Review: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks. New York: Touchstone, 2006 (originally published in 1985).

Summary: Brief case histories of twenty-four patients with unusual neurological conditions.

Oliver Sacks is one of those authors I discovered in recent years, beginning to read him only shortly before his death in 2015. Only now have I gotten around to what is probably his most famous work. It is organized in four sections: Losses, Excesses, Transports, and The World of the Simple. Each section is introduced by a clinical discussion followed by four to nine illustrative case histories.

The title essay is found in the first section on losses, or cognitive deficits due to disease or damage to a particular brain structure. In the case of Dr. P, a musician and teacher, while the cause remained undetermined, he could not identify the objects he was seeing. He could describe them in detail, but he did not know what he was seeing. Hence at one point, when getting dressed to go out, he grabbed the top of his wife’s head, thinking it a hat. His visual agnosia left his musical abilities untouched, and with accommodations was able to continue in this work. One of the other cases described in this section was of a woman who lost all sense of her body, a loss of what is called proprioception. She could not tell where her arms or legs were apart from seeing them and had to learn to function by sight rather than by this sense of ourselves we take for granted. Sacks also describes cases of phantom limbs, pain, of someone who could see only the right half of their world, and a man who could not remember his life after 1945.

The section on excesses covered cognitive functions that might be describe as being in hyper mode. He covers things like Tourette’s syndrome, and a fascinating instance of “Cupid’s Disease,” a case of late onset in a patient nearly 90 of symptoms from syphilis contracted when she worked in a brothel as a young woman. It made her “frisky,” symptoms which for her were actually somewhat welcome! Although treated for syphilis, the symptoms remained.

“Transports” covers instances of sensations, memories, or visions that come due to epilepsy, or sometimes drugs, as was the case of a student who suddenly had a heightened sense of smell for a three week period before reverting to normal. Perhaps the most famous case is that of Hildegard of Bingen, whose migraines were accompanied by visions rendered in drawings.

The final section, discussing subjects with profound mental deficits were some of the most touching as Sacks recognizes what they possessed rather than what they lacked, such as Rebecca, who blossomed in a theatre program despite an IQ of 60, or twins who spoke to each other in prime numbers and could almost instantaneously calculate the day on which any calendar date would fall for 80,000 years. The last case of an autistic patient, Jose, shows how much things have advanced since Sacks wrote. He was considered mentally deficient but Sacks discovered an artistic ability that brought him to life. When he was moved to a quieter setting and allowed to develop his artistic expression, he flourished. Perhaps Sacks anticipated (and maybe helped) the advances in the treatment of those on the autism spectrum.

Sacks account is fascinating for its account of unusual neurological conditions, revealing the influences of neurophysiology on our personalities. What is also impressive is the delightful respect Sacks has for his patients. He listens to them and recommends treatments and accommodations that respect their individuality. At the same time, this book strikes me as a “snapshot in time” that reflects the state of knowledge in the 1980’s, which has advanced tremendously since then. What hasn’t changed is the care for the person Sacks shows. They are not just cases to him but people, and hopefully we will never advance beyond respecting the dignity of each person in the way Sacks does.

Review: Bittersweet

Bittersweet, Susan Cain. New York: Crown, 2022.

Summary: Describes the state of bittersweetness, where sadness and joy, death and life, failure and growth, longing and love intersect and how this deepens our lives and has the power to draw us together.

About ten years ago, Susan Cain published Quiet, helping the extroverted world discover the power of introverts and what they bring us all. In this work, Cain explores why at least some of us like sad songs, rainy days, and react intensely to art?

She helps us enter into understanding bittersweet by telling the story of the cellist of Sarajevo, who during the worst of the shelling, appeared every day and played Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. It is a beautiful, sad, and evocative piece that capture both the beauty of pre-war Sarajevo and the terrible loss of the war. This is bittersweet, this embrace of sadness and the longing for beauty, for something beyond our fractured existence. Holding together these seemingly disparate experiences, Cain believes is the pathway to “creativity, transcendence, and love.” Bittersweet can draw us together in the shared experience of longing for the transcendent.

