CA Mushrooms
CA Mushrooms

Book Review


By Oliver Sacks
2012, Knopf, 352 pages
ISBN-10: 0307957241
ISBN-13: 978-0307957245

Hallucinations is Oliver Sacks’ 12th book since 1970, and one that I keep reading and rereading; it’s that good. Oliver Sacks is a neurologist, now 80, but he has been assembling materials for this book for the past 50 years, based on innumerable personal experiences, a long career as a clinician, and a vast knowledge of both world literature and the case study literature in his field. He is probably best known for one of his book titles, The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, and a Hollywood movie based on his book Awakenings.

The 3 questions I’ll try to answer in this review of his new book are these: what is Oliver Sacks trying to say, how well does he say it, and what important things, if any, does he leave out?

In Hallucinations, he describes in memorable, sometimes alarming, sometimes amusing, detail a large number of hallucinations he has experienced as a result of taking drugs, medications, having migraines, during accidents, falling asleep, waking up, and so on. Hallucinations is an often graphic account of the ways people have come to experience, whether by seeing, smelling, hearing, touching or tasting something that is not there (at the time), or something that is experienced in the absence of “consensual validation,” that is, as also experienced simultaneously by others.

In “The Island of the Colorblind,” he describes his experience taking kava (Piper methysticum), writing, “’Excellent,’ I thought, the neurologist in me aroused. ‘I have read of this, and now I’m experiencing it.’” In Hallucinations he describes in detail his experiences taking Artane (an anti-muscarinic, anti- Parkinsonian drug, which, by the way, has recently been reported to have been used recreationally by Iraqi soldiers and police), heavenly blue morning glory seeds (something no longer available as packaged seeds in the U.S. because they have been “doctored” to prevent abuse), morphine (by injection), chloral hydrate (once known as knock-out drops, sometimes seen in 30’s gangster movies – and an important component of Melzer’s Reagent, the solution mycologists use to test for an amyloid [blackish] or dextrinoid [reddish brown] reaction in spores or mushroom tissues), and a “pharmacologic launch pad” of amphetamines (“for general arousal”), followed by LSD (“for hallucinogenic intensity”) and a “touch” of cannabis (“for a little added delirium”). His jaw-dropping descriptions of these experiences alone is well worth the price of the book, and his chapter, “Altered States,” is what was excerpted in The New Yorker in the summer of 2012.

In Hallucinations Oliver Sacks gives no indication that he ever took magic mushrooms or synthetic psilocybin, which is odd considering how many other things he has taken, and how readily available it must have been to him when he was in Berkeley during the 60’s. His pages of experience on psilocybin come from an article by Daniel Breslaw that Sacks found in the 1961 book, The Drug Experience, edited by David Ebin (available for a penny plus shipping from, a book Sacks refers to as excellent. There is no information given in Hallucinations whether the psilocybin was consumed as a mushroom or in some other form, or what dose was given, but the article in the Ebin book says that it was synthetic psilocybin, given during a study (a “fishing expedition”) under hospital conditions, administered in a glass of water. No dosage is given, but the experience related is such that a high dose can be assumed: colors and geometrics are followed by full-blown imagery, things appearing suddenly small or large, and an utter fascination and absorption in seeing infinity in a grain of sand, in this case, a smudge on the wall.

Oliver Sacks should have known about R. Gordon Wasson’s 1957 Life magazine article about Psilocybe use in Mexico because it is referred to in the Daniel Breslaw article in the Ebin book, and this article appears immediately after one by Wasson on Psilocybe use in Mexico. In other words, Oliver Sacks, for whatever reason, decided this had no place in his Hallucinations. Being an avid reader, Sacks could not have missed the Roland Griffiths and Charles Grob 2010 Scientific American article on “Hallucinogens as medicine.” This article follows up on Roland Griffiths’ 2006 startling (for Americans) Johns Hopkins study on the use of psilocybin that elicited mystical experiences in a large percentage of its study group. Several of the people in that group have since, several years afterwards, reported that their single psilocybin experience in this study had been one of the most meaningful experiences in their lives. This is important to note because Sacks says (p. 229): “While people with such hallucinations may (or may not) enjoy them as a sensory experience, they almost uniformly emphasize their meaninglessness, their irrelevance to events and issues of their lives.” Oliver Sacks has never been to the Telluride Mushroom Festival, alas, or met any of the great number of people for whom psilocybin has been a “godsend.”

