Book of the week: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks
Haunted by visions of Muppets that aren’t there? You’re probably not crazy, and Sacks will explain why
Haunted by visions of Muppets that aren’t there? Relax, said Laura Miller in Salon.com. You’re probably not crazy. In his “absorbing” new survey of the ways that perception can trick us, Oliver Sacks seeks to reassure us when he relates a tale about a patient who underwent surgery on her brain’s occipital lobe and afterward couldn’t shake the image of Kermit the Frog floating on the left side of her visual field. But she learned to accept Kermit’s presence, and eventually he vanished. Sacks, of course, “has always been fascinated by outliers.” A physician who’s also “the father of the neurological best seller,” he has in the past shared such case studies as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” as a means of illuminating the brain’s complexity. He tells us that hallucinations are quite common, and usually harmless, but, “as ever,” he conveys how wonderfully mysterious the brain can be.
Not far into this “revelatory” book, “I began to feel that the entire world must be full of people furiously hallucinating,” said Will Self in The Guardian (U.K.). Sacks piles strange case upon stranger case, from a herpes simplex sufferer who’s plagued by an imagined smell of rotting fish to a woman with Parkinson’s who endured a chilling vision of her son being murdered. After sharing each tale, Sacks proceeds in “relatively accessible prose” to illuminate how such neurological misfirings might provide keys to the brain’s organization. One individual with Charles Bonnet syndrome, which produces hallucinations in the blind, reported visions of people in elaborate hats. This leads Sacks to hypothesize that somewhere in every brain there exists a categorical lexicon of images that has little connection to specific visual memories.
To his credit, Sacks “resists the temptation to explain all hallucinations in neuro-anatomical terms,” said Suzanne Koven in The Boston Globe. At one point,he notes the common theory that both Joan of Arc and Fyodor Dostoyevsky had temporal lobe epilepsy, but he argues that the condition alone wouldn’t explain their mystical visions. Fans of Sacks’s 11 other books won’t put Hallucinations at the top of the heap. The clinical anecdotes are too brief to be as compelling as the stories he’s told elsewhere. But there’s a chapter about his youthful experiences with amphetamines and LSD that’s “vintage Sacks.” It’s a coming-of-age tale as well as a tour through the pharmacology of hallucinogens. It’s science that allows for “the possibility of mystery.”