Cain explores the sources of our longings for the good, the true, and the beautiful, the wonder of those moments and yet their transience. She contends that it is the place of creativity. She talks about how we live with bittersweet in a world of relentless positivity whose mantra seems to be, “be happy.” She offers an insight into the mental health crisis on university campuses, where everyone has to project a put-together, perfect Instagram image of effortless perfection that no one can live up to. She contends that our understanding of bittersweet can transform workplaces, where we understand the other side of fantastic success is the risk of failure, where allowing workers to acknowledge their struggles releases them to work more freely and productively, knowing that we’re all strugglers here.

The material of the third part on mortality, impermanence, and grief was the most thought-provoking for me. It is framed with the death of her brother and father from COVID-19 and the descent of her mother into dementia, a mother with whom she has had a bittersweet relationship. In between, she narrates attending RAADfest, a gathering of people into radical life extension, who are in revolt against aging and death. While Cain, like all of us would like to live longer, she doesn’t believe the pursuit of deathlessness will lead to peace and harmony, but rather the acceptance of mortality and walking together in it has the power to draw us together. She believes that the embrace of bittersweet is the way out of inherited trauma, when we face and embrace the pain in the lives of our forebears and live with gratitude for their resilience and the gifts they passed on to us.

I found myself reacting in several ways to this book. One was that I recognized a strength Susan Cain has is to name what is often an inchoate sense many of us have. While her “quiz” at the beginning of the book suggests some score higher on the bittersweet scale than others, anyone who has lived enough life, or even through a pandemic grasps this tension of sorrow and wonder, of longing and hope within which we live. Cain’s genius is to name it and give the lie to the American (and often Christian) focus on being happy.

Cain develops her ideas through a series of stories of travels around the world and interviews with a number of insightful people. She is a storyteller, and sometimes, it is hard to keep track of the larger story she is rendering for all the stories. Only in going back over the book for this review did I get any sense of the development of her ideas. With that, I also found the book somewhat repetitive as she makes again and again the point that bittersweet gives meaning, and creativity, love and union with others to our existence. It felt to some degree that this is the world she wanted to be so.

Cain describes herself as moving from an agnosticism to something different, not exactly faith or belief in a particular conception of God. Yet it seems in the end, in an attempt to identify with universal human experience, all she can do is believe in the longing for something more. She quotes C. S. Lewis from Surprised by Joy, noting that “we have hunger because we need to eat, we have thirst because we need to drink; so if we have an ‘inconsolable longing’ that can’t be satisfied in this world, it must be because we belong to another, godly one” (pp. 53-54). Yet Lewis found the fulfillment of his longing not in longing but in God. I fear Cain’s argument is to embrace the hunger and the thirst, but not go on to where there is food and drink. I sense she believes that longing or bittersweet is its own satisfaction. I can’t help but wonder if there is a dark side to bittersweet not discussed here, the disillusionment and despair of a life of longing without finding. I found myself praying that she would find, and have the courage to accept, the “other” that she longs for.

Review: Originals


Originals: How Non-conformists Move the WorldAdam Grant (foreword by Sheryl Sandberg). New York: Viking, 2016.

Summary: A study of the characteristics and practices of those who make original contributions in personal and professional life.

Why did Seinfeld barely escape the cutting room floor to become the most successful comedy ever? Why might enemies make better coalition partners than friends? If you have a truly innovative idea, you should drop everything and risk it all–right? Are there times when procrastinating pays off?

Adam Grant explores all these questions and more in Originals. The subtitle of the work gives away a key thread that runs through the book. Those who come up with powerful new ideas and innovations are marked by a basic non-conformity. You might even by able to determine that by what browser they use on their computer. Those who use browsers like Chrome or Firefox might well be “originals” because they do not choose the default browser. They are people who are not content to choose defaults, and often may be either at the bottom or top of an organization, not in the comfortable middle. They are also savvy in managing their “risk portfolio.” They may start a new company (like Google) while keeping their day jobs.

