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Hallucinations: Much More Prevalent Than Previously Thought
Most people have a basic idea of what hallucinations are: an experience where a person thinks they’re seeing or hearing something that isn’t really there. In the minds of most people unschooled on the topic, it’s associated with mental illness, and yes, there are mental health conditions that include hallucinations as symptoms. But new research shows that hallucinations are more common than we think, and can even occur in people who don’t have any form of mental illness. In this article, we’ll discuss what these startling findings mean, and what may be causing these hallucinations to happen.
A Word About Hallucinations
Let’s clearly define what we mean by the word “hallucination” before exploring the findings of the study in detail. Hallucinations are defined as experiences in which a person perceives things that aren’t there through their sense of sight, smell, sound, taste, touch, or some combination of these. Such an experience can seem very real and can often be quite frightening, but it’s usually possible for doctors to identify what’s causing them to occur.
Hallucinations can be caused by a variety of mental health conditions, such as schizophrenia. They can also occur because of certain neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. In some cases, extreme sleep deprivation can also trigger hallucinations.
Visual hallucinations can also occur as a result of Charles Bonnet syndrome, a condition which can sometimes result in loss of vision. This, however, is due to an eye condition rather than a problem with the brain.
In addition to these conditions, there are certain kinds of drugs, many of which are illegal in some countries, that are called “hallucinogens” or “psychedelics.” These drugs contain hallucinogenic compounds which can trigger visual and auditory experiences called “trips.” These include psilocybin mushrooms, lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), San Pedro cactus, and many more.
As you can see, for most cases of hallucinations, there’s a cause to which it can be attributed without much difficulty. Normal, healthy people without any form of mental illness and who don’t partake in drug use are generally not thought to be at risk for any form of hallucination. But a study conducted in Great Britain recently turned this idea on its head.
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Researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland wanted to determine how prevalent hallucinations were in people who didn’t have any form of mental illness. The researchers reviewed data from some 5,700 people living in the United Kingdom, and discovered that a little over 4 percent of them had experienced some form of hallucination within the past year.
The results of this study also lend credence to a much larger study conducted in 2015, which analyzed over 30,000 adults from 19 different countries. Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Queensland University found that around 5 percent of the people they surveyed reported hearing voices or having some other type of hallucination. Interestingly, hallucinations were more common in people from wealthier countries than in those living in the developing world.
What was also significant was that not all of these people experienced hallucinations regularly. Approximately one third of those surveyed experienced fewer than five hallucinations over the course of their entire lives.
While it’s certainly not a common occurrence, it does cast the phenomenon of auditory, visual, and other forms of hallucination in a new light. More research needs to be done before drawing any major conclusions. In particular, scientists want to find out why some people (again, many more than previously thought) experience a few hallucinations and remain otherwise normal and healthy, and why a much smaller number of people go on to develop consistent hallucinations.
Science will reveal the facts in time. This isn’t anything you should be losing sleep over, but for now we should all be aware that the phenomenon of hallucination, once thought to be solely associated with drug use, mental illness and extreme situations like sleep deprivation, can occur even in healthy people living normal lives.