Have you ever seen something that wasn’t really there? Heard someone call your name in an empty house? Sensed someone following you and turned around to find nothing?
Hallucinations don’t belong wholly to the insane. Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness, or injury. In some conditions, hallucinations can lead to religious epiphanies or even the feeling of leaving one’s own body. Humans have always sought such life-changing visions, and for thousands of years have used hallucinogenic compounds to achieve them.
In this book, with his usual elegance, curiosity, and compassion, Dr Sacks weaves together stories of his patients and of his own mind-altering experiences to illuminate what hallucinations tell us about the organisation and structure of our brains, how they have influenced every culture’s folklore and art, and why the potential for hallucination is present in us all, a vital part of the human condition.
Oliver Sacks is probably generally seen as one of the most accessible neuroscientists of modern times. Considering that, and my interest in psychology it’s quite surprising that I haven’t read anything by him before now. I can see why he is seen as accessible from his writing style, however I did find Hallucinations a little hard-going, more because of repetitiveness than anything else.
The book was split into sections based on causes of hallucinations (e.g. particular illnesses, sensory reasons, drugs), which made sense in some ways, however it also meant that when more than one cause for a particular type of hallucination could be found a description of that type of hallucination would be given in each chapter about each cause. There were different first-person accounts, which was interesting in it’s own way because different people hallucinate different things, even within a set type of hallucination. Even that did have some repetitive air to it though.
Having said that it was very interesting. I think Sack’s main aim was to make hallucinations more acceptable. They are generally seen as a sign of madness, and they can be that, but usually they aren’t, there are many more things that can cause them, and lots of different presentations of hallucinations which many people wouldn’t consider.
In fact he described what one would call a migraine aura usually as a type of hallucination which is interesting. I suppose calling it an aura makes it seem less serious or scary- but is that just because of a sort of stigma put on the idea of hallucinating. I do sometimes find migraine auras distressing- would they be more distressing if I called them hallucinations? Anyway it just shows that hallucinations aren’t all what one’s first thoughts of hallucinations would be. They aren’t always ‘real’ things. They aren’t always pictures even.
I did find it very interesting, and it probably changed my view of hallucinations a bit. It could have done with a bit of editing though. I’ll certainly read more by Sacks, and I already have Musicophilia and Migraine on my wishlist.
Oliver Sacks sadly died this weekend, which is what prompted me to write this review over the others that are waiting to be written.