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Misperception of Reality

November 26, 2012

An illusion is a misperception of reality. Seeing a boulder in an
aspen grove at twilight as a bear would be illusional.

A delusion is false belief or opinion. Seeing the bear in the aspen
grove, one might think “why is that bear there? Of course, my neighbor
always leaves his garbage out. That bear could kill my family. I must
kill my neighbor.” This would be delusional.

Seeing a bear in the aspen grove and saying “Look at the bear!” to
fellow hikers, none of whom see a bear or a boulder, this would be a
hallucination.

Funny—this is my only disgruntlement with Oliver Sacks’ new book,
“Hallucinations.” I have trouble with “a hallucination.” It seems that
is should be “an hallucination.” In the same way that “a historical
novel” should be “an historical novel.”

Oliver Sacks is such a kind, gentle, humane writer that his treatment
of the profoundest human deficits and suffering invites compassion and
connection from the reader. You may have read his books such as
“Awakenings,” “The man who mistook his wife for a hat, “A leg to stand
on,” and others.

Many readers will feel a connection with the subjects of
“Hallucinations” simply because the experience of hallucination is
much more common than we accept. We assume hallucinations are the
province of mental illness and drug experiences. In fact, a great many
people have dealt with hallucinations, some frequently and regularly.

Dr. Sacks’ favorite definition is from William James: “An
hallucination is a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good
and true a sensation as if there were a real object there. The object
happens to be not there, that is all.”

I like William James’ humaneness, too, as well as his use of “an” with
“hallucination.” Common to the experience of many kinds of
hallucinations is that the hallucinator knows what he or she is
seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, or smelling, and in some cases even
thinking, is not real.

The degree of disturbance or annoyance varies. Of course, there are
hallucinations that are inseparable from reality, including those of
deeply seated post-traumatic stress disorder, something we are sadly
taking to new depths with modern war.

Here are a few of Sacks’ chapter titles: “The prisoner’s cinema:
sensory deprivation,” “Hearing things,” “Altered States”—a chapter
about drug use, part of which you may have read this fall in the New
Yorker, in which Sacks details a period of his own extensive drug use.

“Patterns: visual migraines,” “The sacred disease,” “Delirious,” “On
the threshold of sleep,” “Narcolepsy and night hags,” “The haunted
mind,” and so on.

I was fascinated to read about the deliriums of high fever, which I
experienced as a child. I still have vivid recollections of what I
saw, heard, and felt.

I knew at the time they were not real; however, they were terrifying.
My experiences were brief but memorable; I can only imagine what life
is like for people plagued by hallucinations.

Oliver Sacks takes pains to discuss, too, how “imagination is
qualitatively different from hallucination. The visions of artists and
scientists, the fantasies and daydreams we all have, are located in
the imaginative space of our own minds, our own private theaters. They
do not normally appear in external space …”

He also talks about how a “deeply superstitious and delusional
atmosphere can foster hallucinations.” A cautionary point, I think.

By the end of the book, one can’t help but wonder that the mind works
at all, much less as well as it does.

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