Book: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

Reviewer: Bethany

Age/Genre: Non-Fiction, Science (Wiki has this down as a Biography, but I’m opposed to that label)

Preferred Reading Environment: In a library, office, or somewhere equally studious

Reading Accoutrements: Brain Food! High protein and carbs to help your brain absorb the maximum information.

Content Notes: Ableism and systemic stereotyping/misdiagnosis of people with neuroatypicalities

We’re baaaaaack! I read Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks, over the break and I can’t wait to tell you guys all about it.

For those of you who read the blog regularly, this might seem like a book that is completely outside of my realm of interest. Y’all know that I love romance novels and a good suspense plot and that will never change. You may not know that Oliver Sacks happens to be my favorite author, I just don’t get to read him very often because 1) his books are expensive and 2) I read them in hard copy – not electronic – which means they take longer for me to read. If you’re thinking, “Can we get to the review now? None of this seems important,” I promise, I’m getting there. You see, Oliver Sacks writes about neurology in a way that makes more than a hundred years of research seem accessible to the average reader, and that’s why I love his work. Instead of escaping into the imagination of another author, I can escape into my own brain!

…I just realized how nerdy that sounds…

Anyway, I first encountered Oliver Sacks’s work in a  Science Writing class. I read excerpts from his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and Other Clinical Tales as assigned reading. When I saw his name on a book called Musicophilia in a store a few years later, I bought it. And then I was obsessed. I’ve had Hallucinations in my possession for a while, but I lost it in a move and only recently unburied it from deep within a bookshelf (mine are stacked two and three deep).

Hallucinations is a non-fiction look at the brain from a neurological standpoint, explaining the various mechanisms that cause different types of hallucinations and exploring some of the more interesting cases Sacks encountered as a neurologist. Sacks explains early on that hallucinations are, in fact, a normal part of the human experience. They do not necessarily indicate madness.

For example, I get migraines several times a month and one of the primary symptoms is an aura – shimmering zig zags or flashing shapes that appear in the sufferer’s vision for about 20 minutes, sometimes preceding a terrible headache and nausea. The aura is, by definition, a hallucination: I see flashing lights and whirling shapes that aren’t present, that other people can’t see. And there are many other causes of hallucinations in the human experience, including fever, drugs, exhaustion, sensory deprivation, and grief. Each type of hallucination, each unique cause, can tell us something interesting about our brains, what they can do, and how they can do it.

What I love most about Oliver Sacks’s writing is that he draws on his own personal experiences, the experiences of the many clinical cases he encountered in his profession, and historical examples to bring the symptoms and causes to life. This is why many classify Sacks’s books as Biographies, however I would argue that the point of the book is to educate the reader about a specific aspect of the brain, not necessarily a specific person’s life. For example, you learn about an old woman losing her eyesight who begins hallucinating people in her room, about people in a narcolepsy support group who are afraid to bring up their stories of hallucinations in front of each other because they don’t want to seem crazy (even though hallucinations are a regular symptom of some types of narcolepsy), about Amy Tan – an author who we have reviewed on this blog – and her epileptic experiences, and about Oliver Sacks’s experiences with migraine, grief, and drug hallucinations. Sacks discusses each of these instances and more with a kind of honest clarity and open-mindedness that makes you comfortable exploring your own experiences while you learn about your brain.

Before I read this book, I associated hallucinations with mental illness and drug use. It never occurred to me that the auras of my migraines or the shapes that dance behind my eyelids as I fall asleep are actually hallucinations. It was startling to realize how often I hallucinate – and how normal it is. Sacks recognizes that hallucinations are widely, albeit inaccurately, considered an indicator of insanity, even amongst medical professionals today. In chapter 4, he cites a study previously published in Science about a series of subjects who were sent to various hospitals around the United States and gave their personal medical histories while acting like themselves, but with the single complaint that they heard voices, couldn’t really make out what the voices said, but heard the words “empty,” “hollow,” and “thud.” All of them were hospitalized for up to two months and prescribed antipsychotic medications to treat diagnoses of schizophrenia (and one manic-depressive psychosis). Sacks makes it clear that, under certain circumstances, the brain can react by hallucinating and it doesn’t require such a strong medical bias in treatment. There are some disruptive hallucinations – that cause loss of sleep or make it difficult to interact with the world – that can be treated, Sacks says, but some hallucinating is normal.

I also thought it was interesting that Sacks brought in folklore to his discussion on hallucinations. “We make narratives for a nocturnal experience which is common, real, and physiologically based” because “Hallucinations, beyond any other experience, can excite, bewilder, terrify, or inspire, leading to the folklore and the myths (sublime, horrible, creative, and playful) which perhaps no individual and no culture can wholly dispense with” (page 228). Sacks extends this use of hallucinations as the origin of myth to the realm of spirituality and religion later in the book. He discusses the connection between the physical aspects of prayer and some other hallucination-causing activities, as well as relating the stories of people converting into and/or out of religions because of hallucinatory experiences. Sacks is not trivializing religion or religious beliefs, simply noting a phenomenon. It certainly made me look at my beliefs with an eye toward why I believe, and I enjoyed the new lens.If you are a nerd like me and enjoy thinking about the inner workings of your mind, I highly recommend Oliver Sacks’s books. Hallucinations will have you thinking about your brain in new and interesting ways. What’s a book that gets you thinking? Let me know in the comments!

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