A Neurologist On Drugs

David Wallace-Wells profiles Oliver Sacks, author of the new book Hallucinations:

The drug memoir buried inside the book is eye-opening for anyone who knows the genial picture he’s cultivated for himself as a terminal wallflower. “I started with cannabis,” he writes, then moved on to LSD, morning-glory seeds, and a synthetic belladonna-like drug his friends from Muscle Beach recommended called Artane. “Just take twenty of them—you’ll still be in partial control,” they told him, and he did, then hallucinated so fully a visit from two friends that he cooked them an egg breakfast. When he realized his mistake, he ate all three plates, then heard his parents descending in a helicopter.

“The only time I feel free and happy is when I’m writing,” he tells me, using the present tense and speaking of the ferment of his life in the sixties as though it were the very recent past. “The idle times are dangerous for me. If I don’t take drugs, I brood or I lie in bed, or I eat too much,” he says. “I think Sherlock Holmes was very similar. When he wasn’t hot on the case, he would shoot up cocaine.”

In an interview with Mia Lipman, Sacks talked about the other hallucinatory conditions he writes about in the book, including Charles Bonnet syndrome:

I see lots of elderly people who are hearing impaired or visually impaired but quite articulate and intact intellectually. In general, the hearing impaired get musical hallucinations and, even more commonly, the visually impaired can get visual hallucinations of a complex and dramatic character. These were described in the middle of the 18th century by a Swiss naturalist, Charles Bonnet, and we speak now of Charles Bonnet syndrome. It used to be regarded—when I say "used to," I mean until 1990—as very rare, with only a few dozen cases reported. But it's now obvious that it affects between 10 and 20 percent of people with significant visual impairment. But like all hallucinatory experiences, people are frightened to mention it, and one may only get an account of it when there's a nice, trusting relationship between the patient and the doctor.

You can read a long excerpt from Sacks' new book here.