Why Oliver Sacks is One of the Great Modern Adventurers

The neurologist’s latest investigations of the mind explore the mystery of hallucinations – including his own

Dr. Oliver Sacks dives deep into the brain to find the greatest adventures. (Leonardo Cendamo)
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It’s easy to get the wrong impression about Dr. Oliver Sacks. It certainly is if all you do is look at the author photos on the succession of brainy best-selling neurology books he’s written since Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat made him famous. Cumulatively, they give the impression of a warm, fuzzy, virtually cherubic fellow at home in comfy-couched consultation rooms. A kind of fusion of Freud and Yoda. And indeed that’s how he looked when I spoke with him recently, in his comfy-couched consultation room.

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But Oliver Sacks is one of the great modern adventurers, a daring explorer of a different sort of unmapped territory than braved by Columbus or Lewis and Clark. He has gone to the limits of the physical globe, almost losing his life as darkness fell on a frozen Arctic mountainside. He’s sailed fragile craft to the remotest Pacific isles and trekked through the jungles of Oaxaca. He even lived through San Francisco in the 1960s.

But to me, the most fearless and adventuresome aspect of his long life (he’s nearing 80) has been his courageous expeditions into the darkest interiors of the human skull—his willingness to risk losing his mind to find out more about what goes on inside ours.

I have a feeling this word has not yet been applied to him, but Oliver Sacks is a genuine badass, and a reading of his new book, Hallucinations, cements that impression. He wades in and contends with the weightiest questions about the brain, its functions and its extremely scary anomalies. He is, in his search for what can be learned about the “normal” by taking it to the extreme, turning the volume up to 11, as much Dr. Hunter Thompson as Dr. Sigmund Freud: a gonzo neurologist.

You get a sense of this Dr. Sacks when you look around the anteroom to his office and see a photo of the young doctor lifting a 600-pound barbell at a weight-lifting competition. Six hundred pounds! It’s more consonant with the Other Side of Dr. Sacks, the motorcyclist who self-administered serious doses of psychedelic drugs to investigate the mind.

And though his public demeanor reflects a very proper British neurologist, he’s not afraid to venture into some wild uncharted territory.

At some point early in our conversation in his genteel Greenwich Village office I asked Sacks about the weight-lifting picture. “I wasn’t a 98-pound weakling,” he says of his youth in London, where both his parents were doctors. “But I was a soft fatty...and I joined a club, a Jewish sports club in London called the Maccabi, and I was very affected. I remember going in and seeing a barbell loaded up with some improbable amount, and I didn’t see anyone around who looked capable of touching it. And then a little grizzled old man came in who I thought was the janitor, stationed himself in front of it and did a flawless snatch, squat-snatch, which requires exquisite balance. This was my friend Benny who’d been in the Olympic Games twice. I was really inspired by him.”

It takes a strong man of another kind for the other kind of heavy lifting he does. Mental lifting, moral uplifting. Bearing on his shoulders, metaphorically, the heavyweight dilemmas of a neurologist confronted by extraordinary dysfunctional, disorderly, paradoxical brain syndromes, including his own. In part, he says, that’s why he wrote this new book, this “anthology,” as he calls it, of strange internal and external hallucinations: as a way of comforting those who might only think of them as lonely, scary afflictions. “In general people are afraid to acknowledge hallucinations,” he told me, “because they immediately see them as a sign of something awful happening to the brain, whereas in most cases they’re not. And so I think my book is partly to describe the rich phenomenology and it’s partly to defuse the subject a bit.”

He describes the book as a kind of natural scientist’s typology of hallucinations, including “Charles Bonnet syndrome,” where people with deteriorating vision experience complex visual hallucinations (in one case, this involved “observing” multitudes of people in Eastern dress); blind people who don’t know—deny—they’re blind; hallucinations of voices, of the presence of God; tactile hallucinations (every one of the five senses is vulnerable); his own migraine hallucinations; and, of course, hallucinations engendered by hallucinogens.

What makes this book so Sacksian is that it is pervaded with a sense of paradox—hallucinations as afflictions and as perverse gifts of a sort, magic shows of the mind. This should not be surprising since as a young neurologist, Sacks became famous for a life-changing paradoxical experience that would have staggered an ordinary man.


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