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Health > Mental Health >Hallucinations


Hallucinations-sensing things which aren’t there-are a disturbing experience which can have many causes. Fortunately, these are seldom really serious.

‘Seeing things’ is probably the most common everyday phrase for hallucination, but it is not the most helpful. Hallucination can involve any one of our five senses, or a combination of them - so that we are capable of not only ‘seeing’ things but of ‘hearing’, ‘smelling’, ‘tasting’ or ‘touching’ them too.

Few people go through life without experiencing the occasional hallucination, and fewer still have any lasting annoyance from them. They have to be caused by something, and in most cases, stopping the hallucination is as simple as removing the cause, unless, of course, the cause is some serious disease.

So in most cases, we can regard hallucination simply as a temporary interference, or disarray in the normal working of the brain.

Essentially, hallucinations divide into three easily distinguishable categories.

In childhood and old age

The first category comprises probably the most common and least worrying forms.

Very few parents do not come up against childish hallucinations in the form of ‘night terrors’. The child lies awake, perhaps because there is something particularly exciting planned for the next day, and after an hour or so of starting into the semi-darkness, hallucinations begin.

The room may suddenly swell in size-or else the child suddenly experiences a shrinking sensation. There may be strange noises in the ears, or pins and needles in the limbs. Or images seen in nightmares may persist after the child has awoken.

Doctors do not know exactly why or how such hallucinations occur, and in any case, the cause is not important. What matters is the parents’ response to the child who is temporarily upset by the experience, and this should be the commonsense one-of giving affection and reassurance, above all of not betraying alarm.

The elderly also experience hallucinations as part of what doctors call senile dementia-the sad deterioration-mental, and physical-which sometimes goes with growing old. Again, the only treatment is reassurance and affection.

And, as is well known, extreme tiredness, hunger or thirst, or combinations of the three, can make people hallucinate. The most common experience of hallucination caused by tiredness is probably experienced when driving long distances. The vision starts to ‘swim’, and the wise driver pulls off the road to rest.


Hallucinations of a more serious nature can be caused by drugs or alcohol.

Drinking too much does not in itself cause hallucinations, but when a heavy drinker tries to ‘dry out’, he will often experience ‘the DTs’, or delirium tremens as a symptom of withdrawal, with accompanying hallucinations.

Similarly, withdrawal for excessive does of barbiturates (sedative drugs commonly prescribed as sleeping pills) can cause hallucinations.

Some drugs commonly taken for recreational purposes cause hallucinations, notably LSD. These are very often visual, with altered colours, and often a sensation that objects, when looked at for any length of time, are moving or ‘breathing’, or even dissolving down to their competent parts or ‘atoms’.

The frequency and intensity of such experiences varies not only with the individual, but with the strength of the does and the circumstances under which it is taken.

Apart from the obvious physical dangers-at their most extreme when driving-of hallucinating under drugs, this type of experience is probably not permanently harmful in itself. However, the underlying reason for the need to take drugs, or the possibility of addiction, is cause for concern and likely to need specialist advice and treatment.


This is worth knowing because actual, severe drug-induced hallucinations may be disturbing, and it may help to know that the experiences-however weird -do go away in the end.

Typical of what may be experienced is this exact from a hospital report on a woman withdrawing from barbiturates:

‘She had a marked tremor (shaking) and was unsteady on her feet. She had hallucinated, thought she heard the voice of her husband telling her that he was coming to get her in a taxi.

‘Soon she began seeing people climbing trees and looking through the window at her. She became violent and abusive to the staff. Even after receiving sedative medication, she began picking up imaginary objects and muttering ‘thank you’ as if she were given them.

‘Later, she was observed reaching for an imaginary glass and drinking from it. She ate imaginary food and picked imaginary cigarettes from the air. She heard non-existent doorbells and an ambulance siren.’

This particular woman recovered completely after a few hours, with no long-term effects.


Hallucinations may also be the symptom of some mental disorders or diseases of the nervous system, and in this case are obviously likely to represent a more serious general condition. Schizophrenia (a type of severe mental illness), may, for instance, be characterized by periods of hallucination. Drawings done by patients during their ‘bad’ phases can give a vivid impression of what is undergone, with familiar objects-say a cat-being transformed from a furry, happy creature into a monstrous pattern of jagged teeth.

Epilepsy-the disease characterized by ‘fits’-and a rare hereditary condition known as Huntingdon’s chorea can cause hallucinations, as can brain tumours.

Hallucinations are not the only symptoms of these disease, nor are they, in the majority of cases, warning signs of them. By the time a patient is experiencing hallucinations as a result of his condition, he or she is likely to be under treatment.

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