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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.

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.

His passion for science manifested itself in his early years as an idiosyncratic love for the periodic table and its metallic elements. Metals "are things that you could count on — indestructible," he explains.

This obsession never left him. Lined up on his office desk are a variety of exotic metals that he, at various points in our conversation, gives me to feel and handle. "I identified Mendeleev with Moses, coming down from Sinai with the tablets of the periodic law," he once said.

Science is the only religion Dr. Sacks has ever known.

Following the war, he returned home to London, and his love affair with science grew. This was in large part thanks to his parents, who were doctors that brought their work home with them. One night over dinner, Dr. Sacks' mother laid sheep's brain on the table and started explaining its anatomy to her son. Another time, she brought home a malformed fetus and insisted that he dissect it. He was only 11 years old.

Dr. Sacks' interest in the brain also developed in his childhood. As a young boy, he would have many one-sided conversations with animals, as most children do. But unlike most children, he quickly realized that it was language and mental life that set human beings apart from the rest of the animal world. The key to the human condition, Dr. Sacks came to see, was the human brain, a topic to which he would devote his professional life.

Dr. Sacks was catapulted to fame when his second book, "Awakenings" (1985), was adapted into the 1990 Academy Award-nominated movie of the same name starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. "Awakenings" tells the story of a group of patients in a Bronx, N.Y., hospital who contracted "sleeping sickness" in the aftermath of World War I. After decades of living in a trance, they were revived from their stupor when Dr. Sacks administered the "miracle drug" L-DOPA to them in 1969. The poet W.H. Auden, Dr. Sacks' friend, called "Awakenings" a "masterpiece."

Dr. Sacks had hit upon a genre — the case history — that he would soon master with subsequent books. In his hands, the case histories of patients, which form the basis of his most popular books such as "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" (1985) and "The Mind's Eye" (2010), became more than sterile medical records to be archived in a filing cabinet. They were poetic commentaries on the state of modern man, human suffering, and what gives life meaning.

"I try to do justice to patients, the ecstasies and tribulations they experience," Dr. Sacks says. His fans, many of them hoping to be his patients, send him well over a thousand letters a day.

"Hallucinations," like his other books, tells the story of patients who have traveled to the hinterlands of neurological experience and back. It also tells Dr. Sacks' own story and how his experience with hallucinations in part led him to where he is today.

Escape and fulfillment

Throughout his life, Dr. Sacks suffered from migraine attacks — the first one occurring when he was 3 or 4 years old. "I was playing in the garden when a shimmering light appeared to my left, dazzlingly bright," he writes. "It expanded, becoming an enormous arc, stretching from the ground to the sky, with sharp, glittering, zigzagging border and brilliant blue and orange colors."

These visions terrified him at first, but later turned into a source of fascination that, arguably, saved his life when he was older.

"I was a risk taker," Dr. Sacks recalls of his life as a young adult. "I was solitary. I liked pushing boundaries. I had a motorcycle and rode it hard. And I was also curious, perhaps in a rather dangerous way."

In 1960, after receiving a degree in medicine from Oxford University, he left England and eventually found his way to San Francisco, where he fell in with a crowd of bohemian poets. Not only was his field — neurochemistry — in fashion at the time, but so were psychedelic drugs.

In an autobiographical chapter in "Hallucinations" on mind-altering drugs — which he was not originally planning to include in the book — Dr. Sacks details his extensive drug use in California while he was working as a resident in UCLA's neurology department. On the weekdays, he would go to work; on the weekends, he would go on "drug holidays," as he called them, experimenting with LSD, morphine and high doses of amphetamines.

Initially, Dr. Sacks' drug use was motivated by a desire for transcendence and meaning. But once the highs wore off, he would feel depressed and empty.

"I got a lot of euphoria and pleasure out of drugs and certainly paid for it," he says. "I crossed the line."

He lost many of his friends and came dangerously close to overdosing on at least one occasion. Once, he was beset by hallucinations for 96 hours. Another time, after taking amphetamines, his pulse escalated to 200 beats per minute.

Then, one day in February of 1967, high on amphetamines, Dr. Sacks had a transformative encounter in the medical library of UCLA. He came across an obscure 1873 book about migraines titled "On Megrim, Sick-Headache, and Some Allied Disorders" by Edward Liveing.

The book changed his life.

"In a sort of catatonic concentration so intense that in 10 hours I scarcely moved a muscle or wet my lips, I read steadily through the five hundred pages," he writes.

For the first time in his life, he came down from a high with a real sense of insight and determination. "I realized that I too could write a book like this," he says.

The following day, Dr. Sacks returned to the library and photocopied the entire 19th-century book. Inspired, he slowly started writing his own book about migraines. "The joy I got from this was real — infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines," he explains in "Hallucinations." "And I never took amphetamines again."

After a tormented childhood and an uncertain start at adulthood, Dr. Sacks started to enjoy life. Rather than seeking artificial spirituality in hallucinogenic drugs, "the poet laureate of medicine," as The New York Times once dubbed him, found meaning and purpose in the written word.

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