Thursday, April 4, 2013

Book Review: Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

I should have listened to that voice in my head (maybe it was a hallucination) and started with Uncle Tungsten as my first book by Oliver Sacks, but chose Hallucinations because it just came out and I got it quickly from the library. My only previous exposure to Sacks was indirect, by watching the movie Awakenings when it came out I-don't-want-to-think-about-how-long ago. From frequent reference, I know he's a good writer, and I can see his technical skills and breadth of experience on display here. This is just so much not the book I should have started with. Color me nonplussed.

Hallucinations left me (mostly) flat because, despite its rigid organization into different chapters being types of hallucinations, it feels disorganized or perhaps overorganized, more often than not consisting of a list of well-described hallucinations with a little bit about the proximate medical or neurological cause. The writing is smooth and the scenes are set expertly, so I have a very clear understanding of what hallucinations must be like. That's something. Hallucinations themselves are so vivid that even so, it is an engaging book, but like hallucinations, there is no coherent narrative.

A few exceptions to this rule exist, especially when Sacks talks abut why he started to write in the manner he is famous for today, and a few other personal anecdotes. I wonder if the book would have worked better as a chronological memoir rather than a topical list.

But what really surprises me is how little Sacks puts these brain-images together to tell us anything about how the brain really works. It seems to me that many hallucinations have a "normal brain function" equivalent, such as how when you're in the lab running HPLC profiles all day, you walk home and the mountains look like HPLC profiles a bit (that might be just me but any repetitive perception seems to give an inertia to the brain, like still feeling the rocking of waves after leaving the ocean). Now, that's voluntary and imaginary, but it looks like the brain is doing the same thing when it hallucinates some types, just against your will (or knowledge). The same for how dreams reflect something of your recent (or distant) experience. So hallucinations tell us something important about perception itself, I'm sure of it. But I couldn't find anything about that (the philosophy of hallucinations?) in this book. The only reference to Wittgenstein is a throwaway more about his brother than him.

At least Sacks doesn't go directly at religion, although there's a whole separate book to be written here by a Barfieldian Christian who takes the vast variety and convincing, quasi-mystical nature of hallucinations seriously but also sees it as, possibly, part of a created order of perception as well. But instead we get the old story about how Joan of Arc may have been epileptic (yes, and ... ? Where in the rules does it say God can't use epilepsy?) and a tacked-on semi-patronizing paragraph about how this tells us nothing either way about the divine.

Sacks is clearly a gifted writer; this just was not the book for me to start on. I've got another Sacks book on hold and I also own Uncle Tungsten from a library sale, and you can't go wrong with an ode to how cool the periodic table is, so I'll give him more chances. I should've started with that last one, I know it ...

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