Note: Today, we sadly learned that Oliver Sacks has passed away, succumbing to melanoma at age 82. To celebrate his life and scientific work, we’re bringing back to the top a post originally published in August of 2012.
In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks has an article titled “Altered States.” Subtitled “Self-experiments in chemistry,” it covers, to be blunter, what Sacks experienced and learned — or failed to learn, substance depending — when he began doing drugs. His desire to conduct these self-experiments flared up in his thirties, when, among other sudden jolts of curiosity, he felt a suspicion that he had never really seen the color indigo. “One sunny Saturday in 1964, I developed a pharmacologic launchpad consisting of a base of amphetamine (for general arousal), LSD (for hallucinogenic intensity), and a touch of cannabis (for a little added delirium). About twenty minutes after taking this, I faced a white wall and exclaimed, ‘I want to see indigo now — now!'” The resulting experience, and surely many others besides, should appear in detail in Sacks’ upcoming book Hallucinations. While you need to subscribe to the magazine to read the New Yorker piece, anyone can watch the video above, which spends a few minutes with Sacks talking about what drugs taught him about the brain.
Every subject Sacks writes about seems to start with his interest in our unusual sensory experiences and end in the organic workings of our brains. His body of work comprises books on migraine, encephalitis, visual agnosia, deafness, autism, color blindness, and various other perceptual impairments. Thinking back to his self-induced hallucinations, he remembers feeling that “the drugs might sensitize me to experiences of a sort my patients could have,” making him more empathetic to what they were going through. On the other hand, he says, some drugs “gave me some very direct knowledge of what physiologists would call the reward systems of the brain,” producing “intense pleasure, sometimes pleasure of an almost orgasmic degree, with no particular content,” the kind that made him fear he would become one of those famous lab rats with an electrode connected to its brain’s pleasure center, pushing and pushing the lever to stimulate that center to the very end. But he stepped back, observed, wrote, and avoided that fate, or at least its equivalent in the human domain, living to tell the tale more eloquently than most any writer around.
(See also: more from Oliver Sacks on the New Yorker‘s Out Loud podcast.)