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What Dr Oliver Sacks Learned From Hallucinogens

With the mainstream ‘discovery’ of psychedelics in the early to mid-20th century came great hope that these substances may prove to be a valuable scientific tool in investigating psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia and psychosis. Indeed, in 1947 – in the direct wake of Albert Hoffmann’s synthesis of LSD – his employer Sandoz began actively marketing the psychedelic substance to psychiatric researchers as a tool for this very purpose.

But from the mid-1960s, as hallucinogens such as LSD began to ‘escape’ the labs and as the general population began experimenting with the mystical states offered by the drugs, governments around the world began to heavily regulate distribution, and soon after began criminalizing them altogether. For three decades psychedelics became ‘forbidden fruit’, and scientific research languished.

However, in the past two decades research with hallucinogens has slowly been making a comeback, not least through the efforts of organizations such as MAPS (the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies). Recent studies have looked at the use of MDMA in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), LSD and psilocybin for end-of-life anxiety, and ibogaine therapy for drug addiction.

As such, many high profile scientists have been calling for more open discussion of the possible benefits from psychedelic use. A new addition to that list is famed neurologist/psychologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, author of a number of bestsellers such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, and who was portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings. In the interview above he notes how psychedelic use has allowed him to be more empathic towards his patients, although in the second half of the video he also warns of the dangers of other types of drugs, such as amphetamines:

Although I can’t claim very lofty motives in my drug-taking, it did occur to me that there might be a bonus, that the drugs might sensitize me to experiences of a sort my patients could have. And I certainly felt that very strongly when I came to see migraine patients, and they described all sorts of geometrical patterns and colors, which I was very familiar with… Also, when I came to work with my ‘Awakenings’ patients, some of these patients had extraordinary sensory experiences – of time stopping, of motion being split up, into a series of separate stills. Which I think is almost unimaginable, but I had experienced that myself on LSD and I knew what they were talking about, and I knew how confounding it was.

So on the one hand, one bonus of the drug experiences was that it allowed me to be more empathic and to understand from my own experiences what various patients were going through.

Dr. Sacks’ latest book, Hallucinations, will be released later this year.

  1. Time Stopping Movie Stills Zoetropes and the Bone Dimension
    Oliver Sacks “some of these patients had extraordinary sensory experiences – of time stopping, of motion being split up, into a series of separate stills.”


    Thank you for putting this up Greg.

    I’m all too familiar with both these experiences but thanks to the likes of The Matrix and others starting to report experiencing time stopping or slowing down I kind of feel if not normal less of a freak (which’s one of the main reasons I put this sort of stuff up in the hope others won’t feel so isolated for knowing if they’re going nuts then they’re not the only ones).

    This is the first time though I’ve come across a report of others experiencing the ‘separate stills’ effect.

    I first experienced a major version of this when I had my run in with Hindley and Brady as a 5 or 6 year old and it really is like you’ve somehow tumbled out the movie and can see the individual frames that create the illusion of movement.

    It also differs from the ‘Eternity’ effect as I sometimes call the time stopping dead thing because in that you’re intensely aware of the three dimensionality of everything and have the sense there’re no separate parts just a gigantic self luminous seamless continuity almost as if the illusion of movement’s created by the gigantic solid lifelike ‘statue’ of the Universe moment by moment winking out of existence but being instantly replaced by another almost identical but subtly altered version of the ‘statue’.

    Whereas during the ‘movie stills’ (or the comparable ‘zoetrope’) experience you have the sense everything’s two-dimensional and created by building up layers of different types of detail much like cells in video editing software.

    There’s also among a number of others types a cross-over version of ‘Eternity’ and ‘movie still’ where everything’s intensely three dimensional and moves as normal only you get to see the layers or cells out of which 3 dimensionality seems to be composed.

    So you look around you and everyone’s a skeleton with tiny scintillas of light sitting at the back of their very dark eye sockets instead of eyes but their clothing hangs on them just as it does when you can normally see their flesh.

    That particular one I call the Bone Dimension.

    1. Wow – Alan Borky
      Your comment was more interesting than the original post! Fascinating. This begs the question – are the experiences you describe malfunctions of the mechanics of the brain in processing the objective stimuli of an independent 3rd dimension (basically the consciousness arises from the brain argument), OR are they peeks behind the mirage that reality is into the true nature of how reality is constructed from our conscious interaction with it via the quantum mechanic idea consciousness gives form to physical matter or Robert Lanza’s Biocentrism concept that physical reality is an illusion shaped by the interaction of mind and matter? It also leads one to question our concept of time – past present and future as a linear construct versus all coexisting simultaneously as suggested by Pim Van Lommel’s work on studying the NDE experiences of life reviews.

      I was introduced to Oliver Sacks over a decade ago in reading “Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.” Truly an eye-opening book into the working of the brain and bringing into question what is reality? In all my interests in the subject of mind and reality I never came across accounts such as yours where people experience these time disruptions as part of their normal daily lives. Fascinating! Thanks. It gives one even more to contemplate about the nature of the brain versus the nature of reality – ala ideas discussed by Graham Hancock in Supernatural about the brain being a receiver like your television that intercepts and broadcast physical reality independent of the mind/soul…

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