Oliver Sacks On Hallucinations

NYU Professor of Neurology Oliver Sacks spills the beans on hallucinations in the New York Times:

Hallucinations are very startling and frightening: you suddenly see, or hear or smell something — something that is not there. Your immediate, bewildered feeling is, what is going on? Where is this coming from? The hallucination is convincingly real, produced by the same neural pathways as actual perception, and yet no one else seems to see it. And then you are forced to the conclusion that something — something unprecedented — is happening in your own brain or mind. Are you going insane, getting dementia, having a stroke?

In other cultures, hallucinations have been regarded as gifts from the gods or the Muses, but in modern times they seem to carry an ominous significance in the public (and also the medical) mind, as portents of severe mental or neurological disorders. Having hallucinations is a fearful secret for many people — millions of people — never to be mentioned, hardly to be acknowledged to oneself, and yet far from uncommon. The vast majority are benign — and, indeed, in many circumstances, perfectly normal. Most of us have experienced them from time to time, during a fever or with the sensory monotony of a desert or empty road, or sometimes, seemingly, out of the blue.

Many of us, as we lie in bed with closed eyes, awaiting sleep, have so-called hypnagogic hallucinations — geometric patterns, or faces, sometimes landscapes. Such patterns or scenes may be almost too faint to notice, or they may be very elaborate, brilliantly colored and rapidly changing — people used to compare them to slide shows.

At the other end of sleep are hypnopompic hallucinations, seen with open eyes, upon first waking. These may be ordinary (an intensification of color perhaps, or someone calling your name) or terrifying (especially if combined with sleep paralysis) — a vast spider, a pterodactyl above the bed, poised to strike.

Hallucinations (of sight, sound, smell or other sensations) can be associated with migraine or seizures, with fever or delirium. In chronic disease hospitals, nursing homes, and I.C.U.’s, hallucinations are often a result of too many medications and interactions between them, compounded by illness, anxiety and unfamiliar surroundings.

But hallucinations can have a positive and comforting role, too — this is especially true with bereavement hallucinations, seeing the face or hearing the voice of one’s deceased spouse, siblings, parents or child — and may play an important part in the mourning process. Such bereavement hallucinations frequently occur in the first year or two of bereavement, when they are most “needed.”…


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

Latest posts by majestic (see all)

10 Comments on "Oliver Sacks On Hallucinations"

  1. Monkey See Monkey Do | Nov 5, 2012 at 10:14 pm |

    I’ve considered that hallucinations are brain chemicals that have become imbalanced inside the brain-machine as a result of disruptive sensory data it has picked up from its environment or from an irregular blueprint of the brain-machine itself.

    That’s also probably how most of us get the reality we’re perceiving right now, the collective hallucination.

  2. BuzzCoastin | Nov 5, 2012 at 11:04 pm |

    the greatest hallucination ever
    so real
    you’d never suspect you were merely rapidly vibrating particles of energy

    • Calypso_1 | Nov 5, 2012 at 11:38 pm |

      AND we’re not even sure about the particles. Could be something about a bunch of extra dimensions stuck inside this one.

      • BuzzCoastin | Nov 6, 2012 at 1:21 am |

        ah, the limits of language to express the sublime
        particle denotes an aura of tangibility to the noun
        when in fact
        its the object of a proposition

        • Calypso_1 | Nov 6, 2012 at 1:30 am |

          not sure if intended pro- or pre- position
          I do however like the idea of material origin arising from the proposition of a sublime vibration.

  3. Is it just me or is this article truncated?

  4. Taan Maat | Nov 6, 2012 at 12:21 pm |

    Use this to enter a hypnagogic state, set around 8-14 hz, close your eyes and watch as your mind generates a realm of its own.


  5. Huxley was spot on when he said, in effect, that the human brain was the filter for the mind. If we didn’t have the filter we would be inundated with all sorts of sensory and interdimensional data.

  6. Quantum theory. Mainstream/not-so-controversial-no-more science is catching up to and ‘scientifically’ verifying the already articulated theories that keep condensing down to the idea that ‘we’ are all just different forms of energy.

    For me, watching Amit Goswami with Joe Rogan really helped me make further connections in my mind…you know what I mean? Even something as simple as the creative process…what they discussed immediately took my mind elsewhere. One being a phrase uttered by Graham Hancock, something along the lines of, his best bouts written work came from somewhere else, not consciously generated.

    It connects the theories with day-to-day implications on how you live your life…cause all that comes down to how you perceive reality.

    Oh man, I really don’t know where to start simply typing because I don’t know where to stop. Different parts of the talk will resonate differently in different people’s mind. So I really don’t know where I should start and where I should stop rambling.

    I guess I’ll stop here.

    Anyhoo, here’s the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RYzt1KS4BM8

Comments are closed.