Hallucinations [Oliver Sacks]


Brew in hand? Then we’ll begin.

Popular science books are great – and I often read them as a sort of ‘palate-cleanser’ after finishing a particularly heavy novel. However (and this may well just be me!), I can sometimes be disappointed to discover that I have forgotten large parts of such books even a few months after reading them (The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins springs to mind… or rather, doesn’t. Did it have something about dinosaurs in it?). Not so with Sacks. He gives intellectual credit to his readers, but at the same time you never feel as though you are being lectured to – and I think he manages to get the balance ‘just-so’ that you drink it all in without actually trying hard to learn. He gently explores the many experiences that are covered by the umbrella term ‘hallucination’ by describing case studies of his many patients over his long and distinguished career. A lot of attention is paid to Charles Bonnet Syndrome, but the range is broad and also touches upon dementia, migraine, phantom limb, drug use, and the states just before falling asleep and just upon waking. Expect to learn some pretty funky terminology, too (“hypnopompic” was a particular favourite.) And through it all, one of the most appealing things about Sacks’ style is that he makes it absolutely clear that hallucinations do not equal insanity – which I think is both a stigma and a fear that is all too prevalent.

Oliver Sacks has a very distinctive style of writing, as you will know if you’ve read anything of his before. It is anecdotal to the extent that he can sometimes feel like a friend who tells you the same story over and over again, and you have to react as though it’s all fresh information every time (in this case because you want to feel you’re getting your money’s worth after shelling out for the book!). However, last weekend I found myself explaining to a friend the link between sensory deprivation and hallucination, and realised that along the chatty journey with Sacks, I had actually absorbed and learned a heck of a lot more than I thought I had. As you can imagine, this made me very happy* (*read, smug).

Would recommend to:

Those interested in the quirks of the human brain, and their resulting phenomena.

Anyone looking for an easy Pop Sci read, from which they will still come away having been taught a great deal.

Fans of Vladimir Nabokov – there is a neat little musing on an excerpt from his autobiography ‘Speak, Memory’ tucked away in there.

I’ve finished this and want something similar…

If you want more of Sacks, and haven’t yet read his most famous work ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat’, then I suggest you get on that quick sharp. You might find that there is a little overlap in some of the case study material, but if you can forgive Sacks for this then you may find that it only serves to cement what you learn.

If you want something neurological, but by a different author, why not try something by Steven Pinker? As a Linguist, I’d be biased towards ‘The Language Instinct’, but he’s affable in his writing in the same sort of way as Sacks, so you shouldn’t go too far wrong with anything of his.

If you want something a little different, try ‘The Diving Bell and The Butterfly’ by Jean-Dominique Bauby. You’ll see this one crop up a lot in recommendations on this blog I’m sure. It’s my all-time favourite book, it has shaped my career path, and I’m much too biased to write a review of it here (I gave it a shot, and I think I started to compare it to a literal nugget of gold…). Suffice to say that it will certainly make you think about the power of the brain over the capabilities of the body.

What do you think?

I would love to hear your thoughts on ‘Hallucinations’! Please leave a comment below and let me know if you were impressed with the book, or if you found it too wishy-washy and lacking in “hard science”, e.g. presentation of experimental findings. Have you read something similar that you’d recommend?

Thanks for reading! Until next time x

n.b. This is of course my very first Brew and Book post! So thank you, if you’ve made it this far. I’d love your feedback on any aspect of this whole shebang.


2 thoughts on “Hallucinations [Oliver Sacks]

  1. Hallucinations are very intriguing. In asomatognosia the person believes that a body part is not really theirs. It is said this is caused by damage to the brain. Anyhow, what I have read is that an individual that was undergoing this phenomenon – they felt that their right hand (that was a normal hand and that was attached to their body) was not their hand and was the doctors hand or the hand of another person entirely. It is argued that this is hallucinations. To to person with asomatognosia, this is reality.

    I would definitely recommend the work of Dr. Ramachandran. He works with many types of patients that undergo hallucinations due to different neurological issues.

    I was watching a video by Sacks, what I had gotten from it was that a person who underwent hallucinations – that is their reality. Maybe we are all in our own hallucination and we haven’t questioned it yet.

    • Thank you for the recommendation! I’ve never read anything by Dr. Ramachandran, but from what I know of his work this would definitely be a great follow-on from Hallucinations. I’ll put his name on my to-read list straight away!

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