How Hallucinogens Taught Dr. Oliver Sacks Empathy

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Oliver Sacks is perhaps the world’s most famous neurologist, thanks to his best-selling books, including Musicophilia, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and, most recently, Hallucinations. Today is the doctor and author’s 81st birthday (hat tip to Maria Popova for pointing that out), which seems like a good excuse to revisit this video he recently made about his work. 

In it, Sacks describes how hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and amphetamines, which he took for both doctor-y and not-so-doctor-y reasons, may have helped him become a better neurologist:

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 the sort that 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, as such colors and patterns are often the prelude to more complex hallucinations with drugs.

On empathy:

So one bonus, then, of drug experiences is that it allowed me to be more empathic, and to understand from my own experiences what various patients were going through. But also, it gave me some very direct knowledge of what physiologists would call the ‘reward systems’ of the brain. It had been found, for example, with rats in the 1960s that if they had an electrode in certain nuclei of the brain, and could get a jolt of electricity, which apparently gave them great pleasure, the rats might go back to the lever again and again. They would ignore food, they would ignore sex, and they would keep pressing the lever, till they died.

On how drugs make us a lot like lab rats:

For good and for evil, I think I experienced a similar sort of thing when taking large doses of amphetamine. It produced intense pleasure, sometimes pleasure of an almost orgasmic degree, And this sort of pleasure is one sort of wants it to go on and on even though it doesn’t really teach one anything, and it’s maybe sort of base in a way, and it almost reduces one to the level of one of these rats pressing the reward center.

If this is what this guy does for work, imagine the shenanigans he’ll get up to for a birthday celebration.