by Oliver W. Sacks

Hardcover, 2012




New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2012.


An investigation into the types, physiological sources, and cultural resonances of hallucinations traces everything from the disorientations of sleep and intoxication to the manifestations of injury and illness.

Media reviews

"Why Kermit?" This was the question asked by a woman who started to have hallucinations of the "Sesame Street" frog many times a day, several weeks after brain surgery. Kermit meant nothing to her, she said, and his shifting moods -- sometimes he looked sad, sometimes happy, occasionally angry -- had nothing to do with her own feelings.

User reviews

LibraryThing member bragan
Neurologist Oliver Sacks turns his attention to the topic of people who see (or hear, or, occasionally, smell or feel) things that aren't actually there. There's a little bit of overlap here with some of his earlier books, but I'd say there's more than enough that's new to make it worthwhile even if you've read everything else he's written. It's not an exhaustive look at the topic of hallucinations, because he doesn't really get into hallucinations that come with psychosis, such as schizophrenia -- a topic that seems like it could well fill another whole book by itself. He talks about a huge variety of other things that can cause hallucinations, though. Indeed, I had no idea there were so many things that could cause hallucinations! There's blindness (total or partial) or sensory deprivation, which can lead to the brain inventing images to fill the nothingness. There's drugs such as LSD, of course. And a number of diseases, including some I never would have associated with hallucinations. Migraines, which often come with visual auras, but can sometimes get even weirder. Fever delirium. Brain damage. Perfectly ordinary brains getting confused on waking up or falling asleep. And lets not forget phantom limbs...

As usual with Sack's books, there are a lot of fascinating descriptions of things his patients and others have experienced, intermixed with some layman's-level explanations about what's going on in the brain when this stuff happens, at least as far as it's actually understood. There are also some relevant accounts of the author's own personal experience; among other things, Sacks took a surprising amount of drugs back in the 60s. In the end, also as usual, I'm left with a bemused appreciation of how incredibly complex our brains are and just how deeply weird things can get when they go a bit wrong. I also keep expecting to start hallucinating myself any moment, but hopefully that will pass.
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LibraryThing member bell7
In his newest book Oliver Sacks, a practicing physician known for such books as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia, turns his attention to hallucinations. While in popular culture we tend to think of hallucinations as being psychoses and in the realm of insanity, he focuses primarily on the sort of neurological disorders that sane people have. In fact, hallucinations may not be as odd as we think - haven't we all felt like there was someone behind us, or heard our name even when no one was around?

Primarily organized around types of hallucinations - visual, aural, parkinsonian, phantom limbs, etc. - the book is a fascinating blend of history and case study. Perhaps I was most fascinated to discover the types of hallucinations that I've had, mostly as a child, when I was in that state between sleep and wakefulness and "saw" someone by my bed or in my room. There are other, less common, hallucinations explored, too, and I really enjoyed when he brought up the results of fMRI scans done during hallucinations. The connections between what one experiences and what goes on the brain intrigues me, and I'll definitely be looking to read some of Sacks' earlier works.
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LibraryThing member Beamis12
All the ways people can experience hallucinations. One of the most interesting cases was for me the first one. a blind woman who was experiencing hallucinations, but turned out to actually have a disease that caused this. Also the history behind the various facets of this phenomena. A little to dry and to many facts and figures. Tended to skip around a bit but some it was very interesting so I am glad I read this.… (more)
LibraryThing member JerryColonna
Fascinating as most of Sack's material is. A little to dry.
LibraryThing member neurodrew
Oliver Sacks
Sunday, March 3, 2013 11:04 AM
Hallucinations can be produced in several ways in the brain. Oliver Sacks is interested in what people report seeing, hearing or feeling during these experiences. His first exploration is of Charles Bonnet syndrome, the visual hallucinations experienced by the blind, sometimes by the cortically blind. Charles Bonnet was a Swiss naturalist, with failing eyesight, and on learning that a blind relative had visual hallucinations he asked for a full account, and the publication resulted in the eponym. These hallucinations are often fantatasical, ornate, and elaborate. Auditory hallucinations, even fake ones, can get you hospitalized as a psychiatry patient. Sacks mentions Julian Jane’s idea of voices from the right hemisphere, thought to be the God’s speaking until about 1000 BC. Drug-induced fantasies involve many senses; it was interesting to read that S. Weir Mitchell (“Father of American Neurology”) wrote an account of experiences with peyote. It was also revealing to be told that Oliver Sacks had extensive experience with hallucinogens and other drugs during his residency training. The experiences of temporal lobe seizures are manifold. Ecstatic visions during temporal lobe seizures are uncommon, but religious themes are not. In very rare cases, individuals will act on the commands heard or seen during a seizure. Delirium is a common source of dreams, visions, and sometimes the experience leads to a life-long obsession. Pirandesi, an Italian artist contracted a malarial fever, saw elaborate visions of underground spaces, and elaborated on them in drawings for many years. Hallucinations accompany sleep paralysis, and the experience of being unable to move or breath may have engendered the name “nightmare”: the “mare” or old woman, visits people in their dreams, suffocating them. The sense of “someone there” can overtake epileptics and occur in many other forms of hallucinations, and may lead to the sense that many people have of the presence of God. I read this book eagerly, recognizing many of the symptoms in my own neurological patients. I think it is Oliver Sacks best and least literary book since “Migraine”.… (more)
LibraryThing member St.CroixSue
Using fascinating case histories, personal experience with drugs, and stories from other cultures, Sacks tells us about the organization and structure of our brains by describing visual, auditory, and olfactory hallucinations and visions produced by illness, fevers, sleep deprivation, drugs, grief, trauma and exhaustion.
LibraryThing member TheWasp
A fascinating insight into the experiences and causes of hallucinations in people who are not suffering from schizophrenia or other similar illnesses. This includes hallucinations that are seen, heard or smelt and are often triggered by trauma, grief or stress, or are chemically induced. It is amazing how the brain can provide a substitute reality when our senses are altered, such as in blindness, or the loss of a limb.
I found this book very easy to read as well as highly informative.
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LibraryThing member Scrabblenut
I found the descriptions of hallucinations to be repetitive and boring, which caused me to skip through the book and read some interesting bits. I would have hoped for more science and less description of hallucinations, which while fascinating to those experiencing them, are less fascinating to the rest of us.
LibraryThing member RabbitHoller
Sachs is always mindful of our souls, anything he writes about can touch the reader in a personal way. When I finished Hallucinations, some philosophical questions remained unanswered. The variety of experiences described, however, is wonderful. Doubles of oneself appear, always in mirror image; phantom limbs can be trained to behave, and Jesus really saves. Much of the book consists of quoted reports by patients and others, so by the end the question of personality is addressed indirectly. Some people react with fear, others with joy. Many report amusement, some have too much of a good thing. Which came first, the attitude or the feeling? I'm glad Sacks doesn't hypothesize about this, but respects each individual, and leaves doubts hanging, as doubt must do.… (more)
LibraryThing member Darcia
Many people think hallucinations only happen to people with schizophrenia and other psychological disorders. In truth, hallucinations occur in 'healthy' minds, as well. With this book, Oliver Sacks provides data on diseases that can cause hallucinations, such as Parkinson's and migraines. He also talks about a variety of other causes, such as sleep deprivation and medications. Through it all, he shares anecdotes from history, his patients, and his own life.

I found the subject fascinating. Sacks, a neurologist, has spent much of his life researching the mind and, in these pages, he shares some of what he has learned along the way. The language used is easy to understand. Medical terms are clarified and explained. The average person should have no problem reading this.

While I did find the examples interesting, after a while it all became a bit repetitive. Information was often repeated in various chapters. And the book didn't have much of a conclusion. Despite that, I'd recommend the book to everyone. What you'll learn is well worth the time you'll spend reading.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
This book is a one beat drummer. When you first read it you think this is fascinating but then by chapter nine or ten if feels like you have read it all before. Dr. Sacks gives hundreds of examples of hallucinations and he divides them up based on their causes like loss of eyesight, sensory deprivation and brain injury for example. His sources include, himself, his patients, people who have written to him and other people experiences that he has read about. But the hallucinations start to sound the same and so after initial excitement my interest tailed off. Perhaps if I or my immediate family suffered from this I would have had a more sustained interest..… (more)
LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
There were some interesting anecdotes about people's experiences with hallucinations, but overall the book didn't grab my attention in the same way as I recall [book:The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales|63697] doing when I read that, many years ago. There were a few too many personal anecdotes in it, for one thing. It almost felt as though he wrote the book so that he could detail his own experiences. I'm probably being unfair, but that was the impression I was left with.… (more)
LibraryThing member Judy_AA
Hallucinations is a fascinating book but is the first of Sacks' works to, in my humble opinion, overstep scientific bounds. Hallucinations are tricky things and to lay out a history of hallucination by disorder based in large part on completely anecdotal evidence grates my skeptic's soul. At one point he even describes the hallucination of loved ones after death as a normal "neurological response to grief" but then fails to tie this to any empirical data. Or I was hallucinating at that point.

His chapters on hallucination as a consequence of illness, prescription side-effects, sensory deprivation, sleep paralysis and grief are very interesting. Chapters on hallucinations as caused by psychedelic drugs are much less interesting, almost self-serving. Pages and pages of descriptions of trips that all sound like Jefferson Airplane lyrics are for the most part, only of interest to the author.

Still, the book is well worth reading if you have an avid interest in neurosciences (Sacks assumes the reader has a working knowledge of the main parts of the brain and their functions and does not slow down for expositions in this area) and if you are fascinated by the blurry line between reality and dreams and dreams and hallucinations.
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LibraryThing member msbaba
Hallucinations is a fascinating and eminently readable neurological parade covering all varieties of hallucinations. Dr. Sacks calls it a “natural history or anthology of hallucinations,” a perfectly apt description.

It turns out that hallucinations are not that uncommon. In fact, I’d guess that most readers drawn to these pages will find themselves exclaiming at one point or another, “Yeah, that’s happened to me, too!” But don’t get me wrong; this book is not filled with the commonplace. On the contrary, anyone who loves reading Oliver Sacks knows that his books are filled with extraordinary and totally off-the-wall case histories. This book does not disappoint…at times it is jaw-dropping surreal.

The work is divided into an introduction and fifteen chapters. Each chapter covers a different broad category of hallucination and each category is based on a specific neurological disorder or cognitive deficit. Sacks believes that the only way to understand hallucinations is to read about the first-hand experiences of those that suffer from them. Thus, the book is made up almost entirely of first-hand accounts. Whenever possible, Dr. Sacks follows each individual case description with information about the impact these hallucinations have had on that person’s life. Perhaps one third of these first hand examples come from Sacks’ professional clinical case studies. Another approximate fifteen percent or more comes from Dr. Sacks’ own unique personal experience (i.e., his experiences having hallucinations due to his migraine disorder or from experimenting with a large variety of hallucinogenic drugs and other substances when he was a young man). The balance comes from general historical or medical primary source materials. The book is the result of not only extensive medical research, but also a great deal of in-depth cultural and historical research. Many of the cases concern famous writers, composers and other luminaries from the last few centuries. Almost every page has footnotes, and there is a large bibliography at the end.

I cannot honestly complete a review of this fine book without mentioning that it can become overwhelmingly bizarre and, at times, even tedious. Reading again and again about the details of each person’s outlandish, weird, and freaky hallucinations can become…well, boring. It reminded me of the many times in my life when I’ve been cornered by a friend or colleague who just had to tell me the details about some wacky dream that had occurred the night before. Such descriptions can be entertaining at first, but after a while, it just gets so weird, you find your brain rebelling and turning off…it is as if your mind takes control and says, “this is so bizarre I’m just not going to try to comprehend or visualize this stuff for you any more,”…and then it shuts off. Unfortunately, that is how I felt many times as I read this anthology. I was totally fascinated and then after much repetition of similar bizarre accounts, my mind kept shutting off and I found myself getting sleepy. As a result, I recommend reading this book in small bits and pieces over a week or two. Anthologies are not designed to be read in a single sitting.

Despite this caveat, I recommend this book. I’ve read most of Dr. Sacks’ books. For me, this was not as good as some of his other books. However, it meticulously covers the subject. If I was less than totally enthralled at any time, I believe it was because the unique nature of the subject matter and the fact that it was an anthology and not meant to be read quickly. So, read it slowly. Enjoy it a little at a time. It will change your attitude about this marvelous and fairly common phenomenon.
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LibraryThing member lauriebrown54
The most people think of hallucinations as things on people suffering from a psychosis have, it looks like the majority of hallucinations aren’t caused by psychosis at all. There are all sorts of hallucinations that arise from all sorts of disorders, including migraine, Parkinson’s, sensory deprivation (including loss of sight for whatever reason), and falling asleep and waking up- this last type can be terrifying.

The book starts with one disorder, Charles Bonnet Syndrome, which sometimes occurs in people who have lost their sight. Suddenly, they will begin to see again- except they are the only people who can see the things. Once told that the people (or whatever) are not real and that there is nothing wrong with them, some patients actually find the illusions interesting and amusing and even miss them when the hallucinations abate.

Those things we ‘see’ in the dark as we’re falling asleep are hypnagogic hallucinations; they usually have no emotional impact. Hypnopompic hallucinations and sleep paralysis, however, can be terrifying. Occuring as the person wakes, these hallucinations happen with they eyes open and are projected into the external environment and seem real- the monster is in your bedroom. Add sleep paralysis, where the mind is awake but the body hasn’t gotten the message yet, and you can’t fight or escape from the monster, dubbed in the past as the Hag or the Night Mare.

Told in Sacks’ usual amusing but informative style, this book is rich in detail but easily understandable by the person with no neurological knowledge. In this book, Sacks tells us something of his own history with hallucinations due to drug use in the 60s. One doesn’t expect this sort of openness in a medical book and I found it amusing as well as instructional; he can look at the drugs from the point of view of both doctor and user, providing an unusual balance. As always with one of Sacks’ books, it’s not to be missed if you have an interest in the brain.
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LibraryThing member MarkBeronte
Have you ever seen something that wasn’t really there? Heard someone call your name in an empty house? Sensed someone following you and turned around to find nothing?

Hallucinations don’t belong wholly to the insane. Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness, or injury. People with migraines may see shimmering arcs of light or tiny, Lilliputian figures of animals and people. People with failing eyesight, paradoxically, may become immersed in a hallucinatory visual world. Hallucinations can be brought on by a simple fever or even the act of waking or falling asleep, when people have visions ranging from luminous blobs of color to beautifully detailed faces or terrifying ogres. Those who are bereaved may receive comforting “visits” from the departed. In some conditions, hallucinations can lead to religious epiphanies or even the feeling of leaving one’s own body.

Humans have always sought such life-changing visions, and for thousands of years have used hallucinogenic compounds to achieve them. As a young doctor in California in the 1960s, Oliver Sacks had both a personal and a professional interest in psychedelics. These, along with his early migraine experiences, launched a lifelong investigation into the varieties of hallucinatory experience.

Here, with his usual elegance, curiosity, and compassion, Dr. Sacks weaves together stories of his patients and of his own mind-altering experiences to illuminate what hallucinations tell us about the organization and structure of our brains, how they have influenced every culture’s folklore and art, and why the potential for hallucination is present in us all, a vital part of the human condition.
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LibraryThing member bobbieharv
He's lost his touch a bit - this was much drier than his earlier work. Most interesting and juicier chapter was, of course, the one about the effects of the prodigious quantities of drugs he took in his student days! Found myself skimming by the end; it was all quite repetitive.
LibraryThing member Y2Ash
I've been intrigued by Oliver Sacks when I first saw his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I still haven't read it yet but I will. The reason I read Hallucinations was because it was for one of my book clubs. Thank Goodness for that book club.

In Hallucinations, Dr. Sacks explains that hallucinations are not by-products of people inflicted with dementia and psychosis alone. The very sane and the very mentally stable can have them too. There are various ailments and disorders that can cause them such as Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS), Parkinson's, Narcolepsy. Also, certain drugs can cause altered states that can lead to hallucinations.

Sacks also went into the different types of hallucinations: visual, auditory, and tactile. Also, afflictions that really wouldn't be consider a hallucination, at least by me, like phantom limbs, migraines and certain sleep disorders. Infused within are brief history lessons about when was the first occurrence of the disorder or syndrome, etc.

Also, Sacks also gives personal insights like when he momentarily became addicted to drugs and had a very bad trip with hallucinations galore. It was funny. I really enjoyed this book and will definitely read more.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
I can only take Oliver Sacks in small doses. This book was ok, but it read as strung together case histories (drawn from letters from his extensive correspondence) rather than as a coherent whole. i was disappointed in Sacks' decision to write about hallucinations caused by brain damage, drugs or other physical conditions (such as blindness) only, and not consider hallucinations brought on by mental illness.… (more)
LibraryThing member Y2Ash
I've been intrigued by Oliver Sacks when I first saw his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I still haven't read it yet but I will. The reason I read Hallucinations was because it was for one of my book clubs. Thank Goodness for that book club.

In Hallucinations, Dr. Sacks explains that hallucinations are not by-products of people inflicted with dementia and psychosis alone. The very sane and the very mentally stable can have them too. There are various ailments and disorders that can cause them such as Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS), Parkinson's, Narcolepsy. Also, certain drugs can cause altered states that can lead to hallucinations.

Sacks also went into the different types of hallucinations: visual, auditory, and tactile. Also, afflictions that really wouldn't be consider a hallucination, at least by me, like phantom limbs, migraines and certain sleep disorders. Infused within are brief history lessons about when was the first occurrence of the disorder or syndrome, etc.

Also, Sacks also gives personal insights like when he momentarily became addicted to drugs and had a very bad trip with hallucinations galore. It was funny. I really enjoyed this book and will definitely read more.
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LibraryThing member TJWilson
Fascinating account of the wonders of the brain. Had no idea the brain could offer so much emotional and physical protection to the human body in the form of hallucinations. Also, very intrigued by Oliver Sacks's curiosity and found narratives. First book I've ever read Sacks's, and I will surely read more.
LibraryThing member ursula
Oliver Sacks is a neurologist who's written a number of other books that I haven't read. Through the course of Hallucinations, I was reminded that I hadn't read these other books, since from time to time he would mention a case and then follow up with "which I described in more detail in my book ____." I appreciate that he didn't want to retread ground that was covered elsewhere, but sometimes it felt a little like I was reading a bibliography, or listening to a series of movie trailers.

Aside from that, this was an interesting look at a large range of things that can be classified as hallucinations. You know how sometimes when you're laying in bed at night with your eyes closed and you'll start to see patterns? Mine are usually kind of like an optical illusion - they'll be a series of shapes that seem to be moving toward me or away from me. I didn't realize those are hallucinations, but they are. The ones we typically think of are covered, of course, including ones induced by drugs and hallucinations that involve each of our different senses. The occurrence of phantom limbs is talked about, and I thought this was one of the more fascinating sections. The relationship between what the eyes see and the brain knows is complicated, and although the brain has a long memory for things it hasn't seen in a while, it does eventually forget. This seems to be a cause for pain in a phantom limb or for feeling like a body part that has been immobile and invisible to you for a long time no longer belongs to you.

It wasn't extremely in depth about any particular type or cause of hallucinations, but instead provides a good overview. I stopped the audio a number of times to look up more information about occurrences he described just because some of them seemed too wild to be true, but of course they were true. What more can you really ask for in a book about hallucinations than to be entertained and left with a little wonder and head-shaking at the odd and amazing things that our brains can do?
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LibraryThing member melydia
More about hallucinations than you ever wanted to know. It starts out kind of neat, learning about the hallucinations brought on by sensory loss or drug use, but it gets very repetitive.
LibraryThing member ConnieJo
I've read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and this was along the same lines. Rather than being a series of case studies, this book looks at hallucinations topically. Different chapters cover scent hallucinations, hallucinations that occur during and around sleep, drug-induced hallucinations, phantom limbs, visual hallucinations in patients that have gone blind, have different types of brain injuries, different types and feelings for hallucinations, etc.

I loved the way the topics and chapters were organized. Sacks is also great at covering interesting topics and providing just enough of an explanation without getting too technical. And he uses cases to illustrate each topic and chapter, with accounts from different doctors and patients.

A very interesting book. I read it over the course of a few months, but it was always easy to pick back up and get into, since the chapters read like their own separate topics. I plan on reading Awakenings next.
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LibraryThing member kittyjay
I'll confess that this is the first Oliver Sacks book I have read, although I have seen his work mentioned all over and have always been intrigued. I was not disappointed with Hallucinations, an engaging book that covers hallucinations not caused by psychosis, such as seen in schizophrenia.

The hallucinations Sacks covers are diverse and cover an array of causes: from Charles Bonnet syndrome to sensory deprivation, from sleep paralysis to phantom limb syndrome. Together with a variety of historical sources and patient accounts, he has pulled together a book that covers everything but psychosis. Some hallucinations have roots inside the brain, such as the prelude to an epileptic seizure, while others come from more nebulous sources, like grief or trauma. He even delves into intentional hallucinations, the kind caused by taking psychadelic drugs, which he apparently has ample experience with.

Sacks writes fluidly and has a wry sense of humor that crops up every now and again; though he occasionally delves into decidedly more than "pop" neuropsychology, I never felt bored reading it.

Definitely interesting to those who are curious about the brain and its often strange workings.
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