Oliver Sacks, Exploring How Hallucinations Happen

via NPR 9780307947437_custom-f54744401dadf5676ee07efe7e3a5f96294231c9-s2

In Oliver Sacks‘ book The Mind’s Eye, the neurologist included an interesting footnote in a chapter about losing vision in one eye because of cancer that said: “In the ’60s, during a period of experimenting with large doses of amphetamines, I experienced a different sort of vivid mental imagery.”

He expands on this footnote in his book, Hallucinations, where he writes about various types of hallucinations — visions triggered by grief, brain injury, migraines, medications and neurological disorders.

One chapter of the book — that’s out in paperback July 2 — deals with altered states and Sacks’ personal experimentation with hallucinogenic and mind-altering drugs in the ’60s. He says the first time he tried marijuana, it induced fascinating perceptual distortion. He was looking at his hand, and it appeared to be retreating from him, yet getting larger and larger.

“I was fascinated that one could have such perceptual changes, and also that they went with a certain feeling of significance, an almost numinous feeling. I’m strongly atheist by disposition, but nonetheless when this happened, I couldn’t help thinking, ‘That must be what the hand of God is like.’ ”

Sacks tells Fresh Air‘s Terry Gross that he has always been fascinated with hallucinations — from reading about Pip’s hallucination of Miss Havisham in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations to witnessing hallucinations of every sort as a medical student and doctor. He had a personal interest in the phenomenon, he explains, because his brother was a schizophrenic — and “would talk with his hallucinations.”

Sacks has also had his share of non-induced hallucinations. One day while mountain climbing, he experienced an auditory hallucination after an injury that tore most of his thigh muscle and dislocated his knee. His first impulse was to go to sleep — but then he heard a voice that he didn’t recognize yet trusted.

” ‘No, that would be death,’ ” he recalls it saying. ” ‘Go on. You’ve got to keep going. Find a pace you can keep up and keep it up.’ And this was a very clear, commanding voice. It was a life voice, and it was not to be disobeyed.”

Neurologically, Sacks speculates that this type of auditory hallucination is something that announces itself in extremity, and is “the ultimate safeguard, some power or propensity which has been built into the structure of the mind, the emotions,” and is not heard by most people in their lives.

Sacks notes that the medicalization of hallucinations really only occurred in the 19th century — and that subsequent to that, there was much more anxiety, secrecy and shame about hallucinations.

“I think hallucinations need to be discussed,” he says. “There are all sorts of hallucinations, and then many sorts which are OK, like the ones I think which most of us have in bed at night before we fall asleep, when we can see all sorts of patterns or faces and scenes.”

With the ability to visualize the brain through cutting-edge medical technologies, Sacks believes, the scientist’s sense of the brain’s complexity has been increased; it’s now possible to see exactly what’s going on in the brain while people are hallucinating.


  • jnana

    I’ve heard that “life voice” oliver sacks’ mentions a few times, and it was very distinct, clear, and far from drug-induced. I am open to the different possibilities of what it could be. once I heard it when working in the fields one summer day. I was working very hard, over-exerting my self as I would often do. the voice clearly said, “you work so hard to please your father. But yer Father in Heaven always approves of you.” this caused me to realize I was being driven by what Jung calls a “complex”. this knowledge allowed me to release my self of a psychic burden that I didn’t even know was robbing me of energy. it didn’t mean I had to stop working hard. but now I can work hard, freely. and not because I feel guilty and need to seek a man’s approval. I was practicing meditation a lot at the time and I notice when I practice more, I hear the “voice”. when I do, it usually has the effect of releasing me of some psychic burden. I suspect that yoga and meditation unlocks burdens ad these will manifest psychologically at some other time, and Spirit being not of time, I think it can even work in the past.

    • Rhoid Rager

      You mean like retroactive relief? (not being facetious here). Relief of a burden felt in the Now seems to be completely sourced in the pains we feel from other times–past and future. But, through contemplation, such relief is not so much relief as it is understanding that there is only Now.

      Jung’s inspired me a lot; so much so that I view my life as a singularity within a cosmic tumult of transitory illusions that dance around my belated understanding of them in capricious ways.

      • jnana

        I wouldn’t call revelation as only an understanding that there is only Now, because it seems to me revelation is aware of past and future and redeems/releases it.

  • BuzzCoastin

    most people live their lives inside a hallucination
    that thing known as reality
    is usually yer own private Idaho

    • echar

      Everything is made up of a convoluted relationship between models.