Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks opened my eyes a little wider to the strange goings on within my fellow human beings’ brains. The book is filled with colorful stories, in the typical Sacks style, which illustrate how the human brain can function in ways most of us find peculiar. He has a profoundly non-moralistic attitude and approach to his research and he doesn’t treat these people’s brains, and their differences, any differently than he refers to his own grey matter. It is the functioning which fascinates him, and how the absence of some particular part, or the hyperactivity of that same part, affects the person’s behavior. This unique but unusual development of his writing and thinking style was made apparent by his often referring to his own personal inner experiences which were similar to or at least reminiscent of those of his medical patients. He states that his mind experiments included many psychoactive drug trips during the 1960s when he was still a medical student. He took such heavy doses and apparently every weekend when he was off medical duty, that he admits he was lucky he didn’t overdose to the point of permanent incapacitation. Just perhaps he overstates his own return to normality a bit.
It becomes apparent that this is a book about mental problems by someone who has vast personal experience, both externally as a professional medical person and internally as a personal drug tripper. It is a book by someone who knows that of which he writes, and therefore is a book which must be read by anyone who possesses a brain.
My personal experience and understanding of myself sent me on a very different life journey than Dr. Sacks. Perhaps it was because of a conversation I had with a prominent explorer of the borders of human experience back in 1965. He was one of the founders of the Sexual Freedom League, back at the very beginning of the still ongoing revolution of sexual exploration. He had quite a bit of experience with drugs, and I had zero, and at that time I was very hesitant to consume any. He said, “Drugs don’t do anything much, they just get you where you are going already, they just get you there quicker.” I thought about that, and observed my many friends there in Berkeley, and it seemed to be a valid generalization. I looked at my own self, and my tendency to go a bit too far with everything I do, and decided, intellectually decided, not to explore drugs, not even alcohol. Since that time I have never gotten high, although once I encountered some beer on the Rhine River in Germany, which was stronger than expected. Sacks, on the other hand, went to the extremes of human tolerance and discovered many interesting things about what brains do when they are taken outside of the realm of normal operations.
This book has changed my life, as any good book should do. Since reading it I have looked around and observed people exhibiting behaviors which display, in less extreme forms, some the behaviors he describes. This is a beautifully written book by a man who seems to have a hemianopia-like personal quality in that he doesn’t see certain things; he doesn’t seem to make moral judgments; everything seems to be objective narrative. Reality for Sacks is something he is writing down in his notebooks, and those notes are something to be converted into books. I wonder if this distant and abstract mode is the direction the average human mind is trending towards? Probably not— we ordinary people are too caught up in our personal pleasures.