Believing Is Seeing: Organic and Psychological Reasons for Hallucinations and Other Anomalous Psychiatric Symptoms

Barry L. Beyerstein, PhD


Medscape Psychiatry & Mental Health eJournal. 1996;1(6) 

In This Article

Anomalistic Psychology

In recent years, a field that is devoted to the study of anomalous subjective phenomena in ostensibly normal individuals ("anomalistic psychology") has emerged.[17,18,19] The discipline is concerned with states of consciousness that have traditionally been considered supernatural or paranormal. Workers in the field approach each investigation with the presumption that, unless there are clear indications of pathology or intent to deceive, informants' narratives are probably fairly accurate accounts of what their ordeals felt like at the time. Nonetheless, while recognizing the subjectively believable nature of such experiences, these researchers assume they are not of paranormal origin. Rather, they are taken to be manifestations of unusual, but not necessarily pathological, states of the brain. They can be triggered by a variety of causes, and in many instances, investigations reveal that current knowledge in psychology and the neurosciences can provide plausible explanations for these arresting subjective interludes.[20,21] As a bonus, it is hoped that studying these experiences within a naturalistic framework will also expand our knowledge of how the brain ordinarily creates the rich mental model of the external world that we call reality.

When one stops to consider that normal people typically spend about one twelfth of their lives vividly dreaming, it seems less outrageous to suggest that there could occasionally be some leakage of dreamlike activity into the normal waking span. Neuroscientists have suggested that there are mechanisms that actively suppress dreamlike mentation during wakefulness.[22] Researchers have also described how the brain's arousal and attentional systems could allow visual images from memory to predominate during dreams but normally not during waking consciousness.[22] The neurochemistry of this gating mechanism is affected by hallucinogenic drugs that permit waking consciousness to be swamped by highly emotional dreamlike imagery.[23,24] By extension, a similar opening of the floodgates of sensory memory could occur during nondrugged wakefulness as a result of several spontaneous or behaviorally induced changes in brain biochemistry.[25]

Others have shown that most people experience bouts of vivid imagery several times during the day.[26] Ordinarily, these episodes are easily distinguished from real events, but for some people, this kind of imagery can be so compelling that it temporarily supplants the sensory-driven model of reality.[27] Understanding how such illusory but highly believable experiences contribute to belief in paranormal phenomena is another interest of anomalistic psychology.