Gweek 075: Oliver Sacks' Hallucinations

When I was living in London in my early 20s, I found a book in the hallway of a university in Hampstead. It was a nonfiction story about a group of people who had become literally frozen with Parkinson's disease from an encephalitis outbreak. The book was written by a doctor who treated the people with a substance called L–dopa. The drug was like magic. It gave the formerly paralyzed people the ability to move around, talk, dance, and do most everything they could do before they became sick. Unfortunately, the effect of the drug tapered off, and the patients needed greater and greater amounts of L-dopa to receive the benefits. Eventually, The dosage required to obtain positive results exceeded the toxicity threshold, and so the doctor had to stop administering L-dopa to them. And one by one, all the patients became frozen again for the rest of their lives.

The book is called Awakenings, and it was written by Oliver Sacks, a physician and professor of neurology at the New York school of medicine. Dr. Sacks is the author of twelve books, including Uncle Tungsten, The Mind's Eye, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and most recently, Hallucinations, which was published earlier this month.

Dr. Sacks' books are fascinating explorations into the way the human mind works, usually through studying abnormal minds and surprising ways in which they give us clues about perception, consciousness, and behavior. Interestingly, Dr. Sacks himself has face blindness, Asperger's syndrome, is blind in one eye, and is slightly deaf, which might explain in part why matters of the human mind are of great interest to him. He's one of my favorite authors, and because my coeditor at Boing Boing, David Pescovitz, is also an ardent admirer, he joined me in the following interview with Dr. Sacks.

Here is our interview with Dr. Sacks.



  1. Dang, I’m falling behind. I still have to read Sack’s book about music.

    I think the first Sacks book I read was Island of the Colorblind. A travelogue, botany lesson, and neurology tale all in one. I hooked my aunt and mother on his books, and they actually went to his lectures back East.

    1. Sacks actually wrote an essay about consulting on the film. He said that De Niro could simulate symptoms so convincingly that at one point Sacks thought he was having a seizure.

  2. Good stuff!  My first encounter with Sacks’ work was “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat”, which blew my mind (repeatedly!)  It’s funny (not ha-ha funny) that the main way we get insights into how the mind works is by examining cases where things have broken badly.

    Btw, I don’t think it’s correct to say he has Asperger’s.  He’s said “I’m an honorary Tourette’s because I tend to jerk.  I am also an honorary Asperger. And I’m an honorary bipolar. I suspect we all have a bit of everything.”

    I like the way he’s expressed that – all too often people like to claim they have “mild Asperger’s” or similar.  The “geek chic” aura around this condition is perverse because it’s been specifically created to label those who are genuinely disabled (at least in the sense of being able to function normally in the modern world – from the DSM-IV definition we have ” clinically significant impairments in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning” and “restricted repetitive & stereotyped patterns of behavior, interests and activities”).  It’s important to remember it’s an artificial set of criteria – people who don’t quite meet the full set may get the less glamorous label of PDD-NOS, or be described as having some autistic traits.  But “mild Asperger’s” is akin to describing cold feet as “mild frostbite and gangrene”. 

  3. I tend to prefer Sacks’ book An Anthropologist on Mars, as it gets away from the anecdotalism of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and delves more deeply into the lives of its subjects, really looking at how they experience consciousness differently; per the old computer ads, they really do “think different.” (IIRC, the book title comes from Temple Grandin’s self-description of feeling literally alienated among the neuro-typical. I also think that this was the book that brought Grandin to general public awareness.)

  4. Regarding David’s question about non-pharmaceutical methods of inducing hallucinations, I recently listened to a relevant BBC radio programme (also featuring Dr Sacks) called “Hallucination: Through the Doors of Perception”. An expert in hallucinations called Dominic Ffytche fitted the presenter with a pair of goggles which flashed high-frequency bursts of light at his closed eyes, causing him to experience vivid, complex hallucinations which sounded very interesting. You can see a picture of the goggles here, although sadly the podcast is no longer available:

    I would have thought that an interested maker could whip up a pair of goggles if they were able to discover the correct frequency and brightness for the light. A bit like a modern Dreamachine?

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