Oliver Sacks Helps Me Explain Hypersensitivity

Monica Cassani

Got a tweet and a link to an article from  that informed me that:

Humans can discriminate between similar odors and detect many substances, sometimes more than rodents and dogs. — “The Myth That Humans Have Poor Smell Is Nonscents” (The Atlantic)

I answered with something similar to the below. I’ve edited and expanded for this post:

We can also know which herbs will heal us and when it’s appropriate to take them (a delightful thing I’ve learned as an amateur herbalist as I heal my brain — more on herbs here). We are insanely out of touch with our animal selves. We have instinct and intuition like all animals… we can relearn and remember these skills:

More on topic, Neil, also on twitter as , shared a paragraph from Oliver Sacks, knowing it would be fascinating to me.

And so, yes, Oliver Sacks helps me explain hypersensitivity! In the following passage he writes about an altered state in which the capacity of the smell sense opens up:

Vivid dream one night, dreamt he was a dog, in a world unimaginably rich and significant in smell. Waking, he found himself in just such a world. “As if I had been totally colour-blind before, and suddenly found myself in a world full of colour.” He did, in fact, have an enhancement of colour vision (“I could distinguish dozens of brown where I’d just seen brown before. My leather bound books, which looked similar before, now all had quite distinct and distinguishable hues”) and a dramatic enhancement of eidetic visual perception and memory (“I could never draw before, I couldn’t “see” things in my mind, but now it was like having a camera lucida in my mind — I “saw” everything as if projected on paper, and just drew the outlines I “saw.” Suddenly I could do the most accurate anatomical drawings.”). But it was the exaltation of smell which really transformed his world: “I had dreamt I was a dog — it was an olfactory dream — and now I awoke to an infinitely redolent world — a world in which all other sensations, enhanced as they were, paled before smell.” And with all this there went a sort of trembling, eager emotion, and a strange nostalgia, as of a lost world, half-forgotten, half recalled.

“I went into a scent shop,” he continued. “I had never had much of a nose for smells before, but now I distinguished each one instantly — and I found each one unique, evocative, a whole world.” He found he could distinguish all his friends — and patients — by smell: “I went into the clinic, I sniffed like a dog, and in that sniff recognised, before seeing them, the twenty patients who were there. Each had his own olfactory physiognomy, a smell-face, far more vivid and evocative, more redolent, of any sight face”. He could smell their emotions — fear, contentment, sexuality — like a dog. He could recognise every street, every shop, by smell — he could find his way around New York, infallibly, by smell.
. . .
“It was a world overwhelmingly concrete, of particulars,” he said, “a world overwhelming in immediacy, in immediate significance”
. . .
Rather suddenly, after three weeks, this strange transformations ceased — his sense of smell, all his senses, returned to normal; he found himself back, with a sense of mingled loss and relief, in his old world of pallor, sensory faintness, non-concreteness and abstraction. “I’m glad to be back,” he said, “but it’s a tremendous loss too. I see now what we give up in being civilised and human. We need the other — the ‘primitive’ — as well.” (from The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks)

That is what it’s like for me all the time — hypersensitivity. I have this sort of acute capacity with all my senses all the time… it’s overwhelming, and it’s also the source of all my healing.

For a long time the hypersensitivity was all jumbled up nightmarish chaos… as it heals, it is becoming simply a heightened state of awareness.

I shared all the above info with my husband, Paul. He commented:

All the way back to Huxley’s use of Blake’s phrase, the doors of perception, there’s been some understanding that there is some kind of neurological switch that can open the floodgates for sensory perception.

The question is, can that switch be left in the on position without overtaxing the nervous system.

Perhaps the key is contained in sleep. Maybe you can sustainably be fully on if you can balance that with sufficiently frequent periods of being fully off.

And from Blake:

If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.

For man has closed himself up till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern. (see context here)

Indeed, sleep resets me and helps me regain balance… even after a short nap things become, once again, much more clear with less overwhelm. On the other hand, when I’m tired I can devolve into total chaos quite quickly and therefore need to make sure I have safe places to be pretty much at all times. This is why travel remains difficult and making plans and commitments too is a challenge. This healing trip is not easy, but it’s fascinating in ways I cannot even begin to express! I try, and I fail. I will continue to do it anyway.


  1. I want to thank you for Beyondmeds, Monica! While my withdrawal has been less horrific than yours–so far–I needed to prepare myself for what might lie ahead. If I hadn’t been forewarned about some of the suffering common to psych withdrawal I know I couldn’t have stuck it out. 🙂

  2. Thank you Monica for the information you share on your site BeyonMeds. The honest and soul baring insights have helped me the last year when I decided to take time off to heal from C-PTSD. In India where I reside there is very little awareness about the effects of abuse and the development of mental illness. Sites like yours have encouraged, enlightened and helped me immensely. I too have decided to share my experiences on my site mindkindmom.com

    Thank you for helping a fellow traveller

  3. As someone who experienced hypersensitivity for much of my life, I must say I agree it is a two edged sword . I am still very sensitive to low frequency electrical and machinery hums and always sleep with a white noise machine in the room . At home I use fans and air filters to circulate and clean air, as well as for their action as white noise machines . I’ve noticed that many times other people are not bothered or don’t even hear the low frequency sounds that i cannot tolerate. For many years I used wax earplugs which didn’t always work . Besides for decades I heard voices ( which were annoying to me) I eventually realized were being generated from inside me . Haloperidol and too rapid withdrawal from it almost cost me my life.
    I’ve learned so much on this journey of personal experimentation to get out from under intolerable phenomena . Here’s what helped me the most : The money which became available to remove all metal from my mouth , all traces of root canals , and was checked for cavitations. I had 15 amalgam’s of various sizes in my mouth ( which are composed of 53% mercury) . I was a new person , falling asleep was no longer a problem , no more voices , super sensitivity subsided except for low frequency sound sensitivity which was reduced . I attribute that to damage caused by 15 electro- shock treatments forced on me in my youth. Also helpful was understanding the underlying truths of Traditional Naturopathy , Homeopathy , and learning the energy healing system Yuen Method . Before the fillings were removed when things got bad I had to invent an improved mineral bath therapy for extreme states which was to take about 1500 mg.of Niacin ( not the non-flushing ) and once the redness appeared to enter a mineral bath filled hot water bath. Rubbing skin down with a foot long luffa which wonderfully soothed the itching . Even during an on coming extreme state this bath enabled sleep and could help one regain equilibrium.I used BathTherapy brand mineral bath which had lithium and other minerals in it (not the original), although now I believe there are even better more pure mineral bath mixtures that have lithium and other minerals available in them, that can be found online in bulk quantities . I used this type of bath as needed . Eventually I moved near a national recreation area so I could easily access outdoor wilderness area’s every day .