where the writers are
Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks




I have on my desk a drawing by Oliver Sacks of two octopi.  He made it in my kitchen in the mid-90s in Germany to prevail in a discussion with my then ten-year-old son about the disposition of optical nerves in octopi.  This tells you a lot about Oliver Sacks and Nick.  I would suppose Sacks was right, but Nick wasn't having it.  He'd looked into the question and Nick could see Oliver, as he called him, was all wrong, or at least part of him was wrong. Neither would give in. They stayed at it all through the breakfast my wife served them, Oliver being in the house because my wife had arranged for Oliver to have his morning swim, about which he was fanatical.


Now…to Oliver's latest book, Hallucinations.  It's not the best book as a book because it is a kind of compendium.  As such, it is doesn't present marvelous mysteries that are solved or a grand story that is revealed.  What it does it anatomize the species of hallucinations we human beings experience: we hallucinate when we suffer Charles Bonnet Syndrome, when we are in drug withdrawal, when we are about to die, when we have lost a limb, when we have suffered post-traumatic stress disorder, when we have consumed hallucinogenic drugs, and when we have conditioned ourselves to be susceptible to visions, voices, and the presence of others, sometimes an "other" self, who is passive or relatively autonomous.  Oh, I forgot epilepsy.  Can't do that.  


But Hallucinations is an important book because it sysnthesizes all these ways in which we experience that which does not occur because of the way parts of our brain interact.  Let me offend some of you: there is no God, there are no ghosts, there is no phantom limb, there are no witches, no patterns in gold and blue on the  surface of your mind…or actual voices…or actual fingers on your back…or most of what we categorize as religion, magic, the supernatural, or the inexplicable.


Time and again Sacks points to a study that demonstrates these phenomena are brain-based.  They are not "imagination," which is voluntary; they are involuntary.  They "happen," but they are as remote from reality as the eyes are from sight.  Didn't you know that the eyes don't see? The brain does.


I had hoped Sacks would find a direct link between the artistic imagination and the "other world." Nope.  I sit here at this desk every day imagining things without really knowing how as I write fiction, but I am not recording, if I may put this awkwardly, experienced experience.


William Blake apparently did experience such experience and write it down, but most folks who do are not artists, they are normal people….lots of normal people.  If you add up all the populations Sacks cites as susceptible to hallucinations, you will find yourself included. At some point you will have seen or heard or felt something outside yourself that had no basis in fact, only in your brain.  You will have had an out of body experience, or you will have heard a voice, or seen a loved one, long dead, in the garden.  Sacks goes into all this: it's not a matter of will or reality, it's a matter of how your brain expresses enigmas and offers you modes of intepretation.


I can tell you, with relative surety, that neither Nick nor Sacks believes in the epiphenomenonal sparks of fiery vision cast off by the common brain.  There is no logical reason not to believe God is behind all this.  Really, He could have been, He may have been. But more likely we are experiencing the peculiarities of brain-based phenomena.


If you deprive someone of sleep, of physical contact with the world, of someone to talk to, of sight, or many other common things…that someone is likely to hallucinate.  This is why, in my opinion, torture and extreme stress are dubious interrogation techniques.  You can drive someone "crazy" but what he tells you in that state won't stand up in court...or shouldn't.


I don't want to underplay the power of hallucinations.  They are not to  be  lightly taken. I have a friend who served in combat in Vietnam.  From 1968 to today, 2013, he has not slept more than twenty or thirty minutes without being jolted awake by what happened to him almost fifty years ago. Think about that.


Last week President Obama announced a $100 million initiative to map the brain, or some such thing.  Not enough money.  Really. Not nearly enough.  The virtue of Sacks' book is that it points out the multiple ways that the brain duplicates and disdorts reality.  Because of the brain, I might see witches, angels, demons, and octopi eyes some day. 


This is worth considering…and reading.


For more of my comments on contemporary thought and writing, see Tuppence Reviews (Kindle).