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Altered States Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations

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Altered States: Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations

Did you know that, as a way to celebrate his 32nd birthday, the neurologist Oliver Sacks took an oversized syringe out of his parents’ medicine cabinet, filled it with morphine, pumped it into his veins, and then curled up in bed and proceeded to hallucinate for 12 straight hours, seeing on the sleeve of his nightshirt a finely detailed, three-dimensional reenactment of the 15th-century Battle of Agincourt, complete with soldiers, pipers, and caparisoned horses?

If this anecdote is any way intriguing to you, either because it deals vividly with the topic of altered states of mind or because it reveals something rather curious and personal about a prominent public intellectual (one who’s been both portrayed and caricatured cinematically by Robin Williams and Bill Murray), then you should check out the newest book by the good doctor Sacks.

Hallucinations is meant to be a sort of psychic safari, “an anthology of hallucinations,” as Sacks describes it. It’s a survey of the many elaborate things that people see, hear, smell, taste, and touch that no one else around them would be able to corroborate or to verify, the kind of phantasmal sensations a person can have due to epilepsy, solitary confinement, migraine headaches, psychedelic drugs, brain damage, limb amputation, and emotional trauma, among other destabilizing circumstances.

Reading the book sort of feels like looking through a photo album, in that it’s a series of condensed case histories, one after another after another, often to the point of monotony. These cases come from Sacks’s patients, his own experiences, scenes from novels (like Moby-Dick and Great Expectations), and anecdotes from writers (like William James and Edmund Wilson). Some chapters are organized according to the conditions that lead to the hallucination (like sensory deprivation or Parkinson’s disease), while others are organized by the kind of hallucination that’s witnessed (like doppelgangers or baroque geometric patterns).

Part of Sacks’s purpose here is to help cleanse from the mind of the book-reading public its stigma against hallucinations. Sacks has noticed that many of his patients are hesitant to tell their doctors or nurses that they’re perceiving things that don’t quite seem to solidly be there—as if by confessing this they’ll be labeled insane or demented or unfit to return to the regular working world. In this attempt to de-stigmatize the malady in question, Hallucinations is a success. It works because of Sacks’s even-keeled, curious, and contemplative tone, and because of his willingness to talk about the variety of times he’s had his own hallucinations (due to migraines, pot, LSD, and morning glory seeds—even due to withdrawal-induced DTs, after he abruptly stopped taking chloral hydrate as a sedative). Reading about a successful, well-respected medical doctor such as Sacks patiently describe that one time back in the ’60s when he saw all the passengers on a New York City bus looking like bug-eyed aliens with smooth, white, ovoid skulls makes the prospect of you having a hallucination in your own life that much less socially and professionally damning, I suppose.

Nevertheless, if Hallucinations works well as a catalogue, as a book that’ll make you familiar with the phenomenon in question, it works only sporadically as an inquiry—as an attempt to explain and make sense of all that stuff. Sacks is a neurologist and he believes that medical science has legitimately improved what the world knows about hallucinations. That knowledge, for him, takes the form of biopsychology—of converting the subjective experiences of a living human being down to what’s going on chemically and physically in the cells of the brain. Because of this, Sacks will often end a discussion of a particular kind of hallucination by saying how it’s been correlated thanks to fMRI or PET scans to electrical activity in this or that region of the brain. Period. As if that explains everything, or anything. As if neuropsychologists have been able to convincingly explain how the various parts of the brain work together to create the experience of being alive and of being self-aware. (They haven’t.)

As such, Sacks’s explanations often reek of reductionism. Of missing the forest for the trees and the painting for the brushstrokes. It’s nice that he’s willing to digress at times and discuss literature, but he’s quick to say how all those fictional examples aren’t “real life,” that they’re “a different thing altogether” and to instead defer to the empirical, lab-based evidence as the limit of what we can know. This attitude, rigorous as it may be, feels restrictive and makes for some tedious passages, preventing Hallucinations from reaching that kind of glimmering, literary lucidity you find in essays by Aldous Huxley or William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience ends by offering an interesting hypothesis, however unscientific and untestable, for where mystical, hallucinatory phenomena might come from. And yet, Sacks’s scientific attitude also prevents him from saying whatever vague crap he feels like saying—as, sadly, many culture critics and pop psychologists seem wont to do. Which leads me to conclude that we should be grateful for Hallucinations and grateful that Sacks was willing to apply his cheerful and cautious and academic diligence and to scout out a topic that in its essence is far-flung and difficult to get a handle on, a topic that can only be found, as Huxley wrote in Heaven and Hell, “across another, vaster ocean, at the antipodes of everyday consciousness.”

Oliver Sacks’s Hallucinations was released on November 6 by Knopf. To purchase it, click here.