By Oliver Sacks

(Knopf, $26.95, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Oliver Sacks is a brainiac, in every sense of the word: he uses his own magnificent intelligence as a brilliant explorer of the human mind, in his work as a neurologist and educator and in his books. Dr. Sacks was born in London in 1933 and is a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, as well as Columbia’s first University Artist. He is the author of many books, including “Awakenings” (which became a movie), the wonderfully titled “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “Musicophilia.”

What is this book about?

Each night as I fall asleep, I hear – or seem to hear – snatches of conversation or music, as though I were quickly changing stations on the radio dial. They are fleeting and fascinating and gone in an instant. They are called hypnagogic hallucinations and are quite common — and, I am happy to say, not a sign of insanity.  Such phenomena are what Sacks writes about in “Hallucinations.”  He says they can arise from sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness, such as fevers, or injury. Migraine sufferers may see bright, wavering light patterns. Mourners may experience “visits” from the deceased. Some hallucinations take the form of religious ecstasy or out-of-body feelings. As we know, people seek out these experiences with the help of psychedelic drugs or religious trances. In his book, Sacks explains how and why the brain produces these weird and sometime wonderful, sometimes terrifying, effects.

Why you’ll like it:

Sacks has the rare and enviable ability to make complex scientific research accessible to the ordinary reader. He tells personal anecdotes, relates the experiences of real people, makes brilliant comparisons and writes with sympathy and humor: a blend that makes the most difficult concepts understandable. Here is what he told an interviewer who asked about the connections he makes between hallucinations and literature:

“Since you mention novels, there’s a wonderful description of a hallucination in “Great Expectations.” I’d read that when I was about 15, and only when I was writing [Hallucinations] did I suddenly remember that amazing scene when Pip sees Miss Havisham hanging. Dickens is full of wonderful clinical descriptions: the fat boy in “The Pickwick Papers” who’s always falling asleep—I mean, we now call that Pickwick syndrome. And a novelist has to be a good clinical observer, as well as everything else. But I would also say that a physician should have something of a novelist in him, although it will be a nonfiction novel.”

What others are saying:

“Sacks’ best-selling nonfiction stories based on his practice of clinical neurology constitute one shining reason for thinking that we’re living in a golden age of medical writing… Sacks defines the best of medical writing,” says Booklist.    

Library Journal says: “Hallucinations don’t belong wholly to the insane. Illness or injury, intoxication or sensory deprivation, or simply falling sleeping can cause anyone to see (or hear, or smell, or sense) swirly, twirly things that aren’t there. Everyone’s favorite neurologist is back to explain types of hallucinations, what they tell us about the brain’s workings, and how they have influenced art and culture. Who knew medicine could be so much fun.”

From Barnes & Noble: Neurologist Oliver Sacks… became a bestseller author with his accessible, personal, yet cutting-edge insights into how our minds work. Those talents shine luminously in his new release. His subject is a topic that no ER worker or moviegoer can ignore: our mind’s uncanny ability to see things that aren’t there. As Dr. Sacks notes, hallucinations arrive in nearly innumerable varieties and can be sparked by a myriad of causes: physical or emotional exhaustion, mental illness, sensory deprivation, intoxication, epilepsy, failing eyesight, migraines; perhaps even grief…. A most entertaining education.

“We think of seeing—or hearing, smelling, touching or inchoately sensing—things that aren’t there as a classic sign of madness, but it’s really a human commonplace, according to Sacks’s latest fascinating exploration of neuropsychiatric weirdness. …He also studies how people live with their hallucinations; some recognize them as just diverting figments while for others they constitute an inescapable unreality as malevolent and terrifying as a horror movie. As always, Sacks approaches the topic as both a brain scientist and a humanist; he shows how hallucinations elucidate intricate neurological mechanisms—often they are the brain’s bizarre attempt to fill in for missing sensory input—and examines their imprint on folklore and culture. …Writing with his trademark mix of evocative description, probing curiosity, and warm empathy, Sacks once again draws back the curtain on the mind’s improbable workings,” says Publishers Weekly.

When is it available?

I may be hallucinating, but it should be at the Downtown Hartford Public Library now.

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