Category Archives: Book Reviews
What Is Real and What Is Not? Hallucinations, Creativity, and Lives Well-Lived
I rarely read nonfiction, 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
The persistence and perversity of synchronicity: how two apparently unrelated books enhance one another and enlighten the reader
Wow! I think my reading’s affected my vocabulary. But since that’s one of the fun things resulting from challenging books, I won’t complain. I’ll just define the words below.
Recently I picked up two well reputed books. “Travels with Charley: in search of America,” by John Steinbeck, a creative nonfictional account of his cross-country trip, celebrates its fifty-second anniversary this year. “The Dog Stars,” by Peter Heller, a science fiction novel published last year, recounts the story of one of the few survivors of mysterious world-wide devastation.
Strange to me, as I made my way through both volumes, I was struck by their similarities. Both have a man as main narrator, a dog as companion, travel as integral to the plot, and lots of wonderful descriptions of nature—both worldly and our own species. Meetings with strangers (some evil), questions about humanity’s impacts on the environment, insights on human behavior cram the pages.
As I read, at times I had to remind myself which book I held in front of me. No, the pleasant meal John Steinbeck described wasn’t one for survivor Hig to savor. The excitement of a small child at Hig’s visit to his homestead didn’t include Steinbeck as a guest.
Somehow, though, going through the scenes of one book made the plot of the other more vivid, pertinent to what’s going on in the world around me. Fifty-plus years between the creation of each seemed as nothing. The authors seemed to be brothers under the skin. This doesn’t happen, by the way, with television, stage, Internet, or most films. Reading is unique in its ability to entertain and challenge and offer discernments, all simultaneously.
Through chance I picked up two books that enhanced the contents of the other. This happens to me all the time. Psychologist Carl Yung called this “synchronicity,” meaningful coincidences in time that have similar significance and relationship, including those in the mind and the physical world. He theorized perhaps a causal relationship existed.
That I don’t believe. However, another term may describe my situation. “Apophenia,” the spontaneous perception of connections and meaningfulness of unrelated phenomena comes close. As I read about this term, it was coupled with “mental disorder,” and also “creativity.” Hmmm. I know which one I’d pick.
Whatever the occurrence might be labeled, I’m glad it exists. Even more elated I discovered these two books at about the same time. Each gave me more to think about with the other.
- Synchronicity: the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection.
- Persistence: firm continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition; the continued or prolonged existence of something.
- Perversity: a deliberate desire to behave in an unreasonable or unacceptable way; quality of being contrary to accepted standards or practice.