Oliver Sacks' new book considers hallucinations, including his own
Published: January 2, 2013
Oliver Sacks is one of the great scientific writers of our time. The author of neurological case studies like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (which was also made into a film starring Robin Williams), Sacks turns the brain's glitches into high literature. He recently published Hallucinations (Knopf), which, in addition to offering an encyclopedic discussion of the varieties of hallucination, details his own shockingly extensive experimentation with drugs. In the 1960s, Sacks smoked pot, shot morphine and took LSD, morning glory seeds, and massive amounts of amphetamines. During one acid trip, he wondered what true indigo looked like and hallucinated the "pure" color; later, on a weekend-long speed bender, he read the work of the great 19th-century neurologist Edward Liveing and began to think he was Liveing: "At times I was unsure whether I was reading the book or writing it. I felt myself in the Dickensian London of the 1860s and '70s. I loved Liveing's humanity and social sensitivity." He got over the identity confusion, then began to wonder who could be the Liveing of the 1960s until he heard a very loud voice say, "You silly bugger! You're the man!" Previously, he had come down from his trips feeling like "I had made a crazy ascent into the stratosphere but had come back empty-handed." This time, however, he retained his insight. "Then, bit by bit, I started to write my own book. The joy I got from doing this was real — infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines — and I never took amphetamines again." We were happy to have the chance to talk with Dr. Sacks about these experiences.
Metro Times: With your new book Hallucinations, I was wondering what, at this point in your life, made you feel that it was important to go back and talk about your more youthful experiences using drugs and that sort of hallucination.
Oliver Sacks: First I should say that that scandalous Chapter 6 was not envisaged originally as part of the book. The book was basically going to be on my clinical experience, seeing people with migraines or impaired vision or Parkinson's or whatever and their hallucinations. And this is a subject that has interested me for a very long while: I wrote about musical hallucinations in Musicophilia and back, in fact, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. But it seemed to me time to have a go at bringing the whole subject together. For myself, I've never hesitated to regard myself as a clinical subject like my patients. Here, I had a variety of experiences and they were a long time ago and I can think of them in tranquility and recollect and, as an insider I can add things that wouldn't be evident as an outsider. I can say how indigo seemed to me, for example.
MT: In the climax of that chapter — when you're on the speed trip and you are trying to find out who is going to write like Liveing and you realize that it's you — you quit taking drugs and start writing. So that was obviously a transitional moment in your life. Do you feel like you've lived up to what you expected or done what you wanted at that moment?
Sacks: The only ambitions there were to write a book on migraine. I like to think that my book did live up to the 1860-ish book, which I like so much. Whether drugs played an essential role in that transition, I don't know and I'm actually inclined to doubt [it]. I like to think I'd been turned on already by seeing these patients and the idea of writing a book about them would have come to me anyhow. But it came in a slightly explosive and most likely manic form on the amphetamine. I can't say whether the rest of my life has lived up to things. I never had any expectations. I find myself surprised pleasantly and unpleasantly all the while.
MT: Reading about all of the neurological disorders in your books, one thinks: This could happen to any of us. It's almost scary. Having suffered migraines yourself, do you ever have this kind of fear?
Sacks: Since you mention it, I only get visual migraines, and I had one last night, after the sensory overload of The Book of Mormon, which I think is brilliant and funny and joyous but which, for me, has unbearable acoustic intensity and brilliance of light, and I think my poor brain had a migraine in reaction to that. When Awakenings was published, people said it shows one what a knife-edge we live on. But although anything can happen at any time, mostly it doesn't. And I think, in the end, we don't live on a knife-edge when we are younger and healthier. As one grows older, one grows frailer in every way. I started to write an essay about frailty. But, yes, combining neurology with hypochondria can be a fearful mixture. I've had my fear of dreadful fantasies, and if they get too oppressive, I go see a colleague and really get reassured that nothing too much is the matter.
MT: There is such a sense of clinical rigor and also human warmth and concern in your writing, like you saw in Liveing. Do you feel that this sense has become more prominent or that there has been a greater growth of detached treatment and statistics.
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