Hallucination is a fascinating subject. Like most people (i presume…) my experiences with the phenomena is limited. At best i could lay claim to having heard a few things that weren’t really there on the borders of sleep, or in prolonged periods of unnatural silence, and to have seen geometric patterns at the onset of migraine (or migraine-like) headaches, but full-blown, waking state visions of things that simply aren’t there? No, that just hasn’t been in my direct experience.
Consequently i’m drawn to reading about these experiences, both the first hand accounts of Sack’s own drug experimentation, and those related to him by his patients. There is a tendency for tales of drug use to get carried away in the deeper meanings (Huxley was prone to this in his writings on the subject, see Heaven & Hell, and The Doors of Perception, even while he obviously tried to be analytical on the subject), but Sacks manages to keep things on the “straight and narrow” by focusing on physiological causes and background. Especially in the case of naturally or disease caused hallucination events this gives good insight into the limited understanding of the brain that we can attain with the functional area mapping that it has been possible to build with fMRI.
Sack’s telling of his patients stories always comes across with great deal of humility and understanding for the experiences (often horrors!) that they are living through. Like V.S. Ramachandran’s Phantoms of the Brain, you are never left with the feeling that this is mawkish intrusion into a life.
During a period in which i was particularly unhappy at school, somewhere between the ages of eight and ten, i started having a recurring nightmare (nightmare is an abused term, so i should probably say, “bad dream”). From the outset this dream was both very simple, and extremely rich in sensory input. I’d be standing on a cliff top, and be struck with a sense of vertigo. Then i’d find myself falling, but doing so agonizingly slowly. At this point the overwhelming sensation would be one of texture, specifically the stringy texture of what i believe is called ‘braising steak’, in the form that it had been slow cooked in something like a casserole. This sensation was also present as either a smell or a taste. As far as i recall this combination of falling and texture was enough to wake me up in confusion. The dream would replay, with no variation, when i fell back asleep, would reoccur on a nightly basis, and eventually intrude into waking consciousness. When this happened during the day, it did so without the visual aspects, but the sensations would feel real enough to make me nauseous and panicked. It went on for months, and got to the point that i tried to explain it to my mother (would be interesting to ask her if she recalls any of this!) Eventually the dream stopped being so regular, returning only infrequently until my teens, when it stopped.
There are hallucinations of many senses, in different states of consciousness, and i wonder whether this intrusion of my dream state into my waking state was actually my own experience with a hallucinatory episode.
Well, that got a little odd, but always wanted to explain what that “falling through stewing steak” up there was all about… Another good book you should read!