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 ...read more