous system, and may persist indefinitely in a state of abeyance, due either to lack of excitation or to positive inhibition.”) but, as with most of the speculative analogies and ideas included in this book, he gives you no good reason why you should assume those guys were even right (and they don’t either, at least not in the quoted material). Incidentally here’s wikipedia on related matters.

There’s some good stuff in there as well, but I can’t possibly recommend this book. You’d probably learn more from the first chapter of a decent introductory neuroscience textbook alone.


October 5, 2012 - Posted by | Books, Neurology


  1. Thanks. Somehow I missed this review. Now I know not to read it.

    Comment by Miao | December 10, 2012 | Reply

    • Knowing what not to read is important – I’m glad you saw the post ‘in time’.

      Comment by US | December 12, 2012 | Reply

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