Renowned neurologist, author Oliver Sacks on religion: Is it a hallucination?

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NEW YORK — Oliver Sacks may be an atheist, but flashes of heaven and hell illuminate his new book “Hallucinations,” which is studded with stories of mystical experiences and ends with a reference to God.

These mind-altering states are an “essential part of the human condition,” says the 79-year-old neurologist in a recent interview in his Greenwich Village office, where on a nearby table sits an antique typewriter, on which he writes his books if he’s not penning them by hand.

Dr. Sacks, who considers himself a popular scientist in the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, is the best-selling author of many books about the mysteries and marvels of the human mind. “Hallucinations,” his 12th, explores the various ways in which we may viscerally experience worlds that, ultimately, do not exist.

“One must wonder to what extent,” Dr. Sacks writes, “hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.”

Hallucinatory patterns seen in a migraine attack, for example, recall the arabesque motifs of both Islamic and medieval art. Another type of hallucination — triggered by epilepsy, which Hippocrates called the sacred disease — may be the basis of religious belief and mystical experience, Dr. Sacks speculates.

Book cover for "Hallucinations" by Oliver Sacks.

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Book cover for “Hallucinations” by Oliver Sacks. more >

The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, who regularly fell under the spell of ecstatic seizures that produced feelings of transcendent joy, cried out during one, “God exists, He exists!” He later wrote of the experience: “I felt the heaven was going down upon the earth and that it had engulfed me. I have really touched God.”

Given that hallucinations originate in the brain — in some cases, in an overly excited visual cortex — is Dr. Sacks saying that major aspects of our culture, from art to religion, are reducible to neurochemistry?

“There is always a brain basis for these various religious states, although this says nothing of the meaning or value of hallucinations,” Dr. Sacks says. “I don’t think it’s at all reductive.”

Citing the example of Saint Paul’s sudden and revelatory conversion on the road to Damascus, which some scientists have dismissed as an epileptic seizure, Dr. Sacks says, “If someone says that was an attack of epilepsy, that is not to deny its value as revelation. Even revelation has to have physical basis.”

Dr. Sacks tells the story of a colleague who regularly has temporal lobe seizures in which she sees God as a magnificent radiant presence. A nonbeliever, she would tell the presence to go away. “You’re nonsense!” she would say. And God would respond beguilingly, “Don’t you trust your senses?”

A scientific awakening

Whether or not hallucinations correspond to some reality — transcendent or otherwise — one thing is for certain: They beg profound philosophical questions: What is real? Who am I? Does God exist? Am I in control? Is there a spirit world?

Dr. Sacks started answering these questions at an early age.

When Dr. Sacks was a little boy, and the cloud of the Second World War was descending on his London home, he was evacuated to a hellish boarding school, where he was mercilessly beaten by the headmaster and bullied by his peers. The painfully shy 6-year-old, who felt abandoned by his parents, sought refuge in the quiet order of science. Specifically, he set out to prove the existence of God via the scientific method.

The precocious Dr. Sacks planted two rows of radishes in the vegetable garden at his boarding school. He prayed for God to bless one or curse the other, whichever He thought best. When the two rows grew up to be identical, Dr. Sacks gave up belief in any reality beyond that which could be proved rationally by science.

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