Guest Post by Chris Seymour
Author: Oliver Sacks
The word “hallucinations” has dark implications for many people. You might imagine schizophrenic patients sitting fearfully in a dark hospital corner, haunted by the phantoms of their minds. But in Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks does not focus on schizophrenia or other psychological disorders. Instead, Hallucinations is about the various types of everyday illusions experienced by people who are otherwise perfectly well-adjusted and able members of society. In his comprehensive, fascinating, and sometimes unfocused “anthology of hallucinations,” Sacks convincingly makes the intriguing argument that such hallucinations not only should be considered perfectly normal, but are “an essential part of the human condition” (Sacks, 2012, p. xiv).
Each one of Hallucinations' 15 chapters is devoted to a different kind of hallucination. In one chapter, Sacks discusses Charles Bonnet syndrome, the usually gentle and diverting hallucinations that occur in people who lose their eyesight. In another chapter, Sacks delves into the terrifyingly vivid reliving of memories that occurs in people who suffer from PTSD. From cover to cover, Hallucinations is chock full of personal, firsthand accounts of each type of perceptual aberration. The images range from simple geometrical shapes to detailed landscapes, and the descriptions are often colorful, sometimes literally. Take Siri Hustvedt's hallucination, which he had as part of a migraine aura:
I was lying in bed reading a book by Italo Svevo, and for some reason, looked down, and there they were: a small pink man and his pink ox, perhaps six or seven inches high. They were perfectly made creatures and, except for their color, they looked very real. They didn't speak to me, but they walked around, and I watched them with fascination and a kind of amiable tenderness. They stayed for some minutes and then disappeared. I have often wished they would return, but they never have. (Sacks, 2012, p. 129)
Interspersed with the anecdotes are detailed explanations of the underlying brain mechanisms and conditions behind each hallucination. For example, Sacks explains how, in Charles Bonnet syndrome, the visual cortex (responsible for processing images from the eyes) reacts to the lack of sensory input by inventing its own images. Sacks consistently explains these processes in a way that is easy for the layperson to comprehend. At the same time, only a veteran neurologist such as Sacks could have provided such deep insight.
Where Hallucinations really shines, however, is in the humanistic elements that Sacks melds with his science. Although he is a scientist first and foremost, Sacks spends part of each chapter discussing the cultural aspects of hallucinations. As he points out in the introduction, modern Western culture too often associates “seeing things” with insanity. Sacks asserts that in fact, the perception of things that aren't there plays an important role in our cultural history. He points out that many familiar pieces of literature and historical events can be explained through hallucinations, from Captain Ahab's phantom leg to the divine visions of Joan of Arc.
Even paranormal and spiritual phenomena are discussed in terms of hallucinations stemming from certain conditions of the brain or senses. For instance, the book provides a neurological explanation for the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” that some people see during near-death experiences. Sacks suggests that this vision is caused by a constriction of the visual field due to decreased blood flow to the retinas.
Such brief digressions provide an occasional and enjoyable break from the anecdotes and neurological analysis that comprise the majority of the book. More importantly, though, by exploring the role of hallucinations in culture, Sacks makes a seemingly specialized topic feel universal.
One thing that Hallucinations occasionally lacks is focus. The book ends rather abruptly. Contrary to what one might expect, there is no concluding chapter to tie everything together after this 293-page read. And, although most of the time Sacks has clear transitions between his examples, at other times he dives right into his next anecdote without introduction. In these cases, the example seems to be included simply because it is particularly interesting, not because it is necessary to support a larger point. This tendency is most conspicuous when Sacks tells the story of his own experiences with hallucinogenic drugs as part of a chapter devoted to drug-altered consciousness. His account soaks up 18 of the chapter's 32 pages. Instead of telling it as one long story, he could have integrated it better with the rest of the chapter by explaining how his experiences were representative of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs.
Even when digressing, however, Sacks never stops being interesting. The idea that we can perceive something that isn't there, as vividly as if it were real, naturally inspires a certain sense of wonder. Despite his scientific and clinical background, Sacks preserves that sense of wonder in the style of his narrative, which is simultaneously scholarly and personal. In addition to describing his patients' sensory experiences, he depicts their emotional reactions, expressing a personal interest in his patients' stories. At the end of the chapter on Charles Bonnet syndrome, one patient muses that he views his visions as a consolation for the loss of his eyesight, as if his eyes are saying, “Sorry to have let you down. We recognize that blindness is no fun, so we've organized this small syndrome, a sort of coda to your sighted life. It's not much, but it's the best we can manage” (Sacks, 2012, p. 32).
Hallucinations will give you a new understanding of these often misunderstood phenomena, a greater appreciation of the complexity of the human brain, and a bit of perspective on history and culture. More than anything, though, Hallucinations is just a thoroughly fun read for anyone with an interest in the intricate and phantasmagoric workings of the mind.