Book #1 of 2013

Hallucinations is another entertaining tome by Oliver Sacks. At one point in the book he discusses the lush enjoyment he got as a grad student reading Victorian scientists with their literate story-telling and descriptive gifts, and how he decided he would take on the task of doing similar work for his field. I love Sacks as a storyteller. He is always compassionate and endlessly curious about the humans whose behavior and conditions he documents, and though he does try to layer in the science behind the stories it’s never the primary driver in the text.

This book focuses of course on a variety of types of hallucinations, and the people who suffer them or who seek them out. There are stories of blind people who hallucinate intricate visions continuously while understanding the non-reality of the scenes playing on their minds’ eyes. He narrates stroke victims who lose sight in one hemisphere or quadrant of the eye and who hallucinate a complete field of vision (or small Kermit the Frogs). This vision loss is called “hemianopia” and I found it strange to read about it because our friend Michelle just had a stroke following the birth of her second child–she has temporarily lost vision in the left side of each eye. Her hallucination is a Francis-Baconish visual smearing of the right side of her vision into the left. Michelle’s doctors believe her sight will return once the blood pooled on her Occipital lobe disperses or is re-absorbed. I told Michelle this book mentions her condition several times and she is reading it with a magnifying app via tablet. There are migraine hallucinations, and epileptic hallucinations. What Sacks doesn’t focus on are hallucinations which are the result of mental illness–most of the conditions cataloged here are experienced by rational people who understand the non-reality of their visions.

Sacks is not afraid to share his own youthful indiscretions with speed, LSD, weed, and the raided pharma cabinets at hospitals where he was employed. And he also shares his own hallucinations from medical conditions or injuries. This adds a personal touch and occasionally the book becomes memoir–which is another feature of Sacks’ writing that I find quite pleasant. He’s also quite familiar with the literature of psychology and neuroscience and of course refers regularly to William James and Steven Pinker and other giants in these fields.

If you’re curious about the marvelous and still mysterious functioning of human brains, you’ll likely enjoy this book. if you’re into psychedelia or were at one time you might also be interested. Check it out!

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