Now you see it . . . Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations (and everybody’s)

51PYCmBxMzL._SL500_AA300_PIaudible,BottomRight,13,73_AA300_For me, as perhaps for many people, the idea of hallucination has always been terrifying. It always seemed to signal that one had lost control, had stepped off some cliff and fallen, irretrievably, into the abyss of insanity. That had always been my worry years ago when I had taken LSD. In the half dozen or so times that I took the drug, I never actually experienced a true hallucination, at least not that I can recall. (Of course, as they say, if you can recall the 60s . . .) I remember distortions and intensifications; I remember elasticity of time and I remember becoming aware of the process of my body – blood sloshing through my arteries, forms of brief, yet terrifying paralysis that I can’t define even now. Mainly things slowed down significantly and time even started to drag on. The positive effect for me was a sense of integration with the world. I seemed to pulse along the rhythm of existence itself. These were fascinating moments, but they were also where the paralysis would set it. It was like I was so in tune with the universe that I could not operate independent of it.

Unlike a number of my contemporaries, I never really had a lot of fun on LSD, nor can I report that I had any profound revelations. Maybe I just wasn’t taking the right stuff. And, like I said, I had this absolute dread of hallucinations.

One of the more interesting facts I learned in listening to Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks (Random House Audio, 2013, read by Dan Woren) was how much more common hallucinations actually are among the general population and how, relatively speaking, benign they are. It turns out that hallucinations don’t necessarily turn you into a person who seems to be constantly swatting imaginary flies away from his or her face nor does it necessarily signal descent into insanity through other manifestations. Of course, the batshit crowd experiences them (how else do you explain, say, Michelle Bachmann on basically any topic she chooses to opine), but so do lots of sane people – people who suffer from blindness and epilepsy and/or who have lost limbs or who are subject to migraines.

I myself experience migraines occasionally. I don’t get headaches proper; these are what are referred to as “ocular” migraines. They affect my vision. Sacks describes them better than I’ve ever heard them described before. (When I tell people that a sort of jagged bright, almost vibrant white light migrates across my visual field making it difficult to read or to drive a car, the expression on their faces usually indicates that I’m not explaining it very well, to say the least.)

Here is Sacks’ description of the experience, which exactly mirrors my experience: “It’s classic visual presentation is a scintillating zigzag-edged kidney shaped form… expanding and moving slowly across one half of my field of vision over the course of fifteen or twenty minutes. Inside the shimmering borders of this shape is often a blind area, a scotoma–thus the whole shape is called a scintillating scotoma.” (No, I did not remember this verbatim from the audio edition; I had to go to the print version to get the exact terms. Hey, it’s not like I’m totally anti-print. I mean, I am typing out these reviews.)

I’m almost looking forward to my next migraine so I can tell someone that I’m in the middle of a scintillating scotoma. It almost sounds erotic. But seriously, it turns out I’ve been hallucinating on a regular basis–inasmuch as Sacks considers migraines hallucinatory episodes–since I was eight or nine years old.

I mean, who knew so many different kinds of hallucination–induced or otherwise–existed? In addition to the section on migraine, I particularly enjoyed the chapter called “Doppelgängers: Hallucinating Oneself.” A number of years ago I wrote a novel–sort of in the Philip K. Dick vein, about punishment for crimes in the future being constant surveillance by a clone of yourself, sort of an external conscience.

Hey, maybe I should resurrect that idea. Let me ask this guy sitting next to me who seems to like to stare at me and looks very familiar.

Dan Woren does a fine job narrating Hallucinations, especially because much of the language is technical and many of the references and names/proper nouns are in foreign languages. Still, although I usually frown on authors narrating their own works, I think I would have made an exception in this case. Sacks does narrate the introduction, which he does a fine job with. I would like to have heard more from him.

Finally I think it’s interesting that, as Sacks points out, hallucinations over the millennia might have played such a central role in our collective imaginative lives. They may account for all our legends of things like leprechauns and fairies, as well as giants, ghosts and demons. They seem to almost certainly have influenced the history of pictorial art. And if Julian Jaynes was right, as he wrote so brilliantly in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, auditory hallucinations were most likely the voice of the gods themselves as man encountered new situations and responded to the authority of hallucinations generated by one half of his brain to negotiate the ever-increasing novelty of this life experience.

Not to get all philosophical on you, although to the extent that you currently even exist, I may be hallucinating you.

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