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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The rarity of this altruism prompted me to ask Sacks whether he thought human nature was the best of all possible states or morally depraved.

“E.O. Wilson put this nicely,” Sacks says, “in his latest book when he feels that Darwinian selection has produced both the best and the worst of all possible natures in us.” In other words, the savage struggles of survival of the fittest, and at the same time, the evolutionary advantage conferred by cooperation and altruism that has become a recent subject of evolutionary psychology.

Yes, Sacks says, and our better natures “are constantly threatened by the bad things.”

“A world full of murder and genocide—is it our moral failing or a physio-chemical maladjustment?”

“Well, prior to either of those,” he says, “I would say it is population. There are too many people on this planet and some of the difficulties which Malthus [the economist who warned that overpopulation could lead to doom] wondered about in 1790—pertain, although it doesn’t seem to be so much about the limits of food supply as the limits of space and the amount of soiling, which includes radioactive waste and plastic, which we are producing. Plus religious fanaticism.”

The mysteries of religious experience—not just fanaticism but ecstati­cism, you might say—play an important part in the new hallucinations book. Yes, there are some astonishing magic shows. Sacks writes of an afternoon back in the ’60s when a couple he knew showed up at his house, had tea and a conversation with him, and then departed. The only thing is: They were never there. It was a totally convincing hallucination.

But it’s a different kind of “presence hallucination” he writes about that I found even more fascinating. The religious presence hallucination. It is often experienced by epilepsy sufferers before or during seizures—the impression of sudden access to cosmic, mystical, spiritual awareness of infinitude. Where does it come from? How does the mind invent something seemingly beyond the mind?

Sacks is skeptical of anything beyond the material.

“A bus conductor in London was punching tickets and suddenly felt he was in heaven and told all the passengers, who were happy for him. He was in a state of religious elation and became a passionate believer until another set of seizures ‘cleared his mind’ and he lost his belief.” And there’s a dark side to some of these “presence hallucinations” that are not always so tidily disposed of as with the bus driver.

“I think I mention this in the epilepsy chapter in the book—how one man had a so-called ecstatic seizure in which he heard Christ telling him to murder his wife and then kill himself. Not the best sort of epiphany. He did murder his wife and was stopped from stabbing himself.


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