In asking some friends what book I should read next, while considering this work of Oliver Sacks,  a relative of mine urged me to read Hallucinations in the following statement:

I vote for HALLUCINATIONS! Pro tip: HALLUCINATIONS in real life suck. Don’t listen to people who say it depends on the situation/people/source of hallucination. They’re lying.

After reading the book I think she is generally right, though there are some hallucinatory experiences that were benign, pleasurable, or divine, but most occasions of the mind misfiring are horrifying. The hallucinations, meaning experiences of all kinds that are perceived as being real but actually only exist inside the perceivers head, reported by Sacks are generally disturbing if not downright terrifying. Consider for instance one example of a woman whose sense of taste was altered.

The changes were gradual at first . In September tomatoes and oranges started tasting metallic and a bit rotten, and cottage cheese tasted like sour milk. I tried different brands; they were all bad.

During October, lettuce began to smell and taste of turpentine, and spinach , apples, carrots and cauliflower tasted slightly rotten. Fish and meat, especially chicken, smelt as if they’d been rotting for a week. My partner couldn’t detect the off tastes at all. Was I developing some sort of food allergy? . . .

The change in her experience of taste and smell specifically came about after a hysterectomy operation that used general anesthesia. It is impossible to say what precisely altered her sensory experience but like many other cases of sensory deprivation provoking hallucinations (by tissue damage or other means) the anesthetic may have damaged her olfactory system such that the reduced sensitivity or absence of sensitivity was compensated for artificially by her brain, unfortunately the smells were misinterpreted and misperceived as generally bad.

Throughout the book stories like these were told. Some funny/pleasurable like the old woman shooing her children out of her room in the evening because she had a regular non-existent male visitor show up every night that gave her great pleasure. Most though were troubling or disturbing like the man who tried to get his doppelgänger self to wake up and get out of bed by jumping out a window, only to wake up in a hospital being treated for the wounds he received from his self-inflicted fall. Sacks also tells stories of his own drug use. Some were quite boring but other were interesting. I find it odd that in these kinds of hallucinations geometric shapes of all kinds are often what is ‘observed.’

The most interesting stories to me had to do with narcolepsy. Narcolepsy is the condition in which a person does not regulate their sleep cycles well. They can crash right into to deep REM sleep rapidly from their waking state. They can also crash right out of it as well. When this rapid transition of sleep states occurs some physiological changes associated with the waking state or the deep sleeping state seem to lag behind a person’s conscious awareness that they are suddenly awake.

An example that many people have experience to varying degrees is being awake but not being able to move—sleep paralysis. This is actually the experience from which the term ‘nightmare’ came from. Rather than the common usage today which simply means an unpleasant dream originally a night-mare described a deep an vivid sense of dread provoked by feeling awake but also literally trapped by some external force or being. I hyphenated night-mare to emphasize the ‘mare’ bit. The mare or mara (incubus or succubus) “is the agent form of the verb merran and literally means ‘a crusher.'” Let me share one example from the book:

“I had just lain down in bed, and after a few rounds of changing positions I ended up face down. Almost immediately I felt my body go more and more numb. I tried to ‘pull’ myself out of it, but I was already too deep into the paralysis. Then it was almost as if someone had sat down on my back, pressing me deeper into the mattress . . . the weight on my back got heavier and heavier, and I was still not able to move. [Then] the thing on my back got off and laid down next to me . . . I could feel it lying beside me, breathing.”

Numerous examples exist of people hallucinating some malevolent thing like a devil, an old hag, or any other supernatural being is actually crushing them, holding them down, and meaning them harm. These night-mares are experienced by neurotypical people as vivid and in every way as ‘real’ as a normal waking experience, even though they are in fact not real at all for any other outside observer. You don’t have to be mentally ill or high in order to hallucinate, and separating fact from mental fiction can be quite difficult to do.

I’ll share one more interesting story related to Sacks from a colleague that falls in line with the sleep paralysis experiences above. This involves a boy who had an angelic visitor appear at the foot of his bed.

“She introduced herself as his ‘guardian angel,’ speaking in a soft, gentle voice. The child was terrified, and turned on the light beside his bed, expecting the image to disappear. The woman remained suspended in the air, however, and he ran from the room, awakening his parents.

His parents framed the experience as a dream, trying to reassure the child. He was unconvinced, unable to make sense of the event. His family had no religious background, and he found the image of the angel alien. He began to experience a pervasive sense of dread and developed insomnia, fearful that he would awaken to find the woman again. His parents and teachers described him as agitated and distracted, and he increasingly withdrew from relationships with peers and activities. His parents called their pediatrician, who referred the child for psychiatric evaluations and psychotherapy.

The child had no prior history of problems in functioning, sleep disorder, or physical illness, and he appeared to be well-adjusted. He made effective use of therapeutic consultations, where he continued to … make sense of what had happened, coming to understand the event as a type of hallucination that commonly occurs following arousal from sleep.”

This is another example of a mentally healthy person experiencing a vivid, and in this case traumatic hallucination. It leaves me wondering about the importance of the belief system of the individual and how well the hallucinations correspond with the person’s beliefs. The ‘angel,’ unlike many other hallucinations described in the book, presented itself in a caring non-malevolent way to the boy. But because this new ‘reality’ did not correspond to his worldview it terrified him. I tend to think then that dissonance between belief and experience can induce terror, or at the very least discomfort. If this boy had been in a culture, or at least a home, wherein angelic messengers were readily believed and even expected or hoped for as guides for achieving one’s grand purpose in life the woman who visited him may have induced a sense of peace, ecstasy, or joy instead of fear and confusion. It may have provided him a divine revelation instead of emotional trauma.

All in all Hallucinations was fascinating, disturbing, and deeply interesting. I highly recommend it.


[1] Folklore: An Encyclopedia of Beliefs, Customs, Tales, Music, and Art, Volume 1
edited by Thomas A. Green,  page 588


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