“I see dead people”: Are hallucinations always bad?

I have to admit that I know relatively little about the neuropsychology of hallucinations. The only time I have written about them in scientific journals is in the context of excessive video gaming where there are case studies of people who appear to display auditory and/or visual game-related hallucinations, and may be part of a wider repertoire of sensory consequences of video game playing that we have coined ‘game transfer phenomena’ (and which I outlined in a previous blog).

However, in a completely different context, I recently came across a really interesting 2011 case study by Dr. Amin Gadit who published a short paper in BMJ Case Reports entitled ‘Insightful hallucination: psychopathology or paranormal phenomenon?’ Dr. Gadit noted that hallucinations are usually indicative of a serious psychiatric problem (i.e., typically some kind of psychosis) and typically require treatment. However, Dr. Gadit described the case of a 26-year old successful Pakistani businessman who was suffering hallucinations but experienced a dilemma as to whether to treat him or not because his hallucinations appeared to be providing some therapeutic benefit to his patient.

The man was married to his first cousin (also from Pakistan) and was described as being “extremely close” to his mother. Dr. Gadit reported that his patient’s wife sometimes got extremely upset (which I interpreted as being jealous) about her husband’s attachment to his mother. Following the mother’s diagnosis of a terminal illness with only a few months left to live, the man (understandably given the relationship with his mother) experienced deep emotional turmoil and upset. Dr. Gadit wrote that according to his patient that:

“[His] mother told him before dying that she would remain in contact with him after death. The patient went through a complicated bereavement period when she died. However, 6 months later, he regained his cheerful mood and started taking an interest in business again. His wife noticed that he was talking to himself for at least an hour each day. When asked, he said that his mother visits him every day and he talks to her. This was his firm belief. There was no deterioration in his personality and no other features worthy of note”.

Following these episodes of speaking to his dead mother almost every night at different times in the evening, the man’s wife persuaded him to seek psychiatric help. Dr. Gadit claimed that his patient resented being in treatment and argued that the regular “contact” with his dead mother was a positive experience and made the man happy and helped bring normality to his day-to-day life. Following initial psychiatric assessment, Dr. Gadit noted that:

“There was no significant medical history or family history indicative of any mental disorder. A thorough clinical history revealed nothing except this hallucination. The patient had retained insight as he believed that this would not happen normally but in his case was a special occurrence. He attributed this to his Muslim belief of God’s blessing in sending his mother back to him in this way. His physical examination was unremarkable and all laboratory results were normal. MRI did not reveal any pathology. His mental state examination revealed normothymic mood, delusion, visual hallucination, psychosis (with no supporting evidence), intact cognitive function and reasonable insight into his problem”.

The man’s mother appeared most evenings wearing different dresses (ones that she used to wear when she was alive) but he said his mother would not allow him to touch her when she appeared. The man was adamant that his mother appeared before him in the real world and refused any medical treatment. Organ pathology (often associated with auditory hallucinations) was ruled out as a cause, and there was insufficient evidence for a diagnosis of schizophrenia (often associated with auditory hallucinations). Ultimately, Dr. Gadit did not reach a psychiatric diagnosis and he sought a second opinion (which also failed to produce a diagnosis). The lack of formal diagnosis posed a dilemma in terms managing the presenting condition. The man had monthly appointments for over half a year with Dr. Gadit but the condition remained constant. In discussing the case, Dr. Gadit wrote that:

The patient recognises the hallucination (perception without the presence of an external stimulus) as happening in the real world. It is important to differentiate true hallucination from ‘pseudo-hallucination’ and ‘imagery’. A pseudo-hallucination is an involuntary sensory experience vivid enough to be regarded as a hallucination but recognised by the patient as not the result of external stimuli; it would not be considered by the person to be ‘real’. Imagery is a collection of images used to create a sensory experience and is the element in a literary work used to evoke mental images and stimulate an emotional response. In the current case report, the patient believes that he can see and talk to his mother in the real world and that he is not imagining it”.

In discussing the case in relation to previous literature, Gadit made reference to a 2009 paper by H. Haween in the Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science (DJUS) that reported hallucinations following bereavement typically resolve over time. Such hallucinations are most commonly in reported during the grieving process in males aged 25 to 30 years. Other similar non-psychiatric illnesses include Charles Bonnet’s Syndrome (typical sufferers being the elderly) that comprises clear hallucinations experienced among visually impaired individuals. A study dating back to 1971 by Dr. W.D. Rees and published in the British Medical Journal reported ‘widowhood hallucinations’ in 14% of Welsh widows and widowers (n=293). A more recent study in a 2002 issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, a team led by Dr. L.C. Johns reported a 4% prevalence of hallucinations in white and ethnic minority populations and suggested that hallucinations are not always associated with psychotic disorders.

Gadit claimed that his male case study was “unique” as the persistent hallucinations resulted in no noticeable psychopathology, and appeared beneficial to his patient. He also speculated that the visions might be a paranormal experience or “a case of hallucinosis with a secondary delusional explanation”. Gadit claimed that paranormal phenomena are fairly common in both the developed and the developing world (and typically associated with rituals and myths).

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Gadit, A.A.M. (2011). Insightful hallucination: psychopathology or paranormal phenomenon? BMJ Case Reports 2011; doi:10.1136/bcr.10.2010.3456

Heewan K. (2009). Hallucination: a normal phenomenon? Dartmouth Journal of Undergraduate Science, November 21. Located at: http://dujs.dartmouth.edu/fall-2009/hallucination-a-normal-phenomenon

Johns, L.C., Nazroo, J.Y., Bebbington, P., et al. (2002). Occurrence of hallucinatory experiences in a community sample and ethnic variations. British Journal of Psychiatry, 180, 174-178.

Menon, G.J., Rahman, I. & Menon, SJ, et al. (2003) Complex visual hallucinations in the visually impaired: the Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Survey of Ophthalmology, 48, 58-72.

Ortiz de Gotari, A., Aronnson, K. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Game Transfer Phenomena in video game playing: A qualitative interview study. International Journal of Cyber Behavior, Psychology and Learning, 1(3), 15-33.
Rees, W.D. (1971). The hallucinations of widowhood. British Medical Journal, 4, 37-41.

Spence, S. A. (1993). Nintendo hallucinations: A new phenomenological entity. Irish Journal of Psychological Medicine, 10, 98–99.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. His most recent award is the 2013 Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 600 research papers, four books, over 130 book chapters, and over 1000 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 2000 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on September 16, 2013, in Case Studies, Culture Bound Syndromes, Mania, Psychiatry, Psychological disorders, Psychology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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