Famous neurologist/author, massive drug use, and talking philosophical spiders
August 24, 2012, 7:21 pm
The current issue of The New Yorker magazine carries an amazing piece (subscription required) by author and neurologist Oliver Sacks detailing his extensive drug use while a neurology resident at UCLA and a young attending physician in New York.
Sacks — who meticulously describes the drug effects he observed in himself —started with marijuana, but soon escalated to taking 20 pills at a time of the antimuscarinic drug Artane. This caused dry mouth, mydriasis, and anticholinergic delirium, as he found himself having absolutely realistic encounters with friends who weren’t there, as well as a conversation with a spider who inquired if he thought that the philosopher Bertrand Russell had disproved Frege’s paradox.
Early on, Sacks took drugs only on weekends. “During the week, I would avoid drugs, working as a resident at U.C.L.A.’s neurology department.” Some of these weekend episodes involved cocktails of LSD, amphetamine, and hashish. When LSD was not available, Sacks substituted morning-glory seeds, which contain lysergic acid amide, causing drug-induced Capgras Syndrome. (Sacks points out that today these seeds are commonly coated with a pesticide to discourage ingestion.) Injecting intravenously a “large syringe” of morphine produced a 12-hour hallucination of the Battle of Agincourt acted out on the sleeve of his dressing gown. (I did wonder at points — as I have reading some of Sacks’ books such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat — if he was indulging in some literary embellishment.)
When Sacks withdraws from massive doses of chloral hydrate he develops delirium tremens. Finally, after taking a huge dose of amphetamines (causing “a sustained pulse rate close to two hundred and a blood pressure of I-know-not-what”) while reading a 19th-century treatise on migraines, he decides on his life’s work (physician/author) and “never took amphetamines again” — although he doesn’t say if he continued taking other drugs.
A very strange article, but worth reading.
[Photograph of Oliver Sacks from wikipedia.org]