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The Spectrum of Perception:

Distinguishing between hallucinations and “hallucinations”

Hallucinations are said to be false perceptions that occur in the absence of appropriate external stimuli, and are usually seen by only one individual. Most often they are experienced by people with specific kinds of mental illness, or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. However, it is important to distinguish between hallucinations and “hallucinations”.

For instance, it is known that children normally have much more vivid visual and auditory experiences than adults. Especially when they are anxious and before going to sleep, many children experience visual, auditory, and even tactile experiences which they may feel come from the outside but they may not be quite certain about whether they are real, and they may provide their own explanations and interpretations, like believing that a shadow is a substance (Mosse 1958). Wertham (1950) stressed that most children have a positive eidetic imagery that has to be taken into consideration while analysing these and similar experiences.

Or let us consider cases:

(a) when someone has synaesthesia and his perceptions and interpretations are very different from what is known as ‘normal reality’;

(b) when someone’s senses are very acute and the person can see/hear/smell, etc. the stimuli that people with ‘normal’ senses cannot;

(c) if someone’s perception fluctuates, creating different ‘realities’, which are often interpreted as distortions,

(d) if while remembering they actually hear, smell, see objects, places, people;

(e) when thinking about abstract notions they have to create metaphors (as their sensory-based thinking mode is concrete) and visualising these ‘metaphorical images’ in order to understand what is going on, does it mean that the person is hallucinating?

All these and similar scenarios can be (mis)interpreted as ‘hallucinations’ by ‘normal’ people.

Imagination and fantasy that help to interpret the world

Sensory and emotional sensitivities are often associated with the ‘fantasy-prone personality’, identified by Wilson and Barber (1983) in women “who fantasize a large part of the time, who typically see, hear, smell, touch and fully experience what they fantasize”. In these individuals, vivid fantasising start from an early age, when imaginary companions and imaginary worlds are experienced “as real as real”. While all children go through the stage of fantasising and having imaginary friends and eventually grow out of it, highly sensitive persons live with their fantasies practically all their lives. The authors suggest that it is the ability to have vivid sensory experiences and the vivid memories associated with them that are precursors of fantasy-proneness, providing the raw material from which the individuals construct their very lucid fantasies (Wilson & Barber 1983).

Some people with autism have vivid imagination that ‘blends’ into the reality all their life. It does not mean they ‘live in their fantasy world’ but rather that they interpret the reality using vivid imaging metaphors that make this new perspective of seeing things very real. E.g., Donna Williams wondered if it was others who were missing out by not seeing things the way she did:

The chair fell over because I walked into it. Logically this was proof that it had felt me knock it. I sat on a chair… The chair clearly knew how heavy I was. I felt sorry for sitting on a chair sometimes. It was as though I was imposing. My feet made indentations on the carpet as I walked across it. It obviously felt I was there. ‘Hi carpet,’ I said, glad to be home. My bed was my friend, my coat protected me and kept me inside, things that made noise had their unique voices which said vroom, ping, or whatever. Windows looked outside at the day, curtains kept the light from coming inside, trees waved, the wind blew and whistled, leaves danced, and water ran. I told my shoes where they were going so they would take me there.

A tin came down from the shelf. I laughed. It looked like it was suddenly committing suicide as it jumped from the wall. Things never thought or felt anything complex but they gave me a sense of being in company. I felt secure in being able to be in company in ‘the world’ even if it were things” (Williams 1999).

When Donna was told a rule that things need a nervous system in order to think or feel, and there was no exception, she felt trapped by this new logic her mind could not continue to deny; her emotions could not bear it:

Every time I held on to a curtain, every time I looked at my shoes, a new perception of objects as dead things without knowledge, without feeling, without volition, nagged me. I felt my own aloneness with an intensity I had always been protected from… Everything around me had no awareness that I existed. I was no longer in company…

I wanted to run back into ‘my world’ but it had been bombed. Blocked, unused inner knowledge and understanding… There was now no other way to express it through tears. I hit the floor which had once be aware I was walking on it. The floor I had sprawled my body across, the carpet I run my fingers through, my special sunny spot in the middle of the room, were all dead and always had been and I hadn’t known. I realized I’d lived my life in a world of object corpses. God has a curious sense of humour” (Williams 1999).

Some autistic individuals have to check what is real and what is part of their imagination, because their reality is so different from the one experienced by the majority. For example:

All my life I have struggled with the distinction between reality and imagination. “Did I make this person up or does he/she really exist? Was this a story or a true event? Is the chair telling me its feelings or am I projecting my feelings into it?” Questions like these are almost daily on my mind. At times I would even find myself wondering whether I am really standing in front of the class, watching that teacher with my voice and my looks talking to the children, as if she had nothing to do with me. Perhaps I have spent too much time in my own little world, or maybe some part of my brain didn’t develop in the usual way, causing thoughts and feelings which alienate me from myself and the world around me. Or, [as her friend speculated] there are a lot more dimensions to life and only a few people have the natural gift (or curse) to tap into them” (Kammer 2007).

“Hallucinations” in relation to perceiving non-physical reality

Should perception of non-physical realities be considered a hallucination? The answer to this question depends on the belief system(s) and explanatory model(s) of the observer. If we start with the assumption that there is no any other reality except the one we live in, then the answer is ‘yes’ and those who can ‘see’/’hear’, etc. anything outside of our material world are deemed to be diagnosed with mental problems.

In Western societies the attitude to those who claim to have ‘unusual experiences’ or to visit non-physical dimensions is negative, and experiencers are described with psychiatric terminology by professionals (and ‘mad’/ ‘crazy’/ ‘insane’ by the general public). In contrast, in some so-called ‘primitive’ societies, ‘unusual’ experiences are valid and constitute a significant part of their everyday lives. Their belief systems and explanatory models are different, leading not only to the interpretation of ‘unusual’ experiences as ‘usual’ and ‘normal’, but also encouraging to experience these “normal” (for a particular culture) phenomena. Is it “seeing what you expect to see” (i.e., illusions/ hallucinations created by the brain of the person experiencing it – images from within, not without)? Not quite. It is more about accepting what is “normal” (and functional) for certain societies.

Let me explain. During special rituals all the members of the group achieve the state when they have the same spiritual experiences, in accordance with their belief system. There is a plethora of published anthropological accounts, revealing unexplained phenomena, when anthropologists themselves are participants in the rituals and they actually experience ‘spiritual powers’. One of these accounts is by an anthropologist Eddie Turner (1992) who conducted her fieldwork in Zambia in 1985. During a Ndembu ceremony, the anthropologist actually saw a spiritual manifestation; Turner claims that the ‘visions’ were ‘out there’, not “projected through the mind”.

Gardner (2007) has been fascinated by different worldviews he has learned about in the fieldwork, when anthropologists have a great opportunity to get glimpses of differing realities, and sometimes also achieve explanations of them that can be accepted scientifically. However, every once in a while, the glimpses the anthropologists get are baffling: “While the empirical facts of these cases are as clear to me as can be, and while my mind continues to ask for a rational explanation of them, I am obliged to conclude for now that reality is more complex than the scientific side of me has been able to accept”

So why do we deny the existence of something we do not understand yet?

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