Grant suggests that often, the “originals” succeed in what seem to be counter-intuitive ways. People may innovate in an area where they do not have much previous experience because of taking a fresh look at the problems. People who pursue hobbies in the arts often bring unique perspectives to how they look at a problem. The guy who saved Seinfeld didn’t work in comedy. Sometimes the best way to sell an idea is to show people what is wrong with it, turning them into defenders. Originals learn that you either need to speak up or leave to succeed. Hanging in there or becoming indifferent will never cut it. Sometimes the early bird doesn’t get the worm. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream speech” is a classic example, written the night before in the mood of the moment, and improvised when Mahalia Jackson urged King to tell them about the dream.

Grant also explores why ideas fail. Everyone from Jeff Bezos to Steve Jobs thought Dean Kamen had a great idea with his Segway. Kamen was a technical wiz who had developed innovative medical devices from a portable dialysis machine to a drug infusion pump. Yet his Segway was a flop and illustrates some important lessons. One is that creators are not always good at judging their own ideas, and in Kamen’s case, he listened to people who didn’t know any more about transportation than he did. He also illustrates the “kissing frogs” principle. You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find Prince Charming! Not all risks succeed, in fact most don’t.

Finally, Grant explores how families and organizations might cultivate the non-conformity that leads to original contributions. An interesting statistic is that one thing most of the great base-stealers have in common is that they are laterborns. Often laterborns compete by finding a different niche in which to succeed than the firstborn. Parents tend to be less strict with laterborns, and emphasizes the importance of parents giving children freedom to be originals–focusing less on rules than moral values–praising them for good behavior more than disciplining bad behavior. Also, focusing on the significance of actions for others, rather than just for oneself enhanced things like hand-washing in patient care. Likewise, good organizations to entrance, rather than exit interviews, getting the fresh perspective of new hires. They foster atmosphere where saying hard things needed to improve performance to bosses is rewarded rather than punished. They learn how to foster a sense of urgency.

Grant illustrates his ideas from a variety of domains from sports to politics to engineering and entertainment. The book is valuable to anyone who wants to be entrepreneurial, and all those who want to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit–parents, teachers, company leaders, coaches and mentors. Grant sums it all up in an “Actions for Impact” section with actions we can all take, how we can learn to champion our ideas, how we can spark original ideas in organizations, foster cultures of originality and what parents can do. Grant’s book suggests that we are all “originals.” and that it is not beyond any of us to be people who make original contributions in our part of the world.

Review: Grit


Grit: The Power of Passion and PerseveranceAngela Duckworth. Scribner: New York, 2016.

Summary: Contends that those who achieve outstanding success combine purposeful passion with perseverance–in other words, they have grit.

Angela Duckworth came to a realization as a psychologist that psychology had no good theory of achievement. Talent, IQ, test scores, fitness–none of these were reliable predictors of who would achieve high measures of success. An answer began to emerge as she and colleagues studied those who survived “Beast Barracks,” the first two months of training of cadets at West Point. It came down to the fact that cadets who made it simply did not give up. This led to her developing the first “Grit Scale” which turned out to be the first reliable measure of which cadets would make it through. Duckworth has become convinced that most attempts to assess potential end up getting distracted by talent. The real issue is effort times two. Effort develops talent into skill and effort turns skill into achievement. Perseverance in effort, though, is fueled by purpose. Clarity in top level goals and ruthless evaluating low and mid-level goals in their light is critical. Duckworth concludes this discussion with the example of Robert Mankoff, who had nearly 2,000 cartoons rejected by The New Yorker before getting one accepted in 1977. The real key was determining that he was funny and loved doing this more than anything. From 1997 to 2017, he was cartoon editor, and now is an ongoing contributor.

There is hope for all of us. Duckworth offers a Grit Scale readers can take. Her research suggests that grit can grow over a lifetime as we define a sense of purpose and learn to pick ourselves up after failure and keep going.  It starts with identifying and developing an interest–noticing where our mind goes when it wanders, noticing what we enjoy in a task. Then we develop an interest, exploring its nuances, what keeps making it even more interesting. Practice is key. Gritty people not only practice more but they practice deliberately. They have goals and focus in their practice. Ultimately interest arrives at purpose, a sense of calling, of why one is in the world. Purpose in turn needs to be sustained by hope. Here, one of the key insights is the idea of attribution retraining–the conclusions we draw from events good or bad–are they focused on success or growth. Success says “your a natural. I love that.” Growth says, “you’re a learner. I love that.” Success says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it.” Growth says, “this is hard. Don’t feel bad if you can’t do it yet.

