A hu­mane ap­proach to see­ing things


The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Chad Parkhill

By Oliver Sacks Pi­cador, 300pp, $29.95

IT’S not hard to see why US-based Bri­tish doc­tor and writer Oliver Sacks has be­come, for many peo­ple, the chief am­bas­sador for neu­rol­ogy. His books ren­der this for­bid­dingly dry sub­ject ac­ces­si­ble by cut­ting to the core of what neu­rol­ogy means for a lay au­di­ence.

Rather than fo­cus­ing on struc­tures such as the hip­pocam­pus or the ef­fects of chem­i­cals such as dopamine, he in­stead il­lus­trates their func­tions through case stud­ies of pa­tients with neu­ro­log­i­cal dis­or­ders.

This hu­mane touch has its roots in a widerang­ing hu­man­ism ev­i­dent in Sacks’s best­known book, The Man Who Mis­took His Wife for a Hat (1985), in which he neatly and un­pre­ten­tiously dis­cusses Ni­et­zsche, Borges and Pope’s Dun­ciad along­side his pa­tients’ patholo­gies.

He has also, through time, be­come an ex­cel­lent writer, at­tuned to the pri­mal ap­peal of nar­ra­tive in non­fic­tion. As his par­al­lel ca­reer as a writer has pro­gressed, his books have be­come ever more pop­u­lated with case stud­ies pre­sented as nar­ra­tives or anec­dotes.

His new book, Hal­lu­ci­na­tions, op­er­ates in a mode fa­mil­iar to read­ers of his re­cent work. Sacks presents us with var­i­ous forms of hal­lu­ci­na­tions and sketches case his­to­ries of sev­eral peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­ence th­ese.

Many of the case stud­ies are fas­ci­nat­ing: con­sider the woman who ex­pe­ri­ences strong un­pleas­ant smell hal­lu­ci­na­tions and soon has to rad­i­cally al­ter her diet just to bring her­self to eat food at all. Other pa­tients report see­ing en­tire tableaus of hal­lu­ci­na­tory fig­ures and tak­ing great plea­sure in their coming and go­ing, or tac­tile hal­lu­ci­na­tions that cover all sur­faces in a pleas­ant but faintly dis­turb­ing film of peach-like fuzz.

Through th­ese ex­am­ples Sacks takes us on a Cook’s tour of hal­lu­ci­na­tions, ex­plain­ing not only their causes (head trauma, the in­ges­tion of mind-al­ter­ing drugs and so on) but also the role of the neu­ro­log­i­cal struc­tures in­volved in each case.

Sacks’s life is of­ten his great­est case study, and he has ex­pe­ri­enced a large num­ber of hal­lu­ci­na­tions that he de­scribes with the el­e­gance and charm on dis­play in his 2001 mem­oir Un­cle Tung­sten. His chap­ter on au­ral hal­lu­ci­na­tions re­turns to the scene of the open­ing chap­ter of his 1984 book A Leg to Stand On, de­tail­ing how an ex­ter­nal voice cut through his in­ter­nal di­a­logue at a moment of great phys­i­cal dan­ger. Sim­i­larly, the chap­ter on hal­lu­ci­na­tions caused by mi­graines opens with his first ex­pe­ri­ence of a mi­graine aura at a very young age.

Per­haps most in­ter­est­ingly, the chap­ter on drug hal­lu­ci­na­tions deals frankly with Sacks’s ex­ten­sive ex­per­i­ments in mind-al­ter­ing drugs. Th­ese mis­ad­ven­tures are ini­tially amus­ing: af­ter two puffs of a joint con­tain­ing noth­ing but mar­i­juana, Sacks sees his own hand ‘‘ stretched across the uni­verse, light-years or par­secs in length ... this cos­mic hand some­how also seemed like the hand of God’’.

But as his ex­plo­rations deepen, we wit­ness an ob­ses­sive na­ture that sees him tak­ing ev­er­larger and more dan­ger­ous doses of recre­ational drugs, un­til he has a hal­lu­ci­na­tory melt­down on a New York City street. (He is rescued by a col­league, Carol, who says: ‘‘ Oliver, you chump! You al­ways overdo things.’’)

While there is much to en­joy in Hal­lu­ci­na­tions, it also re­veals the lim­i­ta­tions of Sacks’s ur­bane, nar­ra­tive-driven in­tel­lec­tual method. Be­cause his books fo­cus on a kalei­do­scope of in­di­vid­ual case stud­ies, they don’t form the­o­ries or ar­gu­ments. Hal­lu­ci­na­tions presents no grand uni­fied the­ory of

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