When Oliver Sacks got stoned on Artane as a young doctor, he had an animated conversation with a philosophical spider who sounded like Bertrand Russell.
A drug cocktail containing LSD gave him a rapturous experience of indigo — the color of heaven.
As a neurologist, Sacks was fascinated by these altered states, and his latest work, Hallucinations, takes a closer look at how the brain manifests something that’s not there.
The author of a dozen books, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, Sacks at 79 still sees some patients, teaches and writes.
We spoke in his Greenwich Village studio, among Bach scores, personal photographs and scientific specimens. Q. What is a hallucination?
A hallucination is a sudden detailed specific sensation — a sight, a sound, a smell or touch — which is projected outside and seems absolutely real. The fact is there is no object there.
It seems so real and out there because the areas of the brain which are normally employed in perception are being redeployed for hallucination.
Q. Why do we stigmatize it?
Since the 1830s hallucination has had a strong medical connotation. In the medical and public eye it’s often seen as synonymous with schizophrenia, perhaps with dementia or brain damage, but something rather bad.
Q. I was surprised by the results of that clever study On Being Sane in Insane Places. Merely saying they had heard voices was enough to get normal people institutionalized and medicated.
I love the way they were spotted only by the real patients, who kept asking if they were journalists or professors.
Q. You tell the story of an athlete who felt he’d been abducted by aliens traveling in a large craft with bright lights.
We had an alien craze for a while but it seems to have died down. Are hallucinations faddish?
Culture and personal life will influence the hallucinations. Aliens have gone out a bit but maybe angels are back.
Q. I recall the controversy stirred up by Harvard Medical School professor John Mack when he started studying alien abductions.
Actually, I’ve been outraged by another Harvard man — Eben Alexander, the neurosurgeon who says he’s traveled to the afterlife in heaven while in a deep coma.
To argue that the nervous system is not needed in such an experience, that he’s not mediating it, rather that it’s infused directly into the spirit by the spirit is anti-scientific and specious.
I feel there is a disrespect of nature and the nervous system. For me there can be no experience without the brain. That is so fundamental.
Q. You say hallucinations have always played a role in religion and that many beliefs originated in hallucination.
Certainly voices and visions were expected from religious leaders, from the burning bush to Joseph Smith.
In fact I’m writing an essay trying to define more clearly some of my thoughts about religion and hallucination. I’ve called it for the moment “Seeing God in the Third Millennium.”
Q. What response did you get to the New Yorker piece describing your mind-altering experiences with drugs?
It hasn’t upset people as much as I thought. It has interested many people. Quite specifically, I had a large number of letters, to say nothing of books and CDs, about indigo.
Q. Do you have a favorite hallucinogen?
I haven’t taken anything for years. I actually preferred mescaline to LSD because I found it more richly perceptual and less prone to mess the mind up.
Taking mescaline in a physically lovely place can be revelatory of the beauty of the world.
Q. What do you make of the war on drugs?
It was unfortunate not least because this had the side effect of stopping all genuine research.
I certainly think people should take these things, if they take them, in a responsible way, which I did not.
On the other hand, let me say strongly that amphetamines are terribly dangerous and terribly easy to make. These should somehow be reined in. They’re more dangerous than morphine or cocaine.
Q. Reading your books makes me feel that it’s amazing people are as sane as they are — we’re so delicately balanced and so much can go wrong.
Doris Lessing said that after she read Awakenings — that it shows what a knife-edge we live on.
It’s true anything can happen at any moment, but we’re on a fairly broad base and fairly resilient.