The reality of hallucinations is more complex than you might think: ScienceAlert

Hallucinations are often portrayed in movies as terrifying experiences. Think Jake Gyllenhaal seeing a monster rabbit in Donnie DarkoLeonardo DiCaprio experiencing the torture of shutter islandNatalie Portman in black swanor Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker.

Every character experiences some form of psychological distress. Scenes connect to or even explain a decline into chaos and violence.

Experiencing hallucinations can be distressing for some people and their loved ones. However, focusing only on such depictions perpetuates myths and misconceptions about hallucinations. They also potentially perpetuate harmful stereotypes of mental distress.

movies like Clown use an arguably incorrect broad brush to connect hallucinations, mental health issues, and violence. This reinforces the misconception that hallucinations always indicate mental health problems, when this is not necessarily true.

What are hallucinations?

Hallucinations are perceptions that occur without a corresponding external stimulus. They can engage any of the human senses.

Auditory hallucinations involve hearing things that aren’t there, such as voices or sounds.

Visual hallucinations involve seeing things that aren’t there, such as lights, objects, or people.

Tactile hallucinations involve feeling things that aren’t there, such as the feeling of something crawling on your skin. Gustatory hallucinations involve taste and smell.

People often confuse hallucinations with delusions. The two may be related, but they are not the same thing. Delusions are false beliefs held firmly by a person despite evidence to the contrary. A person may believe that someone is following him (an illusion) and see and hear that figure (a hallucination).

Prior to the 17th century, hallucinations were commonly considered to be of cultural and religious significance.

However, between the mid-1600s and 1700s, hallucinations began to be understood as medical concerns, relating to both mental and physical illnesses. That medical lens of hallucination remains. We now know which parts of the brain are activated when someone hallucinates.

What causes hallucinations?

Hallucinations can be a sign of serious mental health issues. The presence or experience of hallucinations is, for example, one of the criteria used to diagnose schizophrenia (delusions are another).

Hallucinations can also provide information about mental health issues such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

However, hallucinations can also be linked to other medical conditions.

Hallucinations can be caused by a fever, as well as illness or damage that affects the brain or optic nerves.

Parkinson’s disease causes visual, auditory, and tactile hallucinations in up to 75% of people.

Epilepsy and migraine are also linked to hallucinations and can cause perceptual disturbances, sometimes for days.

Substance use, particularly hallucinogenic drugs like LSD or ketamine, can also cause hallucinations.

Hallucinations can also occur in people without any underlying medical conditions. For example, some people may experience hallucinations during times of extreme distress or grief.

Environmental factors such as sleep deprivation can cause a variety of perceptual disturbances, including visual and auditory hallucinations. Sensory deprivation, such as being placed in a soundproofed room, can also cause hallucinations.

Still, the common image persists that hallucinations are only linked to mental health problems.

Hallucinations can be frightening, but not always

Hallucinations can be frightening for people and their families. And the stigma and misconceptions surrounding hallucinations can have a significant impact on someone experiencing them.

People who have hallucinations may be afraid or ashamed of being thought of as “bizarre” or “unsafe” and therefore may avoid seeking help.

But hallucinations aren’t always frightening or disturbing. Some hallucinations can be neutral or even pleasant. People have been sharing their positive and empowering experiences of hallucinations on social media.

In the example below, we see one person’s positive experience of hearing voices. However, we rarely see such depictions of hallucinations in movies.

@xoradmagical #schizoaffective #schizophrenic #hallucination #hallucinations #fypage #psychosis #bipolardisorder #art #drawing #chestergang #drawus #artwork #art ♬ original sound – XORAD

How to support someone with hallucinations

If you are with someone who is experiencing hallucinations, especially if these are new or distressing for them, here are several ways you can support them:

  • Ask the person if they want to talk about what they are experiencing and listen without judgment: “I can’t hear what you’re hearing, can you tell me about that?”
  • To hear. Don’t argue or blame. Recognize that the hallucinations are real to the person, even if they are seemingly unusual and not based in reality: “I can’t see what you see, but I understand that you see.”
  • Empathize with how the person feels about their experiences. “I can’t feel it or taste it, but I can imagine it would be a difficult experience. I can see how much that worries you.”
  • Support someone to seek care. Persistent or distressing hallucinations should always be evaluated by a qualified healthcare professional. It’s important to establish possible causes: “I can’t hear like you, but let’s talk to a healthcare professional. He can help us understand what might be going on.”
  • Encourage the person to reach out to their peers as well as listening groups for ongoing support.

We would like to thank Tim Heffernan, Deputy Commissioner of the New South Wales Commission on Mental Health, who contributed to this article.

If this article has raised concerns for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, and you are in Australia, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. In an emergency, dial 000.

Christopher Patterson, Senior Lecturer, School of Nursing, University of Wollongong and Nicholas Procter, Professor and Chair: Mental Health Nursing, University of South Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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