I have been reading Hallucinations, a new book by Oliver Sacks. The astonishing range of the visual, tactile, auditory, olfactory, cognitive and other hallucinations described by Sacks through the recounting of hundreds of case studies and clinical observations has on me the effect of making me wonder whether perhaps everybody suffers from these bizarre experiences. Sacks himself, who did some pretty serious drugs at an earlier time in his life [both for research and for recreation], tells a great many stories about his own encounters with hallucinations.
The only example he gives that connects with my own experience – and a pretty tame one at that – is the people who, after a long hard night drive on a highway, lie down to sleep and see the road in their mind’s eye, as though it were still really there. Hardly worth mentioning in the same breath with some of Sacks’ really dramatic examples.
But there is one experience I have had repeatedly that I have always found very strange. It fits nicely into Sacks’ chapter on “Narcolepsy and Night Hags.” I suffer from what is apparently a mild case of narcolepsy. Quite often, when I am playing a card game on my computer, such as FreeCell or Spider Solitaire [and I play thousands upon thousands of both!], just at the point where the game is won and I have only two or three moves left, I will fall asleep for a few moments. When I wake up, I am looking at the computer screen, and I complete the game, making the last moves. Oddly, I never fall asleep in the middle of a game, only at the penultimate moves.
I find it very difficult, if not impossible, to read steadily for long periods of time. My eyelids grow heavy and I nod off for a few moments, the book still in my lap or on my desk. I have sometimes wondered whether that is why I have never in fact read a great deal, carefully selecting the books I do read because something tells me that I must read them, that the reading of them will change my life. Thus, for example, even though I am a Kant scholar of some reputation, there are great swaths of Kant’s writings that I have never read. I simply know that they have nothing to tell me.
Once in my life this narcolepsy, if that is the right name for it, came close to killing me. Driving from UMass Amherst to my home in Belmont, Massachusetts along Route 2 inside the Route 128 perimeter, where the road has a wide median strip dividing the east and west traffic, I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up careening across the grass median at fifty miles an hour or faster. I was able to regain control of the car and simply drive back onto the road. Terrified, I took myself to the Sleep Clinic at
. They wired me up for EEGs and had me spend the entire night sleeping while they filmed me. Peter Bent Brigham Hospital
The diagnosis? It seems that the facial and bodily twitches with which I have been afflicted since the age of five were jolting me to less deep levels of sleep [not waking me up, just disturbing my deep sleep] so that I was not getting enough REM sleep [rapid eye movement sleep, which Sacks reports was discovered by two University if Chicago doctors in 1954.] The doctor handling my case told me to stop drinking caffeinated coffee, which at that point I as consuming in large amounts. I managed to do that over a three week period, and for the past thirty years have drunk only decaf.
The odd thing about this phenomenon is that it seems to have no connection with being tired, at least not in any ordinary sense of that term. I can drive for long periods of time when I am tired without the telltale heaviness of the eyelids, which feels as though I have been drugged. And that narcoleptic sleepiness can come on even though I feel quite alert and rested. But I have learned that if I am driving when the feeling comes on, I must drive off at the next exit and just sit for a few moments with my eyes shut, nodding off if I can. Then it is safe to get back on the road.