I’ve been a fan of Oliver Sacks for over 20 years, and I was eager to dive into his latest offering, Hallucinations. The experiences detailed in this book go beyond the holographic visuals that come to mind when we hear the word “hallucinations”; they include such things as disembodied voices, ghostly smells, dream states, and phantom limbs. As he did in earlier books, Sacks examines changes in the brain resulting from damage or deficit. Always the humanist (although he is a medical doctor, consulting neurologist, and NYU professor of neurology), Sacks looks beyond the damage and sees the person—and the amazing ways the mind compensates for, or adapts to, loss. There is often a delightful gee-whiz quality about Sacks’s observations. In this book, he states that he is examining physiological, not psychiatric, problems, but beyond that, he hesitates to put any subject in a diagnostic box; he observes, listens, encourages each subject to tell her story in detail without fear of judgment (especially important with peopled worried about being labelled insane).
That said, Hallucinations is more clinical than most of Sacks’s works. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars, for example, contained what were in effect case studies examined in order to shed light on remarkable adaptive or compensatory brain activity in severely brain-damaged or handicapped individuals. In Hallucinations, however, the case studies take a back seat to a survey of relevant research.