Duckworth discusses not only how we cultivate grit, but how others can cultivate it “from the outside in.” Parents cultivate grit by combining high support and high demands. She talks about the Hard Thing Rule in her family: 1) everyone has to do a hard thing, 2) no quitting is allowed until the season or term or whatever interval to which you have committed yourself is over, and 3) each person picks their own hard thing. She studies the “cultures of grit at J.P. Morgan Chase, with the Seattle Seahawks under Pete Carroll, and at West Point. One of her most valuable insights comes from Carroll–the commitment to finish strong in everything.

Duckworth explains her research by examples from her own life and from clients she has worked with and studied across the spectrum of human endeavors. I loved her insights on practice. One of my “hard things” is music, something I’ve picked up late in life. It has been enriching to apply her ideas on deliberate practice to my practice of a major choral work we are performing later this month. Instead of just going over a part, I will work on pronunciation, or counting time to get my entrances down rather than listening to other parts (which usually makes you late). One practice session, I’ll focus on dynamics. Another time, I’ll go over the sections I don’t have “down” until I do.

I’m also fascinated by the high demand-high support culture that creates gritty performance–whether it is parents, sports teams, or businesses. There is both empathy and care, and the relentless demand to keep improving, keep growing, keep stretching. Finally the relationship between perseverance and purpose is intriguing. Perseverance both realizes and expands purpose, and purpose sustains perseverance when it is grounded in hope.

It strikes me in reading this that all of us are capable of more than we think we are. Duckworth’s book suggests that we have hard work to do in two areas. One is in paying attention to the things we really care about and relentlessly focusing our lives around them. Then there is the hard work of turning a talent and a passion into a skill, and the further work of using those skills with determination and focus to achieve worthy goals. That’s grit.


Review: The Inkblots

The Inkblots

The InkblotsDamion Searls. New York: Crown Publishers, 2017.

Summary: A biography of Hermann Rorschach and the after-history of the test that bears his name.

I dismissed the whole idea of the Rorschach test as a bunch of balderdash when I was a psychology student in a largely behaviorist-oriented department. After reading Searls book, I might reconsider it, were I actually a practicing psychologist.

Perhaps part of the reason is that until now, apparently, we have not had a biography of the psychiatrist, Hermann Rorschach, who originated a test consisting of ten inkblots, some with color, that when properly interpreted may offer startling insights into the depths of people and how they perceive their world.

The first part of the book narrates Rorschach’s life. The child of an artist father, he first embraced art, and with it both a fascination with movement, but also with how people see art. Eventually he realized that his greater interest was the people, particularly the mentally troubled and he trained as a psychiatrist. These were the days when Freud and Jung held sway and he was trained under their theories. But art continued to fascinate him, including the drawings of patients. Another doctor, Kerner, began using a primitive form of inkblots, and Rorschach was intrigued, and began to experiment on his own, creating a series, eventually ten in number, and developing a coding process for responses based on his clinical experience in Swiss hospitals. What he developed was a test where people describe their perceptions, revealing things about themselves even they may not be conscious of or suppress. He published his findings in a book, Psychodiagnotics, in 1921. A year later, he was dead, from peritonitis resulting from a burst appendix.

The remainder of the book is a history of the use and development of the Rorschach test since that time, and the controversy about the validity of the test, and the ways “Rorschach” has become a metaphor, and the inkblots themselves, cultural icons. We learn of two American psychologists, Bruno Klopfer and David Beck, who both build upon and popularize the Rorschach, and spend most of their lives as the head of two feuding camps. And in their work, we see a subtle shift from Rorschach as a test of perception to Rorschach as a means to elicit “projections.” After studies using the test in various cultures, the next chapter in the story is the popularizing of the test during World War II as a streamlined version is developed as the American military is looking for more effective ways to study the psychological profiles of draftees, to identify those who may have trouble in combat. The test reached its peak after the war, and yet the various versions and interpretive schemes led to increasing questions about its use, and sometimes misuse, particularly in legal disputes, particularly around divorce and custody issues.

