Book review: A trick of the mind

Dr Simon Atkins outlines his view of the latest book by Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks has been a hero of mine since I first read The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. He explains the details of complicated neurological conditions with a simplicity that makes them understandable to a non-neurologist and brings to life the person afflicted with them.

The journey he takes us on, from symptom to diagnosis, vividly demonstrates the true art of medicine. It's a far cry from the painting-by-numbers version that governments, with their tick-boxes and targets, have made of what we do in the surgery.

In his latest book, Hallucinations, he focuses on the bizarre tricks the brain can play on our senses. We meet Liz, who was saved from suicide by the voice of a 'guardian angel', who convinced her that life was worth living; Diane, who thought she saw Bing Crosby singing White Christmas; and Ed, whose Parkinson's medication made him see people emerging from a chamber behind the wall.

Sacks discusses Charles Bonnet syndrome, in which failing eyesight can produce visual hallucinations, making carers and doctors query dementia or delirium.

For me, the most captivating chapter describes his own hallucinations while experimenting with recreational drugs in the 1960s. His stand-out experiences were a miniature re-enactment of the battle of Agincourt on his dressing gown sleeve and a conversation with a spider.

This is a fascinating book by someone who is an objective and a subjective explorer of the mind. His travels tell us much of what it is to be human.

  • Dr Atkins is a GP in Bristol

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