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.)
Oliver Sacks Talks Music with Jon Stewart
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.
Based on this discourse I will dine in a dim, dark, bus where there are many holes in the seats and people slobbering on the tables. I will dine and feast in that diner, and they say say “oh has there ever been a man who has feasted in the diner before this man…”.
“Yeah, that true, Sacks?”, she wondered aloud, as she pressed her face against the screen door, “But tell me this, is, is what yer saying about amphetamines the same as newer drugs, like say, MDMA? Because what you’ve described to me is that psychedelics are meaningful and harmless, and that amphetamines, well, they’re pretty useless, and I think I can get behind that. I mean, I agree. The context of happiness on M requires no context, but with psychedelics, the context is really pretty important.”
You shouldn’t be so quick to judge MDMA. Many people are finding it very useful, for a variety of purposes, and studies have shown it to be relatively safe to use. It may not have ‘content’ in the way that a psychedelic does, but it still provides access to paths that might otherwise have remained hidden.