Neurologist examines 'Hallucinations,' including his own

Chris Vognar / The Dallas Morning News /

“Hallucinations” by Dr. Oliver Sacks (Knopf, $26.95)

NEW YORK — Enter a nondescript building in the West Village, ride an old elevator a couple flights up and suddenly you’re in a world of wonder long in the making.

You’ve entered the office of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

The well-worn lair of the world’s most literary neurologist bespeaks a restless spirit that all but says, “Yeah, I’ve been at this awhile.” A vintage, multicolor Chart of Electromagnetic Radiation dominates one wall; it looks like something you’d find in a gargantuan pack of chewing gum. On a table sits a pencil sharpener that looks more like a microscope.

At 79, Sacks’ eyesight is fading, as he chronicled in his 2010 book “The Mind’s Eye.” But his curiosity and empathy, immortalized in the 1990 Robert De Niro-Robin Williams movie “Awakenings,” remains unquenched. His new book, “Hallucinations”, seeks to destigmatize the experiences of those who see what isn’t there. Much like his famous collection “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” “Hallucinations” mixes case studies of Sacks’ patients and acquaintances with scientific history and philosophy.

Then there’s the book’s big curveball. In the liveliest section, a mini-masterpiece of descriptive writing, Sacks dives into his own chemical experimentation.

It’s hard to sync the popular perception of the kindly graybeard doctor with a past of voracious drug consumption, but that’s what we get in the sixth chapter of “Hallucinations,” “Altered States.” Here we encounter young Dr. Sacks, doing his residency at UCLA, guided by medical interest and the ’60s California zeitgeist.

And try them he did. “My first pot experience was marked by a mix of the neurological and the divine,” he writes. Then he moved on to bigger game. A heaping dose of Artane, “a synthetic drug allied with belladonna,” led to a lengthy philosophical conversation with a spider. He snagged some morphine from his physician parents, injected, and watched the 15th-century armies of England and France do battle on the sleeve of his dressing gown.

There were less fanciful experiences as well: a severe case of post-sedative delirium tremens led to horrific visions on a city bus: “All the passengers on the bus seemed to have smooth white heads like giant eggs, with huge glittering eyes like the faceted compound eyes on insects,” he writes.

Today Sacks looks back on his wilder days with mixed feelings.

“One has paranoid bad trips of all sorts, although mostly I found them enjoyable and sometimes instructive,” he says. “I don’t recommend them to anyone, but I don’t deny that I had them. Maybe I learned something, maybe I didn’t. Forty years later it took a little persuasion to get me talking about them.”

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