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Nov. 9th, 2014

I've also been reading non-fiction lately.

Hallucinations from Oliver Sacks is, as every book by the good Dr. Sacks, interesting, thoughtful, and compassionate. It is a survey of the different types of hallucinations (visual, auditory, even olfactory and proprioceptive) associated with a range of conditions and situations. It covers everything from Charles Bonnet syndrome in people with failing eyesight to Parkinson's, migraines, and epilepsy, dealing also with hallucinations that occur on the threshold of sleep, during delirium, and with drug use. The list goes on.

A couple of semi-random notes.

One, I was actually surprised to find how often hallucinations are benign or fairly benign.

Two, I love it when Dr. Sacks starts talking about his own experiences. Here, for instance, he is describing some of the hallucinations he's had during his early experiments with drugs:

I went back into the house and had put on the kettle for another cup of tea when my attention was caught by a spider on the kitchen wall. As I drew nearer to look at it, the spider called out, "Hello!" It did not seem at all strange to me that a spider should say hello (any more than it seemed strange to Alice when the White Rabbit spoke). I said, "Hello, yourself," and with this we started a conversation, mostly on rather technical matters of analytic philosophy. Perhaps this direction was suggested by the spider's opening comment: did I think that Bertrand Russel had exploded Frege's paradox?

Another book I read is Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. It is 20 years old, but it has aged well (over 18000 citations, actually).

There is a very persistent idea in lay psychology: that 'thinking' and 'emotions' are two different, sometimes even opposite, functions of the human mind, and that emotion simply interferes with decision-making. Neuroscience, however, has already rather convincingly shown this not to be true, which is what this book explores in detail. Descartes' Error (named so because it argues against the body-mind dualism proposed by Descartes and also, I'm sure, because that's quite a catchy title) is an in-depth discussion of the role emotions and body states play in decision-making. It shows, through case studies, that this role must be integral and that humans depend on functional processing of emotions for making complex decisions. The book also introduces a hypothesis about the possible mechanism of this action, the "somatic-marker hypothesis", and talks about a few studies that support it. (Since so much time has passed since the book's first publication, I've looked up the current state of this research on Wikipedia and found that there's critique of the hypothesis and variations on it, but nothing really conclusive has come up yet). All in all, not an easy read, but certainly interesting and, at times, enlightening: it is rather easy for a lay person like myself to believe, while not looking at it closely, that it is possible for a human to reason in some "pure", non-emotional way. This book is a reminder not to believe that.