Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/October 1878/Hallucinations of the Senses
|HALLUCINATIONS OF THE SENSES.|
BY hallucination is meant, in scientific phraseology, such a false perception of one or other of the senses as a person has when he sees, hears, or otherwise perceives as real what has no outward existence—that is to say, has no existence outside his own mind, is entirely subjective. The subject is one which has special medical interest; but it will be seen to have also a large general interest, when it is remembered how momentous a part hallucinations have played sometimes at critical periods of human history. Take, for example, the mighty work which was done in the deliverance of France from English dominion by a peasant-girl of eighteen—Joan of Arc, the famous Maid of Orleans, who was inspired to her mission by the vision which she saw, and the commands which she heard, of St. Michael and other holy persons. Now, as there are few persons nowadays who believe that St. Michael really appeared to this enraptured maiden, and as few, if any, will doubt that she herself sincerely believed that he did, one must needs suppose that her visions were hallucinations generated by the enthusiasm of a mind which was in a singularly exalted strain of religious and patriotic feeling.
The special medical interest of the subject lies in this—that there are a great many persons in the world who, suffering under some form or other of nervous disorder, habitually see figures or faces, hear threatening or insulting voices, even feel blows and taste poisons, which have no existence outside their own minds; and neither argument nor demonstration of the impossibility of what they allege they perceive will shake their convictions in the least. "You assure me," they will say, "that I am mistaken; that there are no such persons as I see, no such voices as I hear; but I protest to you that I see and hear them as distinctly as I see and hear you at this moment, and that they are just as real to me." What are we to reply? I have replied sometimes, that "as you are alone on one side in your opinion, and all the world is on the other side, I must needs think, either that you are an extraordinary genius, far in advance of the rest of the world, or that you are a madman a long way behind it; and, as I don't think you to be a genius, I am bound to conclude that your senses are disordered." But the argument does not produce the least effect.
Let me give an example or two of the character of these hallucinations, and of their persistence in minds that might be thought sane enough to correct them. The first shall be that of an old gentleman who was much distressed because of an extremely offensive smell which he imagined to proceed from all parts of his body: there was not the least ground, in fact, for this imagination. He was scrupulously clean in person, extremely courteous in manner, thoroughly rational in his conversation on every other subject, a shrewd and clever man of business; no one talking with him would for a moment have suspected him of entertaining such extraordinary fancies. Nevertheless, his life was made miserable by them; he would not go into society, but took solitary rambles in the country, where he might meet as few persons as possible; in his own house he slept for the first part of the night on the ground-floor, mounting up higher at a later period of the night; and this he did to prevent the bad odors from becoming too concentrated in one room. He believed that the people in the next house were irritated and offended by the emanations, for he often heard them moving about and coughing; and, when he passed a cab-stand in the street, he noticed that even the horses became restless and fidgeted. He used to hang his clothes out of the window at night that they might get pure, until his housekeeper put a stop to the practice by telling him that the exhibition of them would excite the notice and comment of his neighbors. All the while he was conducting his business with propriety and success; his own partners had no suspicion of his condition. Knowing this, I asked him how it was that no one of the many persons whom he met daily in business had ever complained of any bad smell, and the answer he made was that they were all too polite to do so, but he could see that they were affected nevertheless, as they sometimes put their handkerchiefs to their noses—no doubt for a quite innocent purpose.
Another gentleman was the victim of a very common hallucination: he was much afflicted by voices, which were continually speaking to him at all times and all places—in the quietude of his room and in the crowded streets, by night and by day. He had come to the conclusion that they must be the voices of evil spirits in the air which tormented him. They knew his thoughts, and replied to them before he had himself conceived them; the remarks which they made were always annoying, often threatening and abusive, and sometimes most offensive and distressing, and they disturbed him so much at night that he got very little sleep. He had been driven to the expedient of buying a musical-box, which he placed under his pillow when he went to bed. The noise of the music drowned the noise of the tormenting voices, and enabled him to get to sleep; but, as he said, the measure was not entirely satisfactory, because when the box had played out its tunes, it stopped, and he was obliged to wind it up again. It was impossible to persuade this gentleman, sensible as he seemed in other respects, that the voices had no real existence, and that they were due to the disordered state of his nervous system. After listening attentively to my arguments, he went away sorrowful, feeling that I had no help for him. I may remark, by-the-way, that auditory hallucinations of this kind are apt to occur in prisoners who are subjected to long periods of solitary confinement in their cells: they have no mental resources to fall back upon, and their brooding thoughts, not being distracted by the conversation of others, nor having their usual outlet in their own conversation, become audible by them as actual voices.
