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Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations and Creativity

Both naturalistic and out of the ordinary sensory experiences have inspired artistic creation since our cave painting days.

In the Introduction to his book on the topic, neurologist Oliver Sacks notes that in the early sixteenth century, the term hallucination meant simply “a wandering mind.”

He explains that “in general, hallucinations are quite unlike dreams. Hallucinations often seem to have the creativity of imagination, dreams, or fantasy — or the vivid detail and externality of perception.

“But hallucination is none of these, though it may share some neurophysiological mechanisms with them.”

He says his favorite definition is that given by early psychologist William James: “An hallucination is a strictly sensational form of consciousness, as good and true a sensation as if there were a real object there. The object happens to be not there, that is all.”

In a TED presentation Oliver Sacks: What hallucination reveals about our minds, he points out “we are familiar with the landscapes of our own imagination, our inscapes. We’ve lived with them all our lives.

“But there are also hallucinations as well, and hallucinations are completely different. They don’t seem to be of our creation. They don’t seem to be under our control. They seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.”

He also refers to blind people often experiencing visual experiences, and said “There must be hundreds of thousands of blind people who have these hallucinations, but are too scared to mention them.”

Dr. Sacks mentioned experiencing visual hallucinations – “these hexagons and complex things” – himself, when having a migraine, and commented, “I wonder whether everyone sees things like this, and whether things like cave art or ornamental art may have been derived from them a bit.”

The image above, of course, is a vintage illustration for “Alice in Wonderland.”

In her article Famous Hallucinations, Mary Montserrat-Howlett briefly notes experiences of artists Robert Schumann, Jim Morrison, William Blake and others, and writes that Lewis Carroll may have had the brain conditions micropsia and macropsia, called “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” – in which people “see objects around them growing or shrinking.”

Dr. Sacks notes that Lewis Carroll “had classical migraines” and writes that when he, Sacks, worked in a migraine clinic as a young neurologist, many patients “habitually saw patterns in their migraine auras, and a few had a host of other strange visual phenomena, including distortion of faces or objects melting or flickering into one another; multiplication of objects or figures; or persistence or recurrence of visual images.”

Having a “wandering mind” or “seeing things” is not necessarily pathological, Sacks emphasizes. And whether we call them hallucinations or visions or whatever, these experiences can and have inspired artists to create.

Book: Hallucinations, by Oliver Sacks.

Image from book: Disney’s Alice in Wonderland: A Visual Companion.


Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations and Creativity

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2012). Oliver Sacks, Hallucinations and Creativity. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 6, 2019, from


Last updated: 20 Nov 2012
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