One of the most stunning parts of Searls narrative is his discussion of use of the test with the Nuremberg Nazi war criminals, and the unexpected result that there was no single profile of evil, of a war criminal. The profiles differed in all the ways they do with other populations, leading to Hannah Arendt’s characterization of “the banality of evil.” It is sobering to realize that perhaps war criminals aren’t so different from us, and makes you wonder if, under certain circumstances, one could go down the same road.

The book concludes with the more recent history of the test, and the work of John Exner, and his successor Gregory Meyer and the return to Rorschach’s original insights about perception. In the latter parts of the book, he also explores the ways in which “Rorschach” has entered our cultural iconography, both visually and in language (for example, Barack Obama said, “I am like a Rorschach test….Even if people find me disappointing ultimately, they might gain something” [as cited in the book]). The author describes his own experience of taking a Rorschach test and its continued use.

The big “what if” the book doesn’t explore is what might have happened had Rorschach lived another thirty to fifty years. One wonders if the character of its use might have taken a different course. Or did his death actually facilitate its proliferation, and perhaps with that, the messy disputes over interpretation in the differing camps.

Finally, the book made me look anew at the originality of his idea, that how we articulate what we perceive reveals things about us we might either filter out otherwise, or not even know. There is the self others see, the self we want them to see, and the self we think we are. But there is another–that self unknown as yet to us. It was a self the behaviorists in my psych department denied, but the reality and significance of the undiscovered self has become more important as the years go by. John Calvin observed that growth in the knowledge of God and knowledge of self go hand in hand. I won’t be running out tomorrow to take a Rorschach test, but after reading this book, I will no longer scoff at it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods

Minds, BrainsSummary: A discussion, cast in the form of a conversation, of the latest findings in psychology and neuroscience, and their implications for what it means to be human and for what it means to believe in God. Written for the thoughtful undergraduate, it is helpful for students in these fields and others concerned about the implications of neuroscience research for faith.

Is there such a thing as free will or are all our thoughts and actions determined by chemical reactions within our neural networks? Do studies showing activity in specific centers of the brain when one is engaged in religious activity demonstrate that the quest for God is simply a genetically, physically determined activity. Given the increasingly close linkages between physical structures and processes in the brain, and our thoughts and actions, is there anything that makes me me apart from those structures? What about the soul?

Recent research in neuroscience and psychology raises all of these questions. In this book, Malcolm Jeeves discusses these as both a scientist and believing Christian. The book is cast as a conversation, an exchange of emails between Malcolm and a student named “Ben”, discussing a succession of questions that arise for Ben in the course of his studies in psychology. I found this a helpful form for presenting the latest research and exploring the Christian implications of that research. He explains the latest research findings in terms educated lay persons can grasp.

He begins with a discussion of how one should think of the field of psychology and notes that the Freudianism and behaviorism of prior generations (what I learned in my own psych courses) has given way to cognitive psychology heavily influenced by neuroscience research. He goes on to explore the question of the connection of mind and brain, arguing for the mind and consciousness as an emergent property of the brain that cannot simply be reduced to brain processes, allowing for “top down” influences. This leads to a discussion of free will, where he argues against the kind of determinism that makes all our actions, including writing books and proposing theories, as simply the “chattering of neurons.” He then discusses social influences on cognitive processes and this contributes to Jeeves contention that there are multiple levels of explanation for psychological processes.

Jeeves turns to a discussion of the soul and argues that the best understanding of this is to translate nefesh, the Hebrew for soul, as “living creature”. In Genesis, this is used of animals as well as humans.  What Jeeves would argue for, and where others, particularly dualists, will differ (and he acknowledges this) is for what he calls “dual aspect monism”–that mind or soul and body are two aspects of one being–we do not have souls, we are embodied souls. But for him, this allows him to see mental states as closely connected to physical processes without denying something essential to being human.

