World Science Festival: Hallucinations with Oliver Sacks
Just around the corner from the head shops that line St. Marks Place, the Cooper Union still houses the very stage where the likes of Lincoln, Mark Twain, the leader of the Lakota Sioux, and Susan B. Anthony spoke to presumably packed houses about the most vital issues of their day. Peter Cooper envisioned a place where ideas and concerns could be discussed openly and without censorship. Cooper’s ingenuity is likewise evidenced in the physical building: he designed the first elevator shaft—cylindrical, assuming that would be more efficient—years before the invention of the elevator itself. It’s enough to make 1859 seem like the very pinnacle of innovation and open-minded discourse.
Fast-forward over 150 years to early November, where on a Friday night in New York City, some of the most interesting—and interested—minds were gathered together in that same Great Hall, to ponder the origins, purposes, and implications of hallucinating, guided by famed neurologist and storyteller Oliver Sacks.
NPR’s John Hockenberry opened the evening with great candor by sharing an account of a terrible car accident that occurred in his early 20’s. He’d had a hallucination of his own in the wreckage of that car—a vivid out of body experience—and has been wheelchair bound ever since. It was pure coincidence that Mr. Hockenberry, who hosted the evening’s proceedings, had such a personal connection to the subject matter, underscoring what we sometimes forget: our experiences and stories connect us to one another, and breathe life into facts and figures that might otherwise remain distant.
Dr. Sacks had some stories of his own. His early experiences with visual migraines first piqued his interest in the phenomena of non-psychotic hallucination. Though careful to note that he is not a proponent of unbridled psychotropic drug use, his experiments were not exactly works of unbiased lab research. Sachs spoke wryly of the “pharmacological launch pad” he constructed for the express purpose of finding the true color indigo. (This wasn’t completely random, but rather inspired by a glut of color spectrum research at the time.) He found success, if fleeting, at finding indigo in its vivid purity in his altered state. And he found it only one other time since: under the sole influence of some music and art. As a visual artist myself, I was particularly struck by this. First, that Sacks was so motivated to create a deeply meaningful and personal experience of a color, and second that his only non-medicated experience of equivalent intensity was facilitated by the Metropolitan Museum. (Command of that sort of artistic alchemy is something any artist would give their eyeteeth for.)
Sacks was compelled to follow his hunches into uncharted territory; a necessary risk when driven to make connections where none previously existed. The romantic idea of an hallucination revealing something profound to us is very seductive. But perhaps the real alchemy was there in the room with us that evening. We might not always know why an idea first attracts our attentions, or when a synapse will fire and forge a revelatory connection. But the chances of that happening are amplified by generosity, both from storytellers and audience, gathered in a room together to discuss a mysterious facet of the human condition. As I looked around the Great Hall, its history more palpable than most, I was pleased to see Brain Greene in the audience along side a surprising number of students. There was no need to hallucinate the ghost of Lincoln. Rather, there was Neil deGrasse Tyson, standing in line, waiting his turn at the microphone when Hockenberry turned to the audience for questions.
In the first installment of the World Science Festival’s series, Science & Story, famed neurologist Oliver Sacks joined award-winning journalist John Hockenberry to discuss Sacks’ latest book, which explores the surreal world of hallucinations.