Last year, Oliver Sacks, prolific writer of weird tales about the brain and perception, brought us a new book on hallucinations. I’ve only read one of Sacks’ books before, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat – a sampling platter of strange brain-related case studies– so when I picked up Hallucinations, I suppose I was expecting something similar. However, if The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is like a collection of neurological short stories, then Hallucinations is a positive encyclopedia (albeit a short one, with plenty of personal touches). In his introduction, Sacks calls his book a “natural history or anthology of hallucinations,” which pretty much sums it up.
Sacks takes his readers through a museum’s worth of hallucinatory experiences and personal descriptions written by people who experienced them, including one memorable chapter focusing on his own extensive dabbling in hallucinogenic drugs. The book is an interesting blend of the scientific and the personal, with a thread of social science running throughout. Underlying the descriptions of hallucinations and misperceptions – and the sheer number and variety of hallucinations catalogued in this book were enough to hold my interest – there is a somewhat surprising message. Sacks demonstrates that hallucinations and misperceptions, far from being rare and exceptional harbingers of madness, are actually quite common quirks of the brain. Take Charles Bonnet Syndrome, for example – as Sacks describes in the opening chapter, simple visual or auditory hallucinations are very widespread among completely sane individuals who have undergone loss of vision or hearing, as if the brain is compensating for a lack of sensory input by creating its own original material.
There is another, closely related theme threading through the book, uniting the often-meandering narrative. Hallucinations, Sacks argues, may play a much more significant role in human cultures and mythology than we realize. Hallucinogenic substances hold an important place in many cultures, and hallucinations are not as rare as most people think. Could stories of monsters, elves, aliens, and mystical beings originate from the actual experiences of people who didn’t realize it was “all in their head?” I was intrigued by the hints at this possibility, and I would have liked for Sacks to explore the cultural value of hallucinations – so heavily stigmatized in modern America – in more detail.
What did I think of the book overall? I liked it, though naturally, as a science lover, I would have enjoyed more detail into the neurological hows and whys behind the intriguing hallucinations he describes. The book suffers from some repetition (Sacks does touch on the subject of déjà vu a couple of times…) and the narrative ambles along without a strong directional flow. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however; I think the purpose of the book is to take the reader on a journey into the bizarre world of hallucinations in all their variety and strangeness, and that Mr. Sacks accomplishes very well indeed.
I would recommend Oliver Sacks’ books to anyone interested in an engaging glimpse into how the mind works – and what strange things can happen when brain function goes awry.
Sacks, Oliver. Hallucinations. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.