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mental health mondays :: seeing things [or hearing, or feeling or smelling...]

if you had to pick one symptom that most western-world dwellers could agree is a sure sign of having the crazies, it would be hallucinating- a sensory perception or response in the absence of a real-world stimulus. "hearing voices" or being instructed to do things by voices is one of the most common cultural tropes about insanity in the contemporary world, since david berkowitz decided to try to implicate his neighbour's dog...

hundreds of years ago, people who had hallucinations were heralded as religious leaders. or condemned as being possessed by demons and then killed. it was kind of political. the point is that up until relatively recently, society approached hallucinations from a relatively humble perspective, assuming that if a person could detect sights, sounds, or other stimuli that weren't immediately evident that what they reported was probably important. with the rise of science, the pendulum shifted to the other extreme and now, when someone insistently speaks about something that isn't present, we assume that what they have to say is automatically irrelevant and untrustworthy. we have become happily convinced that we know it all.

ARE YOU HALLUCINATING? ARE YOU SURE?



in fact, hallucinations are almost uncomfortably common [even discounting those that are drug-induced], it's just that the majority of people who get them have them in certain specific circumstances and are able to contextualise them. for instance, many people experience hypnogogic hallucinations- distortions of sensory reality that occur in the transition period from wakefulness to sleep. many, many people experience hallucinations that are often quite vivid and can last for minutes as we're lying in bed, trying to drift off. those of us who have experienced them [and will admit to doing so] will know that they are very different from dreams, so there isn't much danger of confusing them. likewise, many of us think that we hear things when we don't, or believe that we smell something "funny" when others can't, or show some other propensity towards an imaginary stimulus at different points in our daily lives. now, most of you are going to react to that by thinking that those don't count. that's silly. of course they count, we just like to categorise them as different from the guy who yells at an unseen companion walking down the street because that's them and we're us.

ok, ok, there is a difference, but the difference isn't in the hallucinations themselves, but in their frequency and in our self-consciousness about indulging them. many of us mutter to ourselves [or to our pets, or plants, or whatever we choose as a listener to hide the fact that we're really talking to ourselves] on a regular basis, but we severely curb that tendency when others can see us [when we can], because we know that such behaviour is suspect. by that definition, "crazy" is more about a loss of self-consciousness than anything else.

certainly, hallucinations are still a key indicator of serious mental illness, but doctors are also encouraged to discount other conditions, like certain forms of epilepsy or, quite commonly, sleep disorders. they look into possible other causes because, despite the fact that we're convinced our world has lost its mystery and that everything about our bodies has been categorised, rationalised, measured, tested and accounted for, medical professionals still have pretty much no idea why people hallucinate.

fruedian theorists posit ideas on why people might hallucinate the specific things they do [it's about your mom] and there is general agreement that hallucinations and mental disorders are often linked, no one seems to be able to figure out the science of why your brain sets about convincing itself that it senses something that isn't there. particularly mysterious are hallucinations that aren't triggered by things like drugs or alcohol. so many different people have so many different kinds of hallucinations under so many different circumstances that it's become like trying to say with certainty what makes us yawn. it just happens and no one's quite sure why.

in many ways, we're still back in the dark ages, waiting to be persuaded that it really is god talking to us.

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