What Is Real and What Is Not? Hallucinations, Creativity, and Lives Well-Lived

I rarely read nonfictioschizophrenia-awareness-hallucination-260-70641n, believing that fiction exposes the truths about life and humans better than a scientific approach. One book I inhaled recently, though, was Hallucinations, by neurologist Oliver Sacks. While the book is fascinating on its own, illustrating the phenomenon evidently can be experienced by nearly anyone and caused by birth, injury, drugs, disease, or insomnia, I was especially intrigued by its use in writing and other creative endeavors.

When I took college philosophy and psychology classes, students continually debated the definition and reality of, well, reality. For example, how do I know that the color blue I perceive is the same color blue that you do. In short, how do we know what is real and what is not? Certainly this question slops over into religious faith. Of all the ideas of an afterlife, how can we be sure of heaven, ancestral spirits, Nirvana, or seventy-two virgins?

In short, we can’t. Scientists may have ways to measure, probe, evaluate, but absolute certainty is beyond even them. Throughout Hallucinations, Sacks reiterates the complexity of the causes of hallucinations. The impacts, however, are complex and enthralling. All our five senses can be affected. Because we interpret external sensations for our internal view of life, hallucinations can be a metaphor for all of humanity’s misinterpretations of one another and our values.

War is a prime example. No, let’s take social media as an example. Every simpleton with access to the Internet and the media delivered by it feels perfectly free to state his opinion on every matter under the sun, as rudely as he wishes. While I may believe that Trump’s opinions about immigration deserve no consideration, lots of earnest individuals seem to disagree with me.

Who’s to say who is right and who is wrong? We are able to respond only for ourselves, although we may believe otherwise. If I apply this theorem to writing, I open myself and my work to an infinity of possibilities. Alice in Wonderland, Hunger Games, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Catch-22, every work of fiction is predicated on “what if?” Frequently fantasy and imagination play a big role in creation.

Hallucinations approximate this condition. (I have difficulty distinguishing among hallucination, delusion, and illusion. All seem to be individual responses to what’s out there in the physical world, or reality, as it could be termed. So I’ll just use ‘hallucinations.”) Sacks may not have intended his volume to be a workbook for writers, but that’s one interesting application.

Even more interesting, writing is a way to share our realities. Here are some quotes from famous people that seem true to me, perhaps even real.

  • All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions. Leonardo Da Vinci

  • There is no truth. There is only perception. Gustave Flaubert

  • We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are. Anais Nin

Sadly, Dr. Sacks passed away recently. He left a legacy of his books, insights and thoughts. Sample them at http://www.oliversacks.com/ and http://www.newyorker.com/contributors/oliver-sacks/all/1

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