Science fiction and fantasy                                            


by Oliver Sacks


There's a certain stigma associated with seeing and hearing things that aren't there. Oliver Sacks dispels some of this with this account of the many causes of hallucinations. It's an accessible book that examines and explains these experiences using a minimum of jargon.

Inevitably a book like this relies on a lot of anecdotes to illustrate its points. Unfortunately this can get a bit repetitive after a while, but it does emphasise the mundanity of many hallucinations. And in many ways they are ordinary. There are chapters on various conditions like migraines, Parkinsons, and epilepsy, and about sensory deprivation or drug taking. Some people suffer hallucinations on falling asleep or waking, whilst other people lose the use of one sense and their mind fills the gap with hallucinations.

After reading this book, you might come away with the impression that nearly everybody experiences one or more of these things at one time or another. It's not easy to quantify, not least because not everyone is aware that they do hallucinate, but the book makes it clear that it's not only hardened drug users who have visions or hear things. What's interesting is the spectrum of experiences, including ones that are so mild that many people will not realise that they are hallucinating at all. The author is very candid about his personal experiences, including his experiments with recreational drugs back when certain substances were still legal.

What I found the most fascinating about this book was not the range of experiences, no matter how colourful or strange, but the things they teach us about the workings of our brains and our society. Later chapters deal with hallucinations that have more of a feeling of agency, such as night hags, grief-induced hauntings, and other visions where the subject believes there's a presence with malevolent or benevolent intentions towards them. However it's the section dealing with religion that I found the most astonishing. The relationship between prayer, trance states and hallucinations was a real eye-opener.

The book could do with a short glossary for some of the medical terminology, but on the whole it's an easy read. The style is informative and engaging, and it's a fascinating look at a facet of neurology that throws light on how we perceive reality.

11th March 2013

Book Details

Year: 2012

Categories: Books


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4 star rating

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