“Hallucination and Madness”, an original history essay by rootsnwingz

Note from the author: The present academic paper focuses on the way hallucinations have been perceived and treated by societies from a historical perspective.  As it was originally written in the summer of 2010 for a university class, entitled Madness and Society in Historical Perspective, I would like to take the opportunity to thank my classmates and professors for one of the most interesting and inspiring trips I’ve ever taken academically.

Hallucination and Madness

“I’m not completely sure we aren’t all living in a hallucination now”,
–           Marc Maron

“It is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”
–           Phillip K. Dick

“And how do you know that you’re mad? ‘To begin with,’ said the Cat, ‘a dog’s not mad. You grant that?’ I suppose so, said Alice. ‘Well then,’ the Cat went on, ‘you see a dog growls when it’s angry, and wags its tale when it’s pleased. Now I growl when I’m pleased, and wag my tail when I’m angry. Therefore I’m mad.’”
–           Lewis Carroll

Examining hallucination from a historical perspective is not a pleasant task. Although hallucination is an ancient phenomenon, most societies throughout history have condemned those who courageously admitted to and talked about this sort of experience, be it auditory, as in hearing voices when no sound source exists, or visual, as in seeing things that are not really there. On the other hand, certain cultures accepted hallucinations as meaningful to the individual or the society in whole. But, generally, hallucination was considered a sign of insanity, i.e. a symptom of mental illness, or even the devil’s work and anyone who would claim having such experiences would be labeled mad or possessed.

In my essay, by showing that endogenous etiologies, such as trauma and abuse, have been discovered for hallucination, I will argue that considering it a disorder that could be explained supernaturally was wrong. Further, I will show that as a result of ignoring the physical basis of hallucination, its treatment was immoral, in the sense that people who had hallucinations that they did not understand and that they were scared of, were often deemed insane, whereas a genuinely moral and actually effective attempt to heal them would have aimed at helping them recall the traumatic experience that triggered the hallucinations, accept it as real and face up to it. Obviously, my overview of the history of hallucination and its treatment throughout history cannot be 100% comprehensive. However, I will use a variety of historical cases to forward my argument and to portray the multifaceted nature of hallucination as best as I possibly can. Ultimately, though, the central message I want to impart the reader with is that due to misinformation concerning hallucination and how it worked, serious problems arose in its treatment that persist, to a certain extent, even in modern societies.

It is essential to recognize that the definition of hallucination as a symptom of mental illness is a simplistic understanding of the phenomenon. Different societies in history have provided different interpretations of it and as a consequence of that, the method and morality of the treatment varies depending on the cultural and religious convictions of each society. “People who have had the experience live within a context that influences them and with which they have idiosyncratic relationships” (Smith 2007, xiii). For instance, in the colonial era, religious figures had enormous influence in the identification of the mad since they had the authority to decide if someone hearing voices that nobody else can hear or having bizarre dreams, was possessed by evil spirits. Evidently, whether a society considered hallucination to be suggestive of insanity or, on the contrary, reflective of divine or natural inspiration was vital in deciding what to do with those experiencing it.

In short, when hallucination used to be considered creditable because it was understood as something other than just mental illness, society would have the choice of either condemning the experience as inspired by the devil or qualified as divine. Nowadays, psychiatry tends to limit hallucination to the mentally ill, and thus condemns it, making it more difficult for people to come forth and open up about such paranormal experiences. The famous great novelist, Aldous Huxley acknowledged this in 1961 when he said:

“We now live in a period when people don’t like to talk about these experiences. If you have them, you keep your mouth shut for fear of being told to go to a psychoanalyst. In the past, when they were regarded as creditable, people talked about them. They did run, of course, a considerable risk because most in the past were regarded as being inspired by the devil, but if you had the luck of convincing your fellows that your experiences were divine, then you achieved a great deal of credit. But now…the case has altered and people don’t like talking about these things” (Smith 2007, 11).

What is also important to keep in mind is that traditional psychiatry treats these phenomena as “little more than a neurochemical glitch, to which the only proper response is medical, pharmaceutical treatment” (Smith 2007, 12). And significantly, history proves that this medical response, although admittedly better than being burnt for witchcraft, has been far from ethical. Smith’s thesis is that during the 18th century, culture’s way of thinking about hallucination changed, leading also to a revolution in its treatment. “What was revelation and inspiration became symptom and pathology. What was piety and poetry became science and sanity” (Smith 2007, 14). But hallucinations and the treatment of people experiencing them should not be reduced to diagnosis and pharmacology; instead there needs to be a consensus that views hallucination for what it is: a mechanism of the mind that produces sensory perceptions with no apparent physical cause. It can be stopped and suppressed temporarily with the use of drugs, but its ‘victims’ can only be truly cured through the discovery of the root of the hallucination, usually a painful memory that needs to be invoked, maybe through psychotherapy or communal therapy, so that the ‘victims’ can accept its reality and bring an end to their visions or auditory hallucinations.

In my view, hallucination should be regarded as a result of an event in one’s past, which had such a strong impact that it caused a chemical imbalance in the brain causing it to “confuse objective and subjective, real and imagined, and seen and forgotten” (Leudar 2000, 1). Consequently, such errors of perception, i.e. hallucinations, are caused. Additionally, I believe that these people should not be instantly given the label of insanity, for their condition can be potentially curable, especially when it is connected to trauma and violence. It is unacceptable to treat people who hallucinate as dangerous madmen when in fact they simply suffer from a disease or disorder caused naturally by traumatic life events.   It is also unacceptable to sedate them so heavily that they become unconscious and their soul dulled, when other, more efficient cures can be found by focusing medicine’s and psychoanalysis’s attention and effort on helping people remember the abuse and be confident enough to open up about these issues that are so hurtful that the mind can often subconsciously deny that they ever happened. In other words, the pain can be so bad, that all memory of what caused it was erased. Hallucinations, in this light, can be understood as visions or voices, occasionally similar to a flashback, whose purpose is to make the person remember that he or she is ignoring and avoiding a lot of pain that needs to be confronted and accepted in order to heal. Indeed, numerous cases show that people who dealt with their pain by allowing themselves to remember their traumatic experiences, actually ‘got better’, i.e. their hallucinations stopped.

In the late 19th century, there lived a woman named Marcelle who at the age of 14 fell severely ill. Psychologist Pierre Janet took over her case in 1891 and determined that her traumatizing experience with the typhoid fever was the onset of her mental illness, which led to changes in her behavior and character. Essentially she became depressed, aboulic and ‘uncivilized’. Physical illness and the bereavement that followed were the causes of Marcelle’s hysterical amnesia and hallucinations. Janet discovered that her memory surrounding the month she was ill had notably deteriorated and had become “limited to salient events” (Leudar 2000, 71). Janet’s account of Marcelle’s condition follows:

“Today these ideas reproduce themselves unrelated and without reason. She has completely forgotten, I am convinced, her old despair and has no desire to die. The dreams of suicide present themselves today without rapport to her present situation and Marcelle despairs of these thoughts of suicide which impose themselves on her like a remains of the past. She does not know any more why she does not want to eat… We always find in the fixed ideas the characteristic automatic repetition of the past, without relationship to the present, without present logic” (Leudar 2000, 81).

However, not all her dissociated impulsions and hallucinations were a matter of trauma. This is because hallucinations’ origins are attributed to dissociated memories, which is not only a matter of “what is done to a person, but also of their inherent weakness” (Leudar 2000, 89).

Marcelle’s pain and suffering as well as her kinesthetic experience of hallucinations did not make sense to her for she had no memory of what had caused the pain. Remembering trauma could clearly be beneficial for it serves to replace memory dissociation with coherence. Understanding what had caused her pain would have also allowed her to understand her hallucinations and could have arguably cured her. The link between hallucinations and dissociated or forgotten memory of trauma explains why hallucinations, which lack phenomenal character, are indiscriminable from veridical perceptions (Fish 2009, 115).

Hallucination, although usually described as a disturbing experience, can therefore have an ultimately positive effect in one’s life. Nevertheless, most of the time hallucinations were treated immorally and ineffectively for they were thought to be indicative of evil, witchcraft or madness. In a nutshell, when it becomes generally understood that there’s more to hallucination than the interpretation offered by psychiatry, it shall also become clear that treatment need not be pharmaceutical or within an asylum; but rather a more moral response has to be adopted, incorporating discussion with the patients aimed at helping them embrace their pain so as to finally get over it and rid themselves of the hallucinations without the help of potentially dangerous and harmful synthetic chemical drugs. What had to be made clear is that “hallucination per se is unreliable as an indication of serious pathology” (Keup 1969, 462), since there is not even a shadow of a doubt that it is experienced universally. Hallucination is not synonymous to psychosis and it can range from horrific, vivid visions to mundane, harmless voices.

In modern society, and in a lot of past societies as well, it is extremely difficult to admit and discuss an experience of abuse, such as getting raped, for often it is culturally a shameful occurrence that damages one’s purity. It becomes even harder when the abuser is a member of the victim’s family or close circle and almost impossible when the victim is too young to comprehend the gravity and seriousness of the abuse or do anything about it, for that matter. Moreover, strange experiences like hallucinations are also hard to admit due to the fear of being called crazy and the irrational yet common sentiment that nobody would understand or be able to relate.

All of the above leads me to believe that communal therapy can be extremely helpful in treating such conditions. People who have gone through serious trauma and overcome its symptoms, including hallucinations, should share their experience with others in “circles of trust” in order to help people who may be having hallucinations realize that what they’re going through is not necessarily a bad or inexplicable thing and that they can be cured if they let themselves remember what for so long they have been tricking their minds to ignore. We all know how helpful and healing it is to cry on someone’s shoulder, particularly if that person feels our pain. Embracing the pain indubitably helps cure it. There should be no misinformation or confusion surrounding this matter any more. Hallucinations have happened for millennia and can be both explained and cured. Experiencing them and admitting you experienced them neither brings shame to your name nor do they mean you have gone bonkers. Instead, they suggest that your brain is functioning abnormally in order to make you remember something you have let yourself forget.

There are thus social and religious factors in play here that inhibit someone experiencing hallucinations from talking about them that also inhibit the person who is abused from remembering the trauma and opening up to someone about it. This realization made it even more paradoxical that people having such experiences were traditionally locked up, marginalized, drugged and isolated in asylums, when their greatest hope for therapy lied with their own capacity of facing up to their trauma and the help of others who, through personal experience, understand how hallucination, memory and pain work and influence each other. And didn’t keeping them isolated in asylums defeat the whole purpose of reinstating them into society as functional human beings? It seems like a rather irrational attempt to heal on behalf of modern medicine and psychiatry. Contemplating about these things, one inevitably wonders who the insane people really were in history: the doctors and those responsible for immoral treatment and cruel institutionalization or the men that those same physicians labeled mad for admitting to hallucination?

Works Cited:

  • Smith, Daniel B. Muses, madmen, and prophets: rethinking the history, science, and meaning of auditory Penguin Press. 2007.
  • Leudar, Ivan & Thomas, Philip. Voices of Reason, Voices of Insanity: Studies of Verbal Hallucinations. 2000.
  • Keup, Wolfram. Origin and mechanisms of hallucinations; proceedings of the 14th annual meeting of the 14th annual meeting of the Eastern Psychiatric Research Association held in New York City, November 14-15, 1969.
  • Fish, William. Perception, Hallucination and Illusion. Oxford University Press. 2009.
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