I might relate many more examples, but these will suffice. Each sense may of course be affected, and sight stands next to hearing in its liability to suffer. In delirium tremens, hallucinations of sight are characteristic features; the patient commonly sees reptiles and vermin in his room, serpents crawling over the floor, rats and mice running over his bed, and pushes them away in a state of restless agitation. In some forms of insanity, the sufferer mistakes persons, believing entire strangers to be near friends or relations; or, again, he may see a person, whom he imagines to be his persecutor, escape from the house, when there was really no such person, and buy a revolver, to be ready for him when next he comes prowling about; and in one form of the deepest melancholy, which is known as melancholia attonita, he has sometimes terrible hallucinations—sees, probably, a deep abyss of roaring flames or a vast sea of blood immediately in front of him, and will not make the least movement, lest he should be precipitated headlong into it. There can be no doubt of the mental disorder of persons who suffer in this way, but it must not be supposed that hallucinations of sight do not occur to persons who are free from mental disorder. I cannot help thinking that they furnish the explanation of the firm belief in ghosts and apparitions which has prevailed among all nations and in all times. A belief so universal must have some deep foundation in the facts of Nature or in the constitution of man. One may freely admit that persons have seen apparitions and have heard voices which they thought to be supernatural; but, inasmuch as seeing is one thing, and the interpretation thereof quite another thing, it may be right to conclude that they were nothing more than hallucinations, and that the reason why no ghosts are seen now, when people pass through churchyards on dark nights, as our forefathers saw them, is that ghosts are not believed in nowadays, while we have gained a knowledge of the nature of hallucinations, and of the frequency of their occurrence, which our forefathers had not.
One does not fail to notice, when proper attention is given to the subject, a fact which is full of meaning, viz., that the apparitions which have been seen at different ages were in harmony with the dominant ideas or beliefs of the age. It is not probable that any one could be found at the present day to affirm that he had seen an old woman riding through the air on a broomstick to a witches' meeting, because the belief in witchcraft is happily wellnigh extinct; but two or three hundred years ago, when it would have been thought something like blasphemy to doubt the being and doings of witches, persons of character and veracity might have been found to avouch it solemnly. In like manner, apparitions of Satan were not very uncommon in the middle ages to persons who, like Luther, were in earnest spiritual conflict with him; but there is no instance on record, so far as I know, of such an apparition having ever been seen by an ancient Greek or Roman. The Satan of the middle ages who gave Luther so much trouble had not then been invented. Spirits, ghosts, then, and all apparitions of the same kind, I was prepared to have pronounced unhesitatingly to have been hallucinations, which would be found on examination to reflect pretty fairly the prevailing ideas of the time concerning the supernatural; but it occurred to me that it might be prudent, before doing that, to consult the article on apparitions in the latest edition of the "Encyclopædia Britannica," lest perchance I should be outrunning current authority; and I have there discovered, to my no small surprise, that it is still an open question whether invisible inhabitants of the unknown world did not take human or other shapes and become visible to men. The writer of the article plainly inclines to the opinion that they do, and that there is more in the matter than science has yet dreamed of. So also think the spiritualists.
