Book review – How do you know your life is real?

2013-05-21 16:47

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Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks



Oliver Sacks, a psychiatrist and author of 11 other fascinating titles, has managed to put in context a complex yet common subject in his book Hallucinations.

It places a magnifying glass on the blurred lines of human perception, and between sanity and insanity. That occasional sense of hearing someone call your name when you are home alone, for instance, is very common for most people. But after reading this book, such minor experiences could either be fascinating or worrisome.

Either way, they are bound to get your attention.

The book has 15 chapters, each providing a detailed exploration of both direct and indirect circumstances or conditions that elicit hallucinations.

Hallucinations are mostly either auditory or visual, or a combination, and are explored in this book through detailed scenarios, as experienced by Sacks’ patients.

He also looks into the not-so-common smell hallucination.

He kicks off with a look at Charles Bonnet syndrome, and this sets the tone for the whole book. People with this syndrome see things that are not really there and it’s named after a philosopher who documented his visually impaired grandfather’s hallucinations.

Parkinson’s disease, given special attention in chapter 3, can also predispose patients to hallucinate. Migraines, narcolepsy, phantoms and more all come in for discussion, but I found the chapter on spirits a revelation, if not a complete myth buster.

Most people from different cultures and some religions have, or have had, a strong belief in spirits. It makes one wonder how often people might be making major life decisions based on another person’s hallucinations.

The author shares his own experiences of hallucinations from experimenting with drugs, and this personal reference contributed to how he structured the book and executed writing about this complex subject as well as he did.

The vivid description of each patient’s hallucinations and the personal circumstances that could have triggered each episode makes all the weirdness easier to comprehend.

The book certainly addresses the common misconceptions and, often, misdiagnoses of hallucinations as a mental illness.

As such, it can potentially liberate those who are either ashamed of, or struggling to cope with, experiences of hallucinations.

- Tumi Magoai

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