Oliver Sacks is the legendary neurologist and New Yorker essayist whose books include the classic The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. His new book is Hallucinations. I interviewed him recently for KPFK-FM.
Jon Wiener: In your book Hallucinations you mention what you call your “long virginity” in experience with hallucinogenic drugs.
Oliver Sacks: I was afraid you’d get onto this. That was the last chapter I wrote, and I wasn’t sure whether it should be in the book or not. I think it probably should.
I think I was afraid [of hallucinogenic drugs] — or maybe not passionately interested. But when I became a neurology resident — I was 30 at the time — I was also part of the beach culture in Venice and Santa Monica. Everyone did drugs. And I thought, "Well, why not try?" but I was also full of curiosity because neurochemistry had come of age then, and there were all sorts of new ideas about neurotransmitters and the effects of L-DOPA and other drugs on the brain. So I broke my long virginity, first very gently, with cannabis, with some pot, and then I tried other things.
JW: Let’s start with that first joint you smoked. When and where did you do this, and how did it go?
OS: It was in 1963. I had moved from Santa Monica out to Topanga Canyon. I had a little house there. And I lit up and took a deep inhalation — and for some reason gazed at my hand. My hand seemed to get larger and larger, and at the same time more remote from me, so that finally it looked like a cosmic hand, spread across the whole universe. I found that very intriguing, and I was torn between the neurological concept of megalopia, when things look large, and a feeling that this was a sort of mystical experience of a primitive kind.
JW: Your expertise is in the neurological. How do you understand the visual experience you were having?
OS: Size and distance are normally coupled and, in a way, the image on my retina was normal. But as it were an improbable percept developed: that the hand could be much larger and much further away at the same time. But this sort of thing can happen with a fever or various neurological conditions — or sometimes the opposite, when things appear very small. But there must have been some sort of stimulation of something mystical as well, because it was an enchanting and awesome experience.
JW: You didn’t find it frightening?
OS: No, I didn’t find it frightening.
JW: When and how did you first come to take LSD?
OS: I think it was a few months after I smoked that joint. There was a lot of LSD around. In one of the early experiences I had with LSD, recklessly, I had mixed it with some other drugs and topped it off with some cannabis. I’d been reading about the color indigo, and was puzzled by the fact that no two people seemed to agree on what indigo was. Newton added indigo to the spectrum because he thought the spectrum ought to have seven colors, as the musical scale has seven notes.
Anyhow I got stoned on acid. And when I was really high, I said, “I want to see indigo, now!” And, as if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling, pear-shaped drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall in front of me. It seemed wonderfully luminous, and sort of numinous at the same time. So much so that I thought, "This is the color of heaven. This must be the color which Giotto tried to get into his paintings but could never get. And maybe he couldn’t get it because it doesn’t exist.”
I lent toward this in a sort of rapture, and it suddenly disappeared, leaving me with an immense sense of loss. I had had a sense of bliss or rapture, almost orgasm, seeing the indigo.
For months after, I kept looking for indigo. I went to a mineralogical museum and looked at azurite, which is often described as indigo. But it was nothing like what I had seen when stoned.
I did see indigo again, curiously. I was at a concert, listening to some Monteverdi. And I was enraptured by the music, thrown into a sort of ecstasy. The concert was in the Egyptology gallery of a museum in New York, and in the interval I went out and saw some of the lapis lazuli things. And they were indigo. And I thought, “It really exists.” But then, after the concert, I went again, and it wasn’t indigo. I’ve never seen it since.
JW: Was this experience at the Monteverdi concert enhanced by psychedelic drugs?
OS: No it wasn’t. It was the music alone. And that persuaded me that music alone, or art alone, or nature, can take one all the way.
JW: Your experiences with LSD were not frightening or disturbing. Other people of course have experienced a “bad trip.” Do you have any understanding of what makes for a bad trip, as opposed to a good one?
OS: I think that if one is in circumstances which would make one anxious or suspicious, or which are uncomfortable, or if one is ill, then that’s not the time to take anything. One may become anxious and the anxiety may move towards paranoia and delusion, which can be terrifying, and dangerous — especially if one acts on delusions. I think it’s probably best to take drugs with people whom one knows and trusts, and possibly with someone who is not on drugs. Although I didn’t follow my own recipe. I was always a solitary drug-taker.
JW: We’ve talked about hallucinations that are induced by taking drugs, but there are some hallucinations that arise as a result of stopping taking drugs. You had your own experience on this score.
OS: It was back in my foolish youth. Although I wasn’t that young — I was in my 30s. There was a bad period in 1965 when I had just come to New York and I couldn’t sleep and I was taking an old-fashioned hypnotic sleeping pill called chloral hydrate. The body gets used to it, and gradually you have to take more and more. I was on a very hefty dose when I got to the end of the bottle. I didn’t think much about that, but I couldn’t sleep that night and I felt rather shaky and had a bit of a fever the next day. But I went to work, I had a motorcycle at the time, but fortunately I went by bus and train instead. I think I had an intimation that something bad or mad might be happening.
When it did happen it was very sudden. I was having a cup of coffee in a diner, and the coffee suddenly turned green, and then purple. I looked up and saw someone paying at the cash register — he had a huge proboscis-like head, like a sea elephant. I was panicked, I ran across the street and got onto a bus, and on the bus everyone had huge, egg-like heads, with insect eyes that darted suddenly. This was a very bad trip indeed, and I could only maintain a semblance of control by writing it all down in my notebook. Writing is a necessity for me, to organize and clarify experience — especially in situations like that.
Things got worse and worse, and when I finally got off the bus, buildings were blowing like flags in a high wind. I somehow got to my apartment and phoned a good friend — we had been interns together in San Francisco — and I said, “Carol, I want to say goodbye. I’ve gone mad.”
She said, “Oliver! What have you just taken?”
I said, “I haven’t taken anything!”
She thought for a few seconds, and said, “Well what have you just stopped taking?”
And I said, “That’s it!”
She said, “You’ve got the DT’s.” The delirium tremens. It was an enormous relief to find I only had the delirium tremens, and was not going mad. I have, or had, a schizophrenic brother, and I’ve seen how gruesome schizophrenic psychosis can be.
JW: Your book Hallucinations seeks to “lessen the stigma of hallucinations.” What do you mean?
OS: I found with some of my own patients — I work with patients in old age homes, among other places — quite a lot of older people who are intellectually intact but have poor vision or hearing will start getting hallucinations. They usually do not mention this. They are afraid, they are ashamed, they wonder if it’s a sign of dementia or madness. And this is very much in the public consciousness and medical consciousness — that hallucinations may have a terrible import.
But mostly they haven’t. So I think it’s necessary to speak out about hallucinations. They’re not terrible, they should be talked about, and also they’re rather interesting and important — because they’re not like imagination, and not like fantasy. It’s a whole mode of perception that’s not like anything else.