There was a medical student, Stephen D., who used lots of cocaine, PCP, and amphetamines. One night, he dreamt that he was a dog. When he awoke, he reported a pronounced sense of vision. He found that he could now distinguish between dozens of subtly different shades and draw beautiful sketches of the human body. Above all, he found that his sense of smell had become greatly pronounced. Then, some three weeks later, he found that he no longer had a strong sense of smell or sight.
At the time when Sacks was writing, drugs like cocaine (“uppers”) weren’t regarded as harmful in the same way they are now. Stephen D.’s drug use had some unexpected consequences: they heightened his artistic abilities, and his senses, suggesting that these skills were locked inside him all along, and only made accessible because of a neurological change.
It’s been sixteen years since Sacks learned about Stephen D.’s case, and it’s now commonly accepted that amphetamines can be dangerous. Stephen D. is now a successful doctor, but he’s often nostalgic for his drug days, especially the brief period during which he had terrific smell and sight.
As with many of the other neurological abnormalities he discusses in the book, Sacks doesn’t say that people should use amphetamines; however, he seems to respect Stephen’s nostalgia for the brief time in his life when he experienced these heightened senses.
Following the ideas of Sigmund Freud, Sacks speculates that, neurologically speaking, a pronounced sense of smell is often associated with a stronger libido. In treating Tourette’s patients with L-Dopa, Sacks has often found that the drug creates an excited, hyper-sexual state, paired with a heightened sense of smell. Sacks argues that there is a “universality of inhibition” in our society, such that people’s sex drives and, perhaps, their senses are repressed. Whether or not one believes that such forms of repression are necessary, one could argue that, at times, “we need to be dogs and not men.”
Sacks takes a philosophical, political view of his subject, arguing that civilization represses not only the individual’s needs and desires, but also the individual’s very senses. Once again, Sacks doesn’t outright say that society is wrong to inhibit people, but suggests that, at the very least, there are brief times when people should be able to live with fewer inhibitions, as Stephen D. did (and as Ray from Part Two now does on weekends).
In the Postscript, Sacks discusses a man who sustained a head injury and damaged his olfactory tracts, losing his sense of smell. The man was devastated—previously, he’d taken smell for granted, but now realized how important it was to his life. Strangely, however, the man reported being able to smell the rich odor of his pipe. Neurologists found that the man’s sense of smell was completely gone, suggesting that the “odor” the man detected in the pipe was a kind of “olfactory imagery,” allowing him to recreate smells in his cortex, even without sensory stimulation. Much like the deaf Beethoven imagining music in his head, this man could imagine smells.
The man’s ability to remember his pipe is reminiscent of Sacks’s discussion of phantoms in an earlier chapter. Humans are so used to receiving sensory data that, even after they lose the ability to receive this data, they sometimes seem to hallucinate their perception of it.