Succeeding chapters then explore various questions around the nature of being human from near death experiences to our moral sense and altruism, and our usage of language. In a number of these areas, Jeeves notes both similarities with animals, particularly chimpanzees, and the stark differences between us and them.

One thing to be noted is that in all of this, Jeeves is responding to research being done and its implications, a very helpful process. At the same time (and perhaps this could not be done in one book) I would have liked to see some thought given to how Christian premises might uniquely influence the research questions one asks in these fields–what does Christian thought contribute to psychological and neuroscience research?

The closing chapters explore questions of neuroscience and belief and whether belief can be reduced to the physical processes at play when persons engage in religious activity and that may be more prevalent in those of a religious nature. Jeeves is careful here to acknowledge the work being done in this area and that further research will likely yield an even fuller picture of these processes. At the same time he contends that the question of the reality of a God or gods is not something that can be proven or dismissed on the basis of this evidence. As a Christian, he would contend that these are matters that rest on the historical evidence for the acts of God in history including the death and resurrection of Jesus.

This last is one of the great values of the book. Jeeves both argues for the value of neuroscience research and against the hegemony of any particular area of science (levels of explanation) or of science as a whole over and against other ways of knowing. He provides a thoughtful model of measured conversation bringing both scientific research and the best of Christian thought together, free of neither sensationalistic claims or knee-jerk responses.

Review: Daring Greatly

Daring GreatlyI can’t seem to get away from Teddy Roosevelt! Brene’ Brown begins this book with a quote from a speech of his at the Sorbonne in 1910 in which he talks about the man in the arena being the one who counts and not his critics, the man who strives for great things at great cost. Her title is drawn from these words:

“…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….”

Brown describes her research into vulnerability as one that led her to a personal breakdown, which her therapist described as a spiritual renewal. She traces her research course, which began by exploring human connection and discovered in her interviews that the fear and shame of disconnection is what came up over and over again. She says she was hijacked by her data into researching shame, and the flip side of this, a shame resilience that enables people to overcome shame and live “wholeheartedly.” Wholeheartedness comes from a sense of one’s basic worthiness, cultivated through a variety of practices such as letting go of perfectionism, of numbing and powerlessness, of scarcity fears, of the need for certainty and more.

A key to wholehearted living that “dares greatly” that is at the core of this book is the embrace of vulnerability. Vulnerability requires courage and a willingness to press against all the “vulnerability myths” shared by both women and men. But it leads to compassion and connection, nowhere illustrated more than in Brown’s concluding chapter having to do with vulnerability and parenting. I found myself saying “Amen” and “Amen” and wishing that my peers in parenting could have heard this sooner and not inflicted so much pain on each other around being the perfect parent. Her stories of being imperfectly vulnerable with her children and allowing them to dare greatly, even if this just meant showing up, were worth the price of admission.

I found her insightful in the ways we shield ourselves from vulnerability through foreboding joy, where we do not allow ourselves joy because we are waiting for the other shoe to drop, through perfectionism, where we think that by doing things right we will never know shame, and through numbing, by which we deaden ourselves from the painful things in life. Instead, she advocates practicing gratitude in the moments of joy, appreciating the “cracks” in our life that shed light on our humanness, and learning how to feel and lean into our hard feelings while setting proper boundaries.

She also challenges organizations to “mind the gap” and practice “disruptive engagement”–developing awareness of the gaps between strategy and culture and the ways we discourage engagement through corporate shaming practices. Bringing the best that we have often involves vulnerability and risk in disruptively engaging broken corporate culture.

I found this a helpful book that was immediately applicable for me in several situations in which I was mentoring young leaders facing the choices of “safe” disengagement or vulnerably stepping into their work as leaders. Vulnerability is scary for all of us and yet ultimately the only path to real connection and real greatness. Brene’ Brown helps us on that path through her stories and research, even while helping us to see that each of us makes that path our own by walking into vulnerability.