Hallucinations

Oliver W. Sacks, Author
Oliver Sacks. Knopf, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-307-95724-5
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We think of seeing—or hearing, smelling, touching or inchoately sensing—things that aren’t there as a classic sign of madness, but it’s really a human commonplace, according to Sacks’s latest fascinating exploration of neuropsychiatric weirdness. Acclaimed neurologist Sacks (The Mind’s Eye) investigates a wide range of hallucinations, from the geometric zigzags of some migraines and the painful cramps of phantom limbs to florid multicharacter melodramas, grotesque phantasms, and mystic trances induced by brain disorders and drugs. He also studies how people live with their hallucinations; some recognize them as just diverting figments while for others they constitute an inescapable unreality as malevolent and terrifying as a horror movie. (Sacks amply recounts his own entertaining hallucinations, including a drug-induced encounter with a spider who talked to him about Bertrand Russell.) As always, Sacks approaches the topic as both a brain scientist and a humanist; he shows how hallucinations elucidate intricate neurological mechanisms—often they are the brain’s bizarre attempt to fill in for missing sensory input—and examines their imprint on folklore and culture. (Dostoyevski’s fiction, he theorizes, is marked by the ecstatic religious trances induced by his epilepsy.) Writing with his trademark mix of evocative description, probing curiosity, and warm empathy, Sacks once again draws back the curtain on the mind’s improbable workings. Agent: The Wylie Agency. (Nov. 6)
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