During a neurology term my young friend Sam, a final year medical student, read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat by the eminent British neurologist, Dr Oliver Sacks. Sacks told of a patient with Korsakoff’s psychosis who had total retrograde loss of memory back to the year 1945.
He could not remember simple facts from one moment to another and had no concept of contemporary life. He said that he really hadn’t “felt alive for a very long time.” Sacks wrote that he was “a man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing meaningless moment” and questioned whether the man had actually lost his soul. But he observed that when the man was at Mass, he was able to follow and participate completely.
Sacks noted that the patient “found himself, found continuity and reality in the absoluteness of spirituality and act”. In this spiritual act he found his soul. Men and women are of course far more than a consciousness based on a complex network of memories. They are body, mind, soul and spirit. In the act of worship, the man’s soul was clearly evident. My friend Sam was encouraged by this observation and was able to conclude that there may be hope for individuals even with the most severe of neurological conditions.
After hearing Sam’s story I wrote to Sacks who kindly gave permission to quote these lines from his book.