Thoughts on Hallucinations

Thoughts in response to Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks:

—Oliver Sacks is a regular New Yorker contributor, and though I was peripherally familiar with some of his work, I hadn’t been directly exposed to it until I read his essay “Altered States” in the August 27, 2012 issue of the New Yorker. In it, Sacks discusses his extra-curricular hallucinogenic drug experimentation in the 1960s, describing in clinical detail his experiences with various compounds and corresponding drug withdrawals. “Altered States” is a great essay, partly because it remains clinical in its assessment of mind-altering compounds, refusing to moralize an essentially chemical relationship.

—”Altered States” forms a chapter in Sacks’ new book, Hallucinations. Utilizing first-person narrative, case studies, historical investigation, and Sacks’ own experience as a neuroscientist, Sacks attempts to destigmatize hallucinations. There are neuroscientific mechanisms powering the activity, infrastructure, and architecture of hallucinatory experiences, and these experiences can either come about organically (like a blind or visually impaired patient experiencing Charles Bonnet syndrome) or through the influence of outside affects (like hallucinogenic drugs). Sacks is interested in hallucinations per se—not the politics of hallucinations.

—The problem with a lot of drug-related literature and writing is that it moralizes the whole enterprise. The tendency for this moralization comes from people’s curiosity and fear of the mind’s aberrations, and the corresponding laws borne of those fears (and then the corresponding reinforcement of the inscient moralizations). Through Sacks’ own clinical assessment of hallucinations, he says—implicitly—that hallucinations are things that happen. Some hallucinations are the result of stress, neurological disorder, drug use, illness, sleeplessness, or simply going about your ordinary, everyday activities, and that’s all there is to it. Hallucinations happen: that’s what this book is about.

—There are diverse types of hallucination, all of which are directly related to sense experience. There are auditory hallucinations, where those experiencing hallucinations might hear phantom sounds, voices, or music. There are olfactory hallucinations, where people smell something that isn’t “really” there, as in the case of epileptics who, prior to seizing, smell rotten eggs or batteries. There are hallucinations of touch and presence – for example, phantom limbs. And there are visual hallucinations – we know what these are.

—Sacks utilizes a Jamesian pragmatism when he gets into the territory of the unknown—an area around which hallucinations are focused. For example, Sacks talks about various people who have had life-altering ‘hypnopompic’ hallucinations . These hallucinations you have as you are waking up from a deep sleep; not dreams, but hallucinations that more potently mix external and mental realities. For many, these hypnopompic hallucinations are rare, if they ever happen at all, but these hallucinations are often terrifying and seem to stretch deep into the psychic framework. As such, many draw spiritual or religious meanings or revelations from these terrors. Talking about the legitimacy of these revelations is not useful because it is not possible to talk about the authenticity of another’s experience (in the Jamesian world, anyway). It is fine with me if you see Jesus in your hypnopompic hallucinations. If that vision mean something to you, that is your prerogative; you are the only one who has the authority to interpret your own visions. The myth implied by Sacks’ Jamesian sympathies is that these hallucinogenically derived meanings can be applied universally. In the opinion of the reviewer, they cannot be. Your hallucination is yours and yours alone.

—More often than not, hallucinations, like dreams, have no meaning. They are thought-experiences: the mind thinking itself. Sacks talks about the geometries people “see” when they are hallucinating and suggests that these geometries are a visualization of the way the mind thinks. These geometries are preternatural and explain the dominance of geometric patterns in art throughout conscious human history.

—The attempt to impose meaning on hallucinatory experiences might simply be a conscious attempt to understand the mysteries – or meaninglessness – of subconscious mechanics. We fear non-meaning, so we create meaning because we think it needs to be there. There does not need to be meaning. Hallucinations can be; they simply are. And perhaps this beingness – I could get away with that word if I were writing in German – is why, more often than not – at least in the case studies featured in this book – people’s hallucinations are benign and often pleasant. Nostalgia and memory inform many hallucinations, such that one might be called back to a forgotten childhood room, or the brain chemistry of a first kiss.

—Sacks differentiates between hallucinations and dreams, as well as dementia and hallucinations. Thereby, you do not need to be asleep to hallucinate. You do not need to be insane to hallucinate. Hallucinating does not make you insane.

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One Comment on “Thoughts on Hallucinations”

  1. Rachel
    December 13 2012 at 10:05 am #

    Timely. ”…you may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!”

    “The problem with a lot of drug-related literature…” that you mentioned is in fact only one problem with a lot of drug-related literature. Another problem with a lot of drug-related literature is its self-indulgent pointlessness in recounting what happened after the mushrooms were eaten.

    Happy holidays Ben!

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