Oliver Sacks, the late neurologist who explored the outer reaches of the mind, once said something in a TED talk that sounds very much like a couple of passages from Midsummer Night’s Dream. Given that Shakespeare also explored the full breadth of our humanity, perhaps that’s no coincidence. Here’s Sacks:
We see with the eyes, but we see with the brain as well, and seeing with the brain is often called “imagination,” and 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 seem to come from the outside, and to mimic perception.
In Midsummer, Helena comes up with a theory about why Demetrius prefers Hermia, even though Helena is just as beautiful. Blind Cupid provides her with the image she needs:
Love looks not with the eyes but with the mind.
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath Love’s mind of any judgment taste—
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is Love said to be a child,
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.
As waggish boys in game themselves forswear,
So the boy Love is perjured everywhere.
For ere Demetrius looked on Hermia’s eyne,
He hailed down oaths that he was only mine.
And when this hail some heat from Hermia felt,
So he dissolved, and showers of oaths did melt.
Sacks is best known for his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and he was fascinated by how our brains play tricks on us. In his TED talk he explains how the brain is particularly apt to mess with those who are seeing impaired. You can read about the science here but this is the result:
It is only if one is visually impaired or blind that the process is interrupted. And instead of getting normal perception, you’re getting an anarchic, convulsive stimulation, or release, of all of these visual cells in the inferotemporal cortex. So, suddenly you see a face. Suddenly you see a car. Suddenly this, and suddenly that. The mind does its best to organize and to give some sort of coherence to this, but not terribly successfully.
Sacks distinguishes between imagination and hallucination whereas Theseus in Midsummer conflates fantasizing lovers, imagining poets, and hallucinating madmen. In the king’s defense, he is not a neurologist. Here he is talking with Hippolyta about the lovers’ account of their night in the woods:
‘Tis strange my Theseus, that these
lovers speak of.
More strange than true: I never may believe
These antique fables, nor these fairy toys.
Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
More than cool reason ever comprehends.
The lunatic, the lover and the poet
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold,
That is, the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen’s beauty in a brow of Egypt [a gypsy]:
The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
Such tricks hath strong imagination,
That if it would but apprehend some joy,
It comprehends some bringer of that joy;
Or in the night, imagining some fear,
How easy is a bush supposed a bear!
Like Sacks, Shakespeare was fascinated by puckish tricks of the mind, and I could imagine Sacks seeing the mind as a “merry wanderer of the night” who misleads wanderers. Later in Midsummer, Theseus notes that that the audience and the players are not seeing the same production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Hipployta here is the voice of common sense, which the mind can turn upside down in an instant:
This is the silliest stuff that ever I heard.
The best in this kind are but shadows; and the worst
are no worse, if imagination amend them.
It must be your imagination then, and not theirs.
If we imagine no worse of them than they of
themselves, they may pass for excellent men.
The particular phenomenon that Sacks discusses in his talk was discovered in the 18th century by Charles Bonnet when observing his grandfather following cataract surgery. The phenomenon became known as Charles Bonnet syndrome:
The first thing he [the grandfather] said was he saw a handkerchief in midair. It was a large blue handkerchief with four orange circles. And he knew it was a hallucination. You don’t have handkerchiefs in midair. And then he saw a big wheel in midair. But sometimes he wasn’t sure whether he was hallucinating or not, because the hallucinations would fit in the context of the visions. So on one occasion, when his granddaughters were visiting them, he said, “And who are these handsome young men with you?” And they said, “Alas, Grandpapa, there are no handsome young men.” And then the handsome young men disappeared. It’s typical of these hallucinations that they may come in a flash and disappear in a flash. They don’t usually fade in and out. They are rather sudden, and they change suddenly.
Now compare this with Prospero’s famous speech in the Tempest. He’s talking about illusion he has created but he can be seen as Shakespeare describing theater’s ability to take over our minds:
These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air;
And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-cap’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.
Both Shakespeare and Sacks realized that our reality, because it is mediated by our minds, is far more fragile, but also far more wondrous, than we think. Or as Prospero puts it,
We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.
Sacks would agree with this summation. May he sleep in peace.
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