I probably don’t need to introduce Oliver Sacks to you. You’ve undoubtedly already delighted over his wobbly affectation and tales of neurological strangeness on RadioLab or NPR. You might have read his lovely first-person account, in the New Yorker, of his early experiments with hallucinogens of all stripes, from the “pharmacological launch pad” of amphetamines and LSD, to the synthetic belladonna-like drug, artane. You may even have read one of his bestselling books of clinical studies, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat or Awakenings.
I interviewed Dr. Sacks in 2007, on the subject of his fantastic book about music and the brain, Musicophilia. I found him to be every bit the disarmingly candid, loopy boffin of his public persona, and was genuinely thrilled to hear about his approach to science as a form of storytelling. To wit, from our 2007 interview:
Universe: The New York Times famously called you the ”poet laureate of medicine.” Are your books science or literature?
Oliver Sacks: For me, an interest in science is inseparable from an interest in the lives of scientists, and the lives of ideas, as well as in storytelling. In medicine, of course, narratives are essential: the patient tells you what’s going on, and you try to match this with stories heard from other patients. I love to give personal accounts, to try and enter people’s experiences and describe them, and I don’t think there should be a space between literature and the sciences. I think that the sciences should be literate, and that their function is not only exposition, but storytelling. Certainly for myself, science has to be combined with stories–but also stories have to be combined with science. Although I may tell a story of someone who has musical hallucinations, or cannot tell one tune from another, I also want to know what goes on in their brain, and why this is the case. In a way, these are somewhat like detective stories.
Oliver Sacks’ new book of neurological detective stories, Hallucinations, purports to tackle the uncanny boundaries of human perception, those strange neurological ghosts we sometimes encounter on the edge of sleep, under the influence, or when systems in our brain go wonky. To celebrate the occasion, my friends at the World Science Festival are bringing us Sacks in conversation with journalist John Hockenberry. They’ll discuss the cultural history (and contemporary science) of the hallucinatory experience, as well as how Sacks’ forays into psychedelia turned him on to a lifetime of puzzling out the mysteries of the human mind.
Since we can’t all be there in person, the Festival has set me up with a high-tech live stream of the event, which I’ve embedded below. I’ll be watching it live this Friday (tomorrow) at 8:00PM eastern time, and I recommend you come join me in tuning in, turning on, and dropping out!
Ed: Now that the event has passed, please enjoy this instant replay!