Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks | Book review
The popular scientist reframes hallucinatory experience.
In many cultures, hallucinations are a desired outcome of spiritual discipline, whereas in Western culture they’re often perceived as a sign of mental illness, “something dire happening in the brain.” Popular neurologist Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings) seeks to wrest hallucinations from such stigma, showing them to be not only common but persistently illuminating in what they reveal about brain function. The book is a steady stream of first-person accounts—it might as well be titled The Varieties of Hallucinatory Experience—and one senses people’s relief, in sharing their experiences with Dr. Sacks, to be deemed “normal.”
In the first chapter, an elderly woman who has lost her eyesight sees phantasmagorical images from her nursing-home bed: people in vibrantly hued “Eastern dress” ascending and descending stairs. Sacks recognizes this as Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition in which the visually impaired are prone to intricate visual hallucinations. She’s grateful for an explanation. So too is Sacks when, as a kid, his mom explains that the shimmering colors and zigzag lines he sees are a migraine aura. Migraines inspire him to pursue neurology, and neurology prompts an interest in drugs. Sacks describes a transformative moment in his thirties when he took amphetamines and read Edward Liveing’s 500-page volume on migraines (in one sitting). “As I did so, it seemed to me almost as if I were becoming Liveing himself,” he recalls. “Perhaps I could be the Liveing of our time.” This ebullient, revealing passage is a welcome change of pace from the parade of more dryly framed patient stories. But even as an “anthology of hallucinations,” it’s a fascinating and accessible read.