Sack’s ‘Hallucinations’ tires

hallucinations
Knopf/Courtesy

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In “Hallucinations,” Oliver Sacks once again plays the role of the encyclopedic doctor of neurological phenomena. His signature way of telling strange tales of medicine fit for television hospital dramas hasn’t changed, but his topic has shifted to a small degree. He explores hallucinations and the human brain in his new book, but the descriptions only interest readers to a certain point. Each chapter focuses on different causes of hallucinations, but some descriptions repeat and bore the reader.

The book starts with variety, skipping from hallucinated smells to revelations about Parkinson’s disease and auditory hallucinations. The climax is the sixth chapter, “Altered States,” which focuses on drug-induced hallucinations. Frankly, the chapter succeeds most in its combination of humor and insight, and the reader expects this topic to dominate the entire book. One patient describes the simple act of going to the bathroom on acid: “I went to urinate, and in my urine stream was a video or movie of the past played back in reverse.” These hilarious “Fear and Loathing” moments are ones that we flock to, oversaturated and dynamic.

Truth be told, we readers just want to hear more about Sacks’ bad drug trips and mail-ordered LSD experiences. We learn that Sacks’ basic inspiration to become a neurological scientist was induced by a large amount of amphetamines. He describes this revelation after sitting for ten hours reading a book by scientist Edward Liveing written in 1873, barely moving. He was so inspired by the book that he decided to become the “Liveing of (his) time.”

Sacks’ main message, if any can be extracted, is that hallucinations have false-negative stereotypes. He often mentions that patients will use any other wording because of the association with schizophrenia. But Sacks overcompensates for the stigma against hallucinations, presenting the reader with various types of hallucinations to the point of paranoia. What do we repress in our minds to convince ourselves to remain planted in reality? This type of suggestive selling works in patients as well. Sacks tells of a patient who only started having hallucinations after he was asked if he had any.

However, with very little nuanced characterization of hallucinations, we rest at the limits of research where we are amused by accounts, but nothing more of substance can enlighten us. That may be why Sacks ends the book so abruptly. The last chapter describes phantom limbs, and in the last page Sacks forces a glorifying suggestion about hallucinations, comparing them to a higher spiritual force.

The suggestion fails because it feels insincere and rushed. Sacks is a doctor and a scientist and cannot cross into philosophical territories successfully. Since his writing style utilizes description rather than analysis, it seems to leave nothing for further debate. This writing style is similar to a lot of Sacks’ work, but because many of his works are shorter, the reader does not tire of lists of strange phenomena. It appears that Sacks, although now a beloved popular scientist, just cannot close the gap between him and his readers. Reading the book is tiring, and it seems unlikely that any rising doctor or scientist today would read it in a drug-induced stupor and be inspired to become the next Sacks.

A.J. Kiyoizumi is the lead literature critic. Contact her at [email protected]

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