I now go on to consider the mode of production of hallucinations. At the first blush there might seem to be a great gap between such false perceptions of the senses as I have given examples of and the faithfully-serving senses of a person who is in good health of mind and body. But here, as elsewhere, in Nature we find, when we look closely into the matter, that there is no break; we may be pretty sure, perhaps, that, when we say of any phenomenon, however strange, that it is singular and quite unlike anything else in the world, we are mistaken, and that we shall not fail to discover other things like it if we search intelligently. Certainly we can trace gradational states between the most extreme hallucinations and such temporary disorders of the senses as healthy persons often have. Let any one stoop down with his head hanging low for a minute, and when he raises it he will have, besides a feeling of giddiness, a sound of singing or of ringing in his ears, and may see a flash or two of light before his eyes; and there are some persons who, under such circumstances, see actual figures for the moment. These sensations are hallucinations; there is no light, nor sound, nor figure, outside to cause them; they are owing to the stimulation of their respective nerve-centres by a congestion of blood in the brain, which has been produced by the hanging down of the head. Here, then, we have hallucinations that are consistent with the best health; they are due to temporary causes of disturbance of the circulation, and disappear as they disappear. Going a step further, we may watch at the beginning of a fever how gradually the hallucinations take hold of the mind, until their true nature is not recognized. At first the fever-patient is quite aware of his actual surroundings, knowing the persons and objects about him, and when strange faces seem to appear among the familiar faces, as they do, he knows that they are not real, and will talk of them as visions; perhaps they occur at first only when his eyes are shut, or when the room is dark, and vanish directly he opens his eyes or the room is lit up. After a while they come more often, and whether his eyes are shut or not; he becomes uncertain whether they are real or not, assenting when he is told that they are phantoms, but falling back immediately into doubt and uncertainty. At last they get entire mastery of him, he cannot distinguish in the least between them and real figures, discourses with them as if they were real—is wildly delirious.
If the nature of the process by which we perceive and know an external object be considered, it will be seen that it is much easier to have a false perception than might appear at first sight. When we look at any familiar object—say a cat or a dog—we seem to see at once its shape, its size, its smoothness of coat, and the other qualities by which we know it to be a cat or a dog, but we don't actually see anything of the kind. The proof is that, if a person blind from his birth, who knew the cat and dog perfectly well by touch, were to obtain sight by means of a surgical operation when he was thirty years old, he would not know by sight alone either cat or dog, or be able to tell which was which. But, if he were permitted to touch the animals, he would recognize them instantly, and ever afterward the impression which they produce on sight would be associated with the impression which they produce on touch, and he would know them when he saw them. That is the way in which the perception of a particular object is formed—by the association of all the sensations which it is adapted to excite in our different senses, their combination in what we call an idea. For example, in the idea of an orange are combined the sensations which we get by tasting it, by touching it, by smelling it, by looking at it, by handling it, each sensation having been acquired by its particular sense in the course of an education which has been going on ever since we were born; when we have got them in that way, they combine to form the idea of the orange; and it is by virtue of this idea, which has been formed and registered in the mind, that we are able to think of an orange, that is, to form a mental image of it, when it is not present to any sense, and to recognize it instantly when it is. It is plain, then, how large a part, by virtue of its past experience, the mind contributes to each perception; when we look at an orange it tacitly supplies to the impression which it makes on sight all the information about it which we have got at different times by our other senses, and which sight does not in the least give us; the visual impression is no more in truth than a sign to which experience has taught us to give its proper meaning, just as the written or spoken word in any language is a sign which is meaningless until we have been taught what to mean by it. So true it is that the eye only sees what it brings the faculty of seeing, and that many persons have eyes, yet see not.
This being so, it is clear that the idea in the mind will very much affect the perception, and that if any one goes to look at something, or to taste something, or to feel something, with a strongly-preconceived idea of what it is, he will be likely, if it is not what he thinks it, to have a mistaken perception—to see, or feel, or touch, what he thinks it is, not what it really is. This is, indeed, one of the most common causes of erroneous observation, and one which the scientific observer knows well he must always vigilantly guard against. If a man has a foregone conclusion of what he will see, it is not safe to trust his observation implicitly, either in science or in common life. We witness the most striking examples of this dominion of the idea over sense in persons who have been put into the so-called mesmeric state. The operator gives them simple water to taste, telling them at the same time that it is some nauseating and bitter mixture, and they spit it out with grimaces of disgust when they attempt to drink it; when he tells them what he offers them is sweet and pleasant, though it is as bitter as wormwood, they smack their lips as if they had tasted something remarkably good; if assured that a swarm of bees is buzzing about them, they are in the greatest trepidation, and go through violent antics to beat them off. Their senses are dominated by the idea suggested, and they are very much in the position of an insane person who believes that he tastes poison in his food when he imagines that some one wishes to poison him, or sees an enemy lurking about his premises when he believes himself to be the victim of persecution.
Here, then, we are brought to one efficient cause of hallucinations—namely, a vividly-conceived idea which is so intense that it appears to be an actual perception, a mental image so vivid that it becomes a visual image. Everybody knows that the idea or imagination of a sensation will sometimes cause a person to feel the sensation; the mention or the sight of certain little insects which inhabit the bodies of uncleanly persons seldom fails to make the skin itch uncomfortably. John Hunter said of himself, "I am confident that I can fix my attention to any part until I have a sensation in that part." Sir Isaac Newton could call up a spectrum of the sun when he was in the dark, by intense direction of his mind to the idea of it, "as when a man looks earnestly to see a thing which is difficult to be seen." Dickens used to allege that he sometimes heard the characters of his novels actually speak to him; and a great French novelist declared that, when he wrote the description of the poisoning of one of his characters, he had the taste of arsenic so distinctly in his mouth that he was himself poisoned, had a severe attack of indigestion, and vomited all his dinner—a most pregnant proof of the power of imagination over sense, because arsenic has scarcely an appreciable taste beyond being sweetish! Artists sometimes have, in an intense form, the faculty of such vivid mental representation as to become mental presentation. It was very notable in that extraordinary genius, William Blake, poet and painter, who used constantly to see his conceptions as actual images or visions. "You have only," he said, "to work up imagination to the state of vision, and the thing is done." The power is, without doubt, consistent with perfect sanity of mind, although it may be doubtful whether a person who thought it right for himself and his wife to imitate the naked innocence of paradise in the back-garden of a Lambeth house, as Blake did, was quite sane; but too frequent exercise of the power is full of peril to the mind's stability. A person may call up images in this way, and they will come, but he may not be able to dismiss them, and they may haunt him when he would gladly be rid of them. He is like the sorcerer who has called spirits from the been before me in his own proper person—I may almost say more vividly. I looked from time to time at the imaginary figure, then worked with my pencil, then referred to the countenance, and so on, just as I should have done had the sitter been there. When I looked at the chair I saw the man. . . . Gradually I began to lose the distinction between the imaginary figure and the real person, and sometimes disputed with sitters that they had been with me the day before. At last I was sure of it, and then—and then—all is confusion. I suppose they took the alarm. I recollect nothing more. I lost my senses—was thirty years in an asylum. The whole period, except the last six months of my confinement, is a dead blank in my memory."deep, and has forgotten the spell by which to lay them again. Dr. Wigan tells of a skillful painter whom he knew, who assured him that he had once painted three hundred portraits in one year. The secret of his rapidity and success was, that he required but one sitting and painted with wonderful facility. "When a sitter came," he said, "I looked at him attentively for half an hour, sketching from time to time on the canvas. I wanted no more; I put away my canvas and took another sitter. When I wished to resume my first portrait, I took the man and set him in the chair, where I saw him as distinctly as if he had
Or, if the person does not go out of his mind, he may be so distressed by the persistence of the apparition which he has created as to fall into melancholy and despair, and even to commit suicide.
"I knew," says the same author, "a very intelligent and amiable man, who had the power of thus placing before his own eyes himself, and often laughed heartily at his double, who always seemed to laugh in turn. This was long a subject of amusement and joke; but the ultimate result was lamentable. He became gradually convinced that he was haunted by himself. This other self would argue with him pertinaciously, and, to his great mortification, sometimes refute him, which, as he was very proud of his logical powers, humiliated him exceedingly. He was eccentric, but was never placed in confinement, or subjected to the slightest restraint. At length, worn out by the annoyance, he deliberately resolved not to enter on another year of existence—paid all his debts, wrapped up in separate papers the amount of the weekly demands, waited, pistol in hand, the night of the 31st of December, and as the clock struck twelve fired it into his mouth."
Were illustrations needed of the production of hallucination by the intensity of the conception, I might take them from Shakespeare, who has given many instances of these "coinages of the brain" which, he says truly, ecstasy is very cunning in. Hamlet, perturbed by the apparition of his father's ghost, whose commands he was. neglecting, bends his eyes on vacancy and holds discourse with the incorporeal air. A dagger, sensible to sight but not to feeling, points Macbeth the way to the bed where lay Duncan whom he was about treacherously to stab; he attempts to clutch it, exclaiming justly when he grasps nothing:
It is the bloody business which informs
Thus to mine eyes."
In the well-known passage in which he compares the imaginations of the lunatic, the lover, and the poet, Shakespeare sets forth the very manner of the production of hallucinations, and illustrates the gradations of the process:
Are of imagination all compact:
One sees more devils than vast hell can hold;
That is the madman: the lover, all as frantic,
Sees Helen's beauty in a brow of Egypt:
The poet's eye, in a tine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And, as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothings
A local habitation and a name."
Or I might adduce the case of the great Protestant Reformer, Luther, who is said—I know not how truly—to have thrown his inkstand at the devil on one occasion; at any rate the mark of the ink is still shown on the wall of the chamber which Luther occupied. True or not, there is nothing improbable in the story; for Luther, though endowed with great sagacity and extraordinary intellectual energy, entertained the common notions of the personality and the doings of the devil which were current among the people of his age. He pictured him very much as a Saxon peasant pictured him. It was the devil, he believed, who caused a great storm, and he declared that idiots, the blind, the lame, and the dumb, were persons in-whom devils had established themselves, and that physicians who tried to cure their infirmities as though they proceeded from natural causes were ignorant blockheads who knew nothing of the power of the demon. He speaks of the devil coming into his cell and making a great noise behind the stove, and of his hearing him walking in the cloister above his cell in the night; "but as I knew it was the devil," he says, "I paid no attention to him, and went to sleep."
This, then, is one way in which hallucination is produced—by the downward action of idea upon sense. My illustrations of this mode of production have been taken from sane minds, but the hallucinations of the insane are oftentimes generated in the same way. A person of shy, suspicious, and reserved nature, who imagines that people are thinking or speaking ill of him or going out of their way to do him harm, nurses his habit of moody suspicion until it grows to be a delusion that he is the victim of a conspiracy; he then sees evidence of it in the innocent gestures and words of friends with whom he holds intercourse, of servants who wait upon him, and of persons who pass him in the streets; these he misinterprets entirely, seeing in them secret signs, mysterious threats, criminal accusations. It may be pointed out to him that the words and gestures were perfectly natural and innocent, and that no one but himself can perceive the least offense in them; his belief is not touched by the demonstration, for his senses are enslaved by the dominant idea, and work only in its service. Sometimes an insane patient, who tastes poison in his food and refuses it when it is given to him by one attendant whom he suspects of poisoning him, will take the same food from another attendant, of whom he has no suspicion, without tasting any poison—a proof how much the morbid idea perverts his taste. There is a form of insanity, known as general paralysis, which is marked by an extraordinary feeling of elation and by the most extravagant delusions of wealth or grandeur, and the patient who labors under it often picks up pebbles, pieces of broken glass, and the like, which he hoards as priceless jewels: there is another form of insanity known as melancholia, which is marked by an opposite feeling of profound mental depression and corresponding gloomy delusions, and the patient who labors under its worst form sometimes sees devils in those who minister to him, hears jeers in their consoling words, and imagines torments in their anxious attentions. In each case the hallucinations reflect the dominant morbid feelings and ideas.
A second way in which hallucinations appear to originate is directly in the organ of sense or in its sensory ganglion, which for present purposes I may consider as one. Stimulation of the organ or of its ganglion will undoubtedly give rise to hallucination: a blow on the eye makes a person see sparks of fire or flashes of light, a blow on the ear makes his ears ring; in fact, any organ of sense, when irritated either by a direct stimulus to its nerve-centre, or by a perverted state of the blood which circulates through it, will have the same sensation aroused in it, no matter what the stimulus, as is produced by its natural stimulus. We can irritate the sensory ganglion directly by introