VIP Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks (b. July 9, 1933 - August 30, 2015)

Oliver Sacks explored the neurology of drugs in both his life and work. In his autobiography Hallucinations, off the time he spent in the 1960s completing an internship in San Francisco and a residency in neurology at UCLA, Sacks wrote, “Neurochemistry was plainly in and so – dangerously, seductively, especially in California. . .were the drugs themselves.”

Starting in 1962, while living in Topanga Canyon, as he told Terry Gross on Fresh Air, "Someone offered me some pot, and I took it, and my hand seemed to retreat from me and get larger and larger, and become kind of a cosmic hand across the universe." He then asked to see the color indigo, something that had fascinated him since his youth, and "as if thrown by a paint brush a huge pear-shaped blob of the hue indigo appeared on the wall. It had kind of a numinous, luminous glow. This is the color of heaven, I thought, or the one that Giotto tried to get all of his life. All this went through my mind in 4 or 5 seconds and then the blob disappeared, leaving....I think music can take one to the heights in a way comparable to drugs, but I think indigo was my favorite hallucination."

He added, "The medicalization of hallucinations only occurred in the 19th century, and people became secretive about them and ashamed, and afraid to be discussed." He spoke about bereavement as one of the triggering events for hallucinations, and said that they can help with the mourning process. An auditory hallucination he had after injuring himself while mountain climbing possibly saved his life by insisting he push on intstead of resting. "It was sort of a life voice, and it was not to be disobeyed," he said.

A speed binge brought out the writer in him and he said that his use of LSD may have helped develop empathy. He did regret, however, taking such high, risky doses.

In 1966 Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital where his treatment of patients with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa made them subjects of his second book, Awakenings (1973), which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter and the Oscar-nominated Hollywood movie, "Awakenings," with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he describes patients struggling to live with conditions ranging from Tourette's Syndrome to autism, parkinsonism, musical hallucination, phantom limb syndrome, schizophrenia, retardation and Alzheimer's disease. Among the many awards he received in his lifetime was the "Music has Power" award by the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function for his "outstanding contributions in support of music therapy and the effect of music on the human brain and mind."

In An Anthropologist on Mars, while describing a person’s loss of size/space perception, Sacks wrote in a footnote: "A personal experience, the first time I used marijuana comes to mind here: gazing at my hand, seen against a blank wall. It seemed to rush away from me, while maintaining that apparent size, until it appeared like a vast hand, a cosmic hand, across parsecs of space. Probably this illusion was made possible by, among other things, the absence of markers or context to indicate actual size and distance, and perhaps some disturbance of body image and central processing of vision."

A question from Elizabeth Lucas of The Michigan Daily in 1996 about the statement, elicited the following:

"Did I say that?" Sacks inquired, laughing sheepishly, when questioned about this footnote. "Well, with a migraine, you can have something called cinematic vision. You see a series of stills. Had I not experienced that myself, I would be yet unable to understand it. And, yes, I sort of took drugs -- I think that was very much more recreational. But I think there's a spin-off there, in that you are introduced to other sorts of minds and other forms of consciousness."

A lengthy profile of Sacks by Steve Silberman of says,

"At Montefiore, Sacks saw more than 1,000 patients with migraine. Their symptoms fascinated him: They reported disturbances of speech, hearing, taste, touch, and vision, often seeing geometrical 'auras' just before the onset of an attack, which reminded Sacks of both the mystical visions of Hildegard of Bingen and his own experiences with LSD in California."

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