Also, despite giving an entire chapter to hallucinations caused by delirium of one kind or another, he fails to even mention the intentional use of the flyagaric (Amanita muscaria), which is hard to explain, given the abundance of references available about its use and effects. If ever there was a deliriant of choice, especially in the Russian Far East, it is this mushroom. The documentation of its use goes back a couple hundred years, and is readily available, thanks largely to R. Gordon and Valentina Wasson’s research (See, for example, Soma: Divine Mushroom of Immortality, which is available used for $60 on Also, Tom Stimson’s The Song of Mukhomor (available for purchase online) follows a group of mushroom hunters on a trip to Kamchatka as they explore the uses, both mystical and practical, of Amanita muscaria among both shamans and ordinary Koryak villagers. Another, the Russian-made documentary film, Pegtymel, (also available for purchase online) is about reindeer herders in Chukotka, in the northernmost part of the Russian Far East, where there are ancient petroglyphs of images of people with mushrooms on their heads, and the film observes today’s reindeer herders under the influence of Amanita muscaria as they interact and bond with their herd, something that has to be seen to be believed.

That said, Hallucinations is a pleasure to read and reread, and it is a treasury of hallucinatory experiences. One reason for writing this book, as he says, is to argue the case for the common occurrence of hallucinations of one kind or another in the general population, that is, it’s not restricted to so-called sick people. Another is to counter the stigma in western countries, like Europe and the U.S., where hallucination is all too readily believed by too many people to either indicate madness or to precipitate it, while in parts of the rest of the world hallucinations are sometimes understood as direct intercession by a divine being, a way of communicating with humans about something in their lives. Oliver Sacks’ book is a source book for all the casual ways in which we experience hallucinations in our daily lives, during our falling asleep and on our waking up, with things we hear all the time, and sometimes see, and even smell, or suddenly remember from some distant past. Reading this book can put into perspective other things we read but fail to understand. For example, David Arora has written an article (“Xiao Ren Ren: The “Little People” of Yunnan”) about boletes in Yunnan, China, that, if not properly cooked, can cause people to see “little people” running about. This is a curious phenomenon, but by reading Hallucinations, we find that it is not all that uncommon among those experiencing hallucinations from a number of different causes. The “Alice in Wonderland” phenomenon, as reported in the literature on Amanita muscaria ingestion, is similarly experienced by others from different and unrelated causes.

Hallucinations is divided into 15 chapters, each examining a different condition causing hallucinations. We learn that Linnaeus had a doppelganger, a double whom he saw on occasion. We learn that Alfred Russell Wallace “hallucinated” the idea of natural selection during an attack of malarial fever. Freud heard voices, and twice coming at a time that he believed saved his life. Nabokov experienced both auditory and visual hallucinations while falling asleep. Dostoevsky was epileptic and experienced ecstatic seizures, hallucinations that included touching God. This is so profound an experience that, instead of wanting it prevented, some people suffering ecstatic seizures have learned how to induce them! Lewis Carroll suffered from classical migraines, and it has been suggested that these experiences allowed him to “see” his Alice in Wonderland, before he wrote it. Reading Hallucinations is like eating a box of quality chocolates. You don’t know what’s inside any one chapter, but you can be sure it’s filled with something delicious. To paraphrase something Oliver Sacks says in his book – “readers would more easily imagine such experiences if they read the book under” –mushrooms! Bon appétit.

— Review by Gary Lincoff
— Originally published in Fungi