An Opthamologist on Mars

Oliver Sacks is interviewed on NeuroTribes where he talks about his forthcoming book and his own experience of spectacular hallucinations that occurred after he developed a tumour behind his retina.

NeuroTribes is a new blog by ace science writer and Wired veteran Steve Silberman. It is part of the new PLoS science blog network and in the inaugural post Silberman has scooped a fascinating interview with the great neurologist and raconteur himself.

Here he discusses how his hallucinations, caused by the brain trying to ‘fill in’ or ‘guess’ what should be in the damaged part of the retina, are affected by smoking pot.

I also had — and still have — almost continuous hallucinations of a low order: geometric things, especially broken letters, some of them like English letters, some like Hebrew letters, some like Greek, some runes, and some a bit like numbers. They tend to have straight lines rather than curves, but they rarely form actual words. This is not something I said in the book, but if I smoke a little pot, they sometimes become words. And they tend to be in black and white — but when I smoke a little pot, they’re in color.

Silberman: That’s wonderful. What do the words say?

Sacks: Short English words of no particular significance like “may,” or pseudo-words, like “ont.” Also, since my back surgery last year, I’ve been on nortriptyline, which is supposed to block the gating mechanism for pain in the spinal cord. I only take a small dose, because it gives me an intensely dry mouth. But even the small dose has a striking effect of enhancing dreams and involuntary imagery, and upgrading my hallucinations from black-and-white to color, and from geometric patterns to faces and landscapes.

The interview is both playful and profound and makes a great teaser for his forthcoming book, which apparently, is due out in October.

Link to Oliver Sacks interview on NeuroTribes.


  1. karen
    Posted September 5, 2010 at 4:57 pm | Permalink


  2. Posted September 15, 2010 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Actually, Sacks is a neurologist, not an ophthalmologist.

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