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Doctor feel good

Oliver Sacks' new book details the varieties of hallucinations – and his own drug use

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Photo: , License: N/A

Oliver Sacks is one of the great scientific writers of our time. The author of neurological case studies like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings (which was also made into a film starring Robin Williams), Sacks turns the brain's glitches into high literature. He recently published Hallucinations (Knopf, 352 pages), which, in addition to offering an encyclopedic discussion of the varieties of hallucination, details his own shockingly extensive experimentation with drugs.

In the 1960s, Sacks smoked pot, shot morphine, and took LSD, morning-glory seeds and massive amounts of amphetamines. During one acid trip, he wondered what true indigo looked like and hallucinated the "pure" color; later, on a weekend-long speed bender, he read the work of the great 19th-century neurologist Edward Liveing and began to think he was Liveing: "At times I was unsure whether I was reading the book or writing it."

Previously, he had come down from his trips feeling like "I had made a crazy ascent into the stratosphere but had come back empty-handed." This time, however, he retained his insight:
"Bit by bit, I started to write my own book. The joy I got from doing this was real – infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines – and I never took amphetamines again."

With your new book, Hallucinations, I was wondering what, at this point in your life, made you feel that it was important to go back and talk about your more youthful experiences using drugs and that sort of hallucination.
Oliver Sacks: First I should say that that scandalous Chapter 6 was not envisaged originally as part of the book. The book was basically going to be on my clinical experience, seeing people with migraines or impaired vision or Parkinson's or whatever and their hallucinations. And this is a subject that has interested me for a very long while: I wrote about musical hallucinations in Musicophilia and back, in fact, in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. But it seemed to me time to have a go at bringing the whole subject together. For myself, I've never hesitated to regard myself as a clinical subject like my patients. Here, I had a variety of experiences and they were a long time ago and I can think of them in tranquility and recollect, and as an insider, I can add things that wouldn't be evident as an outsider. I can say how indigo seemed to me, for example.

In the climax of that chapter, you quit taking drugs and start writing. So that was obviously a transitional moment in your life. Do you feel like you've lived up to what you expected or done what you wanted at that moment?
The only ambitions there were to write a book on migraine. … Whether drugs played an essential role in that transition, I don't know and I'm actually inclined to doubt. I like to think I'd been turned on already by seeing these patients and the idea of writing a book about them would have come to me anyhow. But it came in a slightly explosive and most likely manic form on the amphetamine. I can't say whether the rest of my life has lived up to things. I never had any expectations. I find myself surprised pleasantly and unpleasantly all the while.

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