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. Continue reading