This is What Oliver Sacks Learned on LSD and Amphetamines

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.)

Relat­ed con­tent:

Oliv­er Sacks Talks Music with Jon Stew­art

Oliv­er Sacks on the iPod

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (3)
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  • Mr. Thomas of Ohio, in America, but of a good nature; says:

    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…”.

  • Mrs. Orlando of Ohio County, USA says:

    “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.”

    • AsylumSeaker says:

      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.

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