The LA drug education of Oliver Sacks

milch-oliver-sacks-ltla.jpgMost colorful green room in the city? Oliver Sacks with David Milch in Santa Monica in 2012. Live Talks Los Angeles photo.

Three years ago, Oliver Sacks spoke to Jon Wiener in the Los Angeles Review of Books about 1963, when he was a neurology resident at UCLA and first experimented with psychedelic drugs. A fun read about those times in LA and about a brain scientist's approach to drugs. Here's a sample; read the whole thing. Sacks died Sunday in New York of cancer at age 82.

I think I was afraid [of hallucinogenic drugs] — or maybe not passionately interested. But when I became a neurology resident — I was 30 at the time — I was also part of the beach culture in Venice and Santa Monica. Everyone did drugs. And I thought, "Well, why not try?" but I was also full of curiosity because neurochemistry had come of age then, and there were all sorts of new ideas about neurotransmitters and the effects of L-DOPA and other drugs on the brain. So I broke my long virginity, first very gently, with cannabis, with some pot, and then I tried other things.

JW: Let’s start with that first joint you smoked. When and where did you do this, and how did it go?

OS: It was in 1963. I had moved from Santa Monica out to Topanga Canyon. I had a little house there. And I lit up and took a deep inhalation — and for some reason gazed at my hand. My hand seemed to get larger and larger, and at the same time more remote from me, so that finally it looked like a cosmic hand, spread across the whole universe. I found that very intriguing, and I was torn between the neurological concept of megalopia, when things look large, and a feeling that this was a sort of mystical experience of a primitive kind.


JW: When and how did you first come to take LSD?

OS: I think it was a few months after I smoked that joint. There was a lot of LSD around. In one of the early experiences I had with LSD, recklessly, I had mixed it with some other drugs and topped it off with some cannabis. I’d been reading about the color indigo, and was puzzled by the fact that no two people seemed to agree on what indigo was. Newton added indigo to the spectrum because he thought the spectrum ought to have seven colors, as the musical scale has seven notes.

Anyhow I got stoned on acid. And when I was really high, I said, “I want to see indigo, now!” And, as if thrown by a paintbrush, a huge, trembling, pear-shaped drop of purest indigo appeared on the wall in front of me. It seemed wonderfully luminous, and sort of numinous at the same time. So much so that I thought, "This is the color of heaven. This must be the color which Giotto tried to get into his paintings but could never get. And maybe he couldn’t get it because it doesn’t exist.”

I lent toward this in a sort of rapture, and it suddenly disappeared, leaving me with an immense sense of loss. I had had a sense of bliss or rapture, almost orgasm, seeing the indigo.

The interview was for Sacks' book "Hallucinations." The photo above is of Sacks with David Milch in the green room before a Live Talks Los Angeles session on "Hallucinations" at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. Sacks could not climb the stairs up to the actual green room in the theater's projection booth, so LTLA's Ted Habte-Gabr arranged to use the store next door, Chico's. That explains the colorful sweaters and racks. Here's video of the 2012 conversation.

Oliver Sacks in conversation with David Milch from Ted Habte-Gabr on Vimeo.

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