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A recent study has huge repercussions towards undoing the stigma of perceiving things that aren’t ‘really there.’

One day as a kid, no older than 8-years-old, I was in my room alone, bedtime, light outside fading. I’d said goodnight to my parents. As I drifted to sleep, I was woken by a fierce whisper. “Ricky!” Startled, my head shot off the pillow. Was that my mum, I thought? The voice was so clear and crisp, from within the room, from up close. My heart was racing, the same way it did on Halloween, when a film scared me. I heard footsteps in the kitchen. My mum was downstairs, far beyond whispering distance.

That wasn’t my first experience of hearing things. Other times, when tired, images would flash in my mind’s eye, sounds in my ears. In days-gone-by, when I used to party and take recreational drugs, I’d often relive the night’s events as I tried to sleep.

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When I experienced a spell of psychosis, these phenomena become consistent. Conversations continued in my head, long after I’d left them in physical proximity.

Naturally, these experiences scared me. Hearing voices was a red flag, and by the time I was comfortable enough to be open about my mental health, including depression and anxiety, I still withheld that part. I felt isolated and alone. But, it turns out, hallucinations are more common than you think. And they aren’t all bad, either.

Misconceptions of Hallucinations

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Hallucinations are “a false sensory perception that has a compelling sense of reality despite the absence of an external stimulus.” I don’t know whether you’ve experienced hallucinations or not, but the chances are, like me, you will have the same stereotype: a sign of pathology or madness, something seen in horror movies such as The Devil’s Rejects or Shutter Island. Whether or not they’re positive in nature, experiencing hallucinations can be disconcerting due to their negative portrayal.

It’s estimated 6-15 percent of the general population experience hallucinations. Because of their nature as false sensory perceptions, hallucinations come in many forms, including auditory, visual, olfactory (smell), gustatory (taste), and tactile (touch). Some may come in one form, such as the whisper I heard, others may come combined with others. Hallucinations have been long associated with mental disorders such as schizophrenia and psychosis.

But it appears there’s much more to this than meets the eye. A recent study in the journal Schizophrenia attempted to explore the prevalence of hallucinations, through an online survey. Over 10,000 responses painted a surprising picture: rates of hallucinations were much higher than previous estimations (80.1 percent had experienced them throughout their life, 51.1 percent the past month, 32.4 percent in the past week). That was in addition to a “remarkably high” number of people who experienced states previously linked with pathology.

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Those findings included multiple forms at once (such as auditory and visual), and hallucinations of music, previously thought of as rare. They also explored the level of distress, frequency, and intensity of hallucinations. In discussing their findings, the authors suggest this backs up the theory that psychotic symptoms exist on a spectrum. From the journal:

“Our results reflect a similar continuum-like phenomenological spectrum of hallucinations and other misperceptions; with fleeting, neutral, non-distressing, and easily corrigible experiences such as illusions at one side of the spectrum, and persistent, distressing hallucinations that typically present within a clinical context at the other.”

When Hallucinations Are Harmful

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Building upon the theory of the continuum, let’s use depression as an example. Sadness is a healthy emotion, a response to life’s events. Depression is a complex, multi-faceted experience. It’s a mixture of many different factors: unresolved trauma, poor emotional regulation, diet, environment, and so on. That doesn’t make the experience of depression less real or difficult to be with. It doesn’t mean someone with clinical depression can “just snap out of it.”

It doesn’t mean someone with depression is broken, or in need of fixing. Considering the state of the world, depression is a natural response to many, many competing factors. Viewing depression from this perspective opens up many more options and possibilities, not only for treating the underlying causes but for finding meaning in the experience. Equally, there are times when depression is so severe, immediate medical attention is needed.

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The study distinguishes between a hallucination and a delusion. Only 7 percent of the respondents also reported delusion, to the extent they believed the hallucination was real. Someone was considered to enter the territory of delusion when “near to fully convinced of their truth.” This finding is key in distinguishing harmful hallucinations from unharmful or even supportive experiences.

The continuum model means many hallucinations are nothing to worry about, they could even be part of a wider spiritual experience or a message from the unconscious mind. Many of the auditory hallucinations were in third person. I’d experienced the sudden death of a friend, and I was struggling. These hallucinations centered around dialogue such as “is Ricky okay?” or “is that man alright”? I even heard a voice say “you don’t have to do this” when I took drugs to deal with the problem.

I started to see how this experience, although initially fearful, was part of my psyche trying to protect me and point out an inner wound. I was doing all I could to hide the truth that I wasn’t okay, but my environment was reflecting the need for me to look within to heal.

Why Does This Matter?

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I felt shame when hearing voices. It was normalized that when taking drugs, these things happened. But long after that wore off, without drugs as an excuse? That signaled something seriously wrong, and I felt incredibly alone. Significantly, the authors of the paper note that “our findings provide a more nuanced and less severe perspective on hallucinations and other misperceptions, which are typically depicted in a negative way and often pathologized in Western news media.

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From a scientific perspective, this allows for greater research into the nuances of hallucinations. This research doesn’t invalidate that for some, hallucinations are highly distressing, intrusive, and require medical support. But it does provide a wider understanding of how common hallucinations are, and shows that they come in many shapes and sizes, and shouldn’t be written off as pathological as a one-size-fits-all.

Research like this has the power to reshape the field of mainstream psychology, which in turn transforms the way people are treated, which in turn transforms the common understanding of these, let’s say, non-ordinary experiences. People become more likely to seek help, discuss similar experiences with others, feel less alone, and become curious, rather than fearful.

The Practical Takeaway

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It will still take time for the mainstream view on hallucinations to change. I’m a big believer in approaching every experience on an individual, holistic level, whilst trusting the person’s inner wisdom. That’s not to make light of the potential severity of hallucinations, but to trust the person, to accept what they’re experiencing as valid, and not write them off as pathological. The more accepted people feel, the more likely they are to learn and transform from experiences.

So if you’re experiencing hallucinations, try not to fear them. Know you’re not alone. If they’re affecting your life to a significant degree, consider seeking help. If they support you, trust this is a form of intelligence outside of the conscious mind, perhaps even guiding you, or showing you areas within that need some TLC.

There’s more to perception than the senses, as growing numbers of people are realizing. If we look beyond the stigma, perhaps we’ll discover a closer truth around hallucinations and the nature of mind and matter.

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