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Why Oliver Sacks Says Hallucinations Can Help Us Deal With Loss

In his new book, Hallucinations, the famed neurologist explores the brain's power to see and sense people and things that aren't there

posted by Gary Drevitch, November 28, 2012 More by this author

A widower stands in a room of clocks with his wife's ghost.

Gary Drevitch was senior Web editor for Next Avenue's Caregiving and Health & Well-Being channels.


A widower stands in a room of clocks with his wife's ghost.
altrendo images/Stockbyte/Thinkstock
On the latest episode of AMC's hit drama The Walking Dead, Rick Grimes, the onetime police officer now leading a band of survivors through the bleak landscape of a zombie apocalypse, is wallowing in grief in the bowels of the abandoned prison where his group has taken refuge. Suddenly, a phone rings. The ring is startling because there is no phone service in this nightmarish world. The caller is also surprising: It's Rick's wife, Lori, who recently died in childbirth, setting him off on a brutal and cathartic zombie killing spree. But this call from beyond the grave eventually enables Rick to refocus and rejoin the others who depend on him.

(MORE: When a Parent Has Dementia, Arguments Can Be Counterproductive)

The Walking Dead is based on a graphic novel, not an Elizabethan drama, but Shakespeare would recognize the point of the scene. After all, in one of his greatest plays, the Bard employed the apparition of Hamlet's father to galvanize the famously indecisive prince into action.

Why the Mind Generates Hallucinations

Visions of loved ones we have lost are frequent subjects of literature and drama, and for good reason: They actually happen with surprising frequency.

In his new book, Hallucinations, New York University neurologist Oliver Sacks, the bestselling author of Awakenings; An Anthropologist on Mars and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, explores why we sometimes see, hear or smell things that are not there. (He also explores his own experiences with psychedelic drugs.) The section on what Sacks calls "bereavement hallucination" is especially poignant and instructive for family caregivers dealing with a parent's visions of a deceased spouse as well as anyone who is certain that someone they loved and lost has visited.

Sacks writes that such visions — "compulsive returns to a past experience" — often have "a positive and comforting role." They may play "an important part in the mourning process," he says, especially in the first year or two after a loss, when they are most frequent and most needed.

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"Losing a parent, a spouse, or a child is losing a part of oneself," Sacks writes, "and bereavement causes a sudden hole in one's life, a hole which — somehow — must be filled."

He also points out that people have experienced hallucinations of a lost pet and that, of course, medical history is filled with stories of soldiers and others feeling lost "phantom limbs." Profound loss of any kind presents the mind with "a cognitive problem and a perceptual one as well as an emotional one," Sacks writes, "and a painful longing for reality to be otherwise."

The brain's solution is hallucination, whether it's hearing a voice, seeing an image or both. Dr. W.D. Rees of Wales interviewed nearly 300 people who had recently suffered the loss of a husband or wife. He found that almost half had experienced "illusions or full-fledged hallucinations of a dead spouse," the likelihood of which increased based on the length of the marriage.

A friend of Sacks named Ray tells the author of his experience just days after the death of his father, when he awoke in the middle of the night and saw a vision of him sitting on the corner of his bed, wearing his khaki slacks and a tan polo shirt. Ray continued: "He sat there for a moment and then said — did he speak or just convey the thought? — 'Everything is all right.'" The vision never recurred, but Ray had no doubt of what he had seen. "I do not know whether this was a hallucination or something else," he told Sacks, "but since I provisionally do not believe in the paranormal, it must have been."

A Cause for Alarm?

Family caregivers looking after an ailing parent, even one who does not suffer from Alzheimer's or dementia, may have encountered their loved one's hallucinations and found them concerning, if not alarming. Sacks, who sees hallucination as "an essential part of the human condition," argues against the stigmatization of such visions. He's gratified that more researchers in his field have come to value the study of such experiences, which provide "direct insight into the workings of the brain."

Unfortunately, says Sacks, "in modern Western culture, hallucinations are more often considered to portend madness or something dire happening to the brain — even though the vast majority of hallucinations have no such dark implications."

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Several other cultures around the globe regard hallucination as "a special, privileged state of consciousness," Sacks writes, a condition many actively seek through spiritual practice, meditation or the use of drugs.

If your parent has lost the person he or she loved most in the world, what more privileged state could the mind imagine than to see or hear that person again, no matter how fleetingly?