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Oliver Sacks—The Biebs of Neurologists—on Hallucinations

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“The Justin Bieber of Neurologists.” That’s how NPR’s John Hockenberry—noting that the World Science Festival program “Hallucinations with Oliver Sacks” had sold out in a matter of hours—described the celebrated doctor and best-selling author. Their conversation at The Cooper Union on Friday, November 9, was both humorous and compelling, and marked the debut of Sacks’ new book, Hallucinations. The evening also kicked off the festival’s new year-round series, Science & Story.

Sacks, renowned for investigating the odd workings of the human mind, described vivid accounts of people who see, hear, smell, even feel things that aren’t actually there. “You think it’s real but other people don’t agree with you,” Sacks explained.

Sacks’s Own Hallucinations

Sacks has said that he regards everything he writes as being at “the intersection of the first and third person, biography and autobiography.” He described to Hockenberry his own drug-induced hallucinations in the mid-1960s. In one case, he says he prepared a “pharmacological launch pad,” starting with “a base of amphetamines, and then some LSD and a little cannabis on top.” After waiting 20 minutes, he says he turned to a white wall and shouted, “I want to see indigo now!” Sacks then recalled how a trembling, pear-shaped blob of the truest indigo appeared, as if thrown by a giant paintbrush, filling him with rapture. He felt he was seeing the color of heaven. When it vanished, Sacks says he was heartbroken and searched for the color in nature for months after.

Months later, while sober, Sacks says he became entranced at a classical concert at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and during intermission discovered the exact color of indigo in a display of Egyptian art. By the time the concert ended, however, the color had disappeared and Sacks said he was once more heartbroken.

Hallucinating About the Very Small

The conversation also ventured into hallucinations that occur as a result of natural causes—losing one’s sight, hearing, or sense of smell, or because of a medical condition such as Parkinson’s or migraines. The famed neurologist described a patient who had visions of tiny people. “Lilliputian hallucinations,” he says, “are quite common and one wonders whether some of our notion of imps and elves and sprites and little green men may be suggested by this.” An amused Hockenberry asked, “There’s a clinical pattern of little dudes?” “There is,” replied Sacks. “Lilliputian vision has a specific physiological basis but the sort of little people one sees is going to depend on one’s own interest and one’s culture. So, maybe if you’re Irish you’ll see Leprechauns, if you’re Norwegian, you’ll see trolls.”

In the case of epilepsy, Sacks spoke of what are called ecstatic hallucinations, involving “a sudden sense of bliss or rapture, and feeling that one has been transported to heaven…. There is nearly always some, either a mystical or religious or sexual bent to ecstatic hallucinations.” Sacks noted that some people may be converted by those experiences. Hockenberry asked, “So you could study to be a priest or you could just take the hallucinatory shortcut to God?”

What About a World Without Hallucinations?

Toward the end of the program, Hockenberry took questions inside the hall and from the thousands of people watching the live stream. One audience member asked if Sacks would choose to eradicate hallucinations if medically possible. Hallucinations are “a rich expression of the mind,” Sacks replied, “ and we’d be poorer without them.”

See more from Hallucinations with Oliver Sacks


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