Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks

People whom no one else can see, smells without source, sounds that aren’t otherwise audible? Miniature battles enacted on one’s bathrobe sleeve, an unwanted intruder in the kitchen doing dishes? Hallucinations, or reality? Well, there are two schools of thought on that, largely dependent on whether you’re the one having the visions or the outside observer.

Sacks’ latest books, Hallucinations, is, not surprisingly, about hallucinations, both his own and those of his patients. The sources or causes of the hallucinations he describes range from health issues which are primarily known for producing hallucinations, such as Charles Bonnet syndrome which appears largely in those who’ve lost their sight, to syndromes the primary symptoms of which are unrelated to hallucinations, such as Parkinson’s or epilepsy…and of course, a soupcon of externally created hallucinations, such as those ensuing from sensory deprivation or drug use.

It’s an interesting introduction to the subject—Sacks is an engaging writer when it comes to explaining medicine to a lay audience. He covers a wide range of hallucinations, from the simple and easily resolved visual scotoma of migrane sufferers to the voices of schizophrenia to the multi-sensory full-stage visions of Charles Bonnet syndrome. (It’s almost a pity he didn’t extend the reach of this book a bit further to cover the invisible friends of childhood!) Something to note for those unfamiliar with medical terminology is that this book does not cover delusions—those being the (almost certainly) mistaken beliefs held by people with psychological issues such as schizophrenia and various psychoses…though for all the “normal” know, these could be prompted by hallucinations…

This didn’t strike me as being one of Sacks’ better books; whether that’s a criticism depends on how well you like his previous books. Certainly, authors have every right to change their writing style over the years, and indeed medicine itself has changed considerably over the course of Sacks’ time in practice, both in terms of diagnostic criteria and tests or treatments used in the course of working with patients. Hallucinations can have such a broad range of causes that Sacks seemed forced to skim over the range of causes and sub-sets, from dementias to strokes to drug use (legitimate or…er…self-prescribed) and on to dreams or hypnagogic states. Nevertheless, it’s a good place to start for readers with little to no background in medicine, whether from the professional or the personal standpoint. As always, he manages to include a great deal of medical information without overwhelming a lay reader.

I would suggest starting with Sacks’ earlier books, which are more like collections of articles rather than a single monolithic work, not least because it might give readers unfamiliar with neurology, psychology and Sacks’ writing style a basis on/with which to compare this book.

The Guardian
New York Times

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