Hallucinations: What’s the Big Idea?

Hallucinations, which are caused by a range of factors and have had a profound effect on our culture, are grossly misunderstood.

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Hallucinations are one of the best-known neurological phenomena, and their portrayal in culture and religion is undeniably influential on our perception of them. The sheer diversity of hallucinations, their causes, and their effects has created a lack of understanding about them. Despite their important historical influence, the term “hallucination” itself can be seen as difficult to understand. This, coupled with the stigma which surrounds them, makes it difficult for patients to seek the necessary treatment and care. Understanding the causes, implications, and consequences of hallucinations allows for negative stereotypes about hallucinations to become easier to dispel. The best place to begin when understanding these phantasms is by defining them: so, what are hallucinations?

Hallucinations, formally described as “a profound distortion in a person's perception of reality, typically accompanied by a powerful sense of reality,” are incredibly diverse. Hallucinations tend to manifest themselves as auditory (hearing sounds which aren’t present), visual (seeing characters or events which don’t physically exist), olfactory (smelling or tasting scents which aren’t present), or tactile (feeling a sensation which isn’t real).

The roots of these phantasms are both physical and chemical. They can be directly associated with neurological disorders, drug use, and a lack of basic care. A study conducted by scientists Belinda R. Lennox, Bert G. Park, Ian Medley, Peter G. Morris, and Peter B. Jones indicated that schizophrenic hallucinations abnormally hyperactivate the temporal cortex and the prefrontal cortex in patients. The overactivation of neural pathways caused distortions and sudden creation of auditory illusions. Lysergic acid diethylamide acid (LSD acid), one of the best-known hallucinogens, is known to act on serotonin receptors of neurons. The results of serotonin stimulation on specific receptors can lead to cerebral hyperactivity. This causes the brain to create signals without external stimuli, consequently producing illusions. Despite the extremity of neurological diseases and excessive drug/alcohol usage, hallucinations can also be caused by a lack of sleep and malnutrition. A mental health survey conducted by the World Health Organization in 2015 revealed that one in 20 people have experienced hallucinations that weren’t connected to drugs, alcohol, or disorders/diseases.

Owing to the sheer diversity of their causes, the impact of hallucinations on culture and history is undeniable. One of the best examples of their impact on religious culture is illustrated in the manuscript “Scivia,” completed by St. Hildegard of Bingen in 1151. St. Hildegard, formerly a Benedictine nun, reported seeing flashing lights, stars, and fortresses. As she interpreted her visions, she recorded them as the “voice of the Living Light” and compiled them into religious manuscripts, which detailed biblical events such as the creation and the fall of Adam and Eve. Once published, "Scivias" was widely admired throughout the Christian world for its portrayal of divinity. Skeptics of the modern world, however, point out that Hildegarde's visions of light and stars are very similar to neurological auras, which can appear as intense flashes of light and color, and are known to precede neurological events, such as migraines, seizures, and strokes.

Joan of Arc, known best as the young girl who led France to victory in the Hundred Years’ War, presents a similar example. Joan claimed to “hear the voice of God,” which guided her to lead the French army against the English. Though once regarded as a divine calling, modern skeptics doubt the validity of Joan of Arc's "communication with God,” and instead point to auditory hallucinations, likely caused by a form of epilepsy. A study published by Dr. Giuseppe d'Orsi and Paola Tinnuper states, "Joan of Arc may have had a type of epilepsy that affects the part of the brain responsible for hearing, or ‘idiopathic partial epilepsy with auditory features (IPEAF).’”

In contrast to the past interpretation of hallucinations, the modern-day attitude toward them is strongly negative. Hallucinations and mental health are surrounded by a stigma that can be directly traced to their unflattering portrayal in popular culture. A study published in the Singapore Medical Journal indicated that patients who experienced hallucinations often saw the media’s portrayal of their conditions as offensive and unrealistic and stated that the mentally ill were stereotyped as violent, dangerous, and bizarre. Not only did this portrayal further the already existing feeling of isolation in mentally ill patients, but it also caused many to avoid seeking treatment for their conditions, fearing social repercussions.

How do we lift the negative veil on hallucinations? One of the easiest ways to raise awareness about mental health is to open the discussion about symptoms and treatment. Basic education about the causes of hallucinations would greatly increase acceptance and understanding. Analysis of their cultural and historical implications, such as the hallucinations of St. Hildegard and Joan of Arc, would also allow the public to understand mental conditions beyond their negative context. An understanding of negative stereotypes would assist in undoing the stigma by allowing potential sufferers to feel more accepted. Research on the causes and effects of hallucinations should also become mainstream, furthering both the scientific and general community's knowledge about hallucinations. By truly understanding the causes of hallucinations and their cultural impact, it becomes far easier to promote long-overdue universal acceptance for their victims.