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Hallucinations, Oliver Sacks

Alfred A. Knopf, November 6, 2012

Many cultures regard hallucination, like dreams, as a special, privileged state of consciousness—one that is actively sought through spiritual practices, meditation, drugs, or solitude.

The velociraptor kept pace with the minivan as they both raced down the interstate. It was dark, it was the middle of the night and there wasn’t much traffic. I glanced at the speedometer – 75 MPH. I had no idea that they could run so fast. The dinosaur was running on the shoulder, but I was concerned that I had happened along just as it was about to cross the highway and it began racing me in an effort to cross and would still try to do so. Who knows how the primitive reptilian brain works? There was only one thing to do, I had to outrun him to avoid a potentially bad accident. And besides, he can’t possibly maintain this speed forever.

I was finally able to edge ahead when the beast momentarily slowed to dodge a giant brandy snifter that was blocking his path on the shoulder. Man, that snifter was big. It must have been 10’ tall and 8’ wide as I glanced back to say a silent goodbye to Dino who was disappearing in the rear view mirror. Nice try I thought, then it hit me, they don’t make glasses that big. It was at this point that I realized that perhaps the dinosaur wasn’t as real as he seemed. Maybe it was time to pull off the road to rest.

Hallucinations are a lot more common than anyone will admit. Who wants people to think that they are crazy because they have hallucinations? And there are a lot of reasons for many different types of hallucinations. It seems like the human brain is wired in a way to actually produce them. They can be produced by many means including the sleep deprivation that conjured the velociraptor or the onset of a migraine headache.

It was summer and we were visiting friends in Wisconsin when the storm hit. It started slowly with some distant flashes that I chose to ignore but it quickly gathered momentum until it was ferociously upon me and there was nothing I could do to avoid it. The electrical storm became increasingly more violent. The lightning was flashing with greater frequency and the energy bursts were getting more intense. Any normal person would have found some sort of shelter as the storm got closer and more dangerous.

The entire atmosphere was highly charged and the air immediately in front of me was vibrating and filigreed with geometric patterns from the lightning strikes. But this was not a typical summer storm. This storm was on the inside of the unfriendly confines of my skull. My brain was on fire. I was feeling the errant firing of every synapse in the unbalanced brain chemistry stew, and believe me there are billions of them. I thought I was going to die from the electricity my brain was producing. Wave after wave washed over my brain. It felt like I was electrocuting myself millions of brain cells at a time. The pain was indescribable.

The patterned hallucinations of migraines are caused by a type of electrical impulse passing over the visual parts of the brain, particularly the architecture of the visual cortex.

One has to call these hallucinations, even though they are only patterns and not images, for there is nothing in the external world that corresponds to the zigzags and checkerboards—they are generated by the brain.

Oliver Sachs suggests that patterned art throughout human history has been influenced or externalized from the patterns built into the way our brains are organized. It’s nice to know that something beautiful has come out of migraine headaches. I can do without the pain however.