Monday, October 1, 2012

Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks

With ten books to his name, including the bestselling case histories Awakenings, An Anthropologist On Mars, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks is America's favorite neurologist.  (That's right.  America has a favorite neurologist, and it's this guy.)  
Naturally, his upcoming Hallucinations (November 2012) is all set for a spot on the bestseller lists.  Like Sacks's previous works, Hallucinations is a wandering history of the title topic that incorporates anecdotes from the author's life as well as accounts from his practice.  Chapter One, for example, fashions a memorable character from little known 18th century naturalist Charles Bonnet, whose name describes a condition that Sacks once observed in an elderly patient.

Hallucinations stands out from other works of its kind because it considers the hallucinatory state in strictly non-pathological terms.  Sack's subjects are not unstable, schizophrenic, or particularly drug-addled (despite an entertaining chapter devoted to psychedelics and delirium tremens).  They are students, grandparents, and other people whose unique biology or circumstances enhance an hallucinatory faculty that Saks believes is a distinct facet of the human condition.  He supplements his research with the cases of correspondents like Molly Birnbaum, who appeared at PSB on August 16th to discuss her book, Season to TasteBirnbaum lost her sense of smell following an automobile accident and experienced some olfactory hallucinations as a result of nervous system trauma.  However, as Sacks points out repeatedly, admitting such experiences can be very difficult for those without a ready explanation for them.  The neurologist's detailed recollections of his own hallucinations seem almost designed to reinforce the idea that ordinary people do occasionally exhibit symptoms that have long been considered hallmarks of insanity.

The book is full of good trivia, even if much of it is lifted straight from the author's previous works. Its attempt to remove the stigma from certain neurological phenomena is heavy-handed, but balanced by a subtle sense of humor and remarkable sensitivity that kept me turning the pages. If anything, I might have liked to hear a little more about pathological manifestations, but, as Sacks says in the forward, they are not within the scope of his project.

Hallucinations will be available on November 6, 2012

Kim Prosise

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