On Having Hallucinations

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

During the early 1960’s, psychologist David Rosenhan conducted a landmark study in which he had eight pseudo or pretend patients signed themselves into the psychiatric wards of hospitals across the country complaining of hallucinations. Even though they were completely normal, staff did not notice and treated them as though they were mentally ill. An hallucination is a sensory experience of something that is not there. For example, a person may hear a voice even though no one is there. Most often, hallucinations are associated with people who have a psychotic illness such as schizophrenia. But, is this always true?

One of my favorite writers and neurologists is Oliver Sacks who wrote such great books as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. All of his writings come from true stories from his work and experience as a Medical Doctor. In his new book, Hallucinations, Dr. Sacks argues that, apart from schizophrenia, people experience hallucinations but are too fearful to admit it. He writes that it’s time that we took a different approach to this experience.


For example, when a loved one dies it is common to have extremely vivid dreams of this person being alive. Many years ago, after the tragic. Death of her 18 year old son, his mother reported hearing his voice reassuring and often felt his presence nearby. This was a woman who was completely free of schizophrenia.

Of people are going to be honest with themselves, they will admit experiencing visual hallucinations as they fall asleep or during those early stages of waking up. It is common for some people to see colors, geometric shapes and to hear sounds. Some people report being sure they were engaged in a full conversation with their husband or wife as they were waking only to learn from their spouse that no such conversation took place. What Dr. Sacks points out is that we have to stop immediately diagnosing people with a mental just because they have these experiences. In so doing, we also need to stop stigmatizing people. It’s also important to keep in mind that it is all too easy for physicians to misdiagnose people just because they have the single symptom of one or another hallucination.

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Sacks also points out that, in some societies, those who hallucinate are regarded as having great wisdom and as being gifted.

Have you experienced hallucinations? Let’s talk about it.

Your comments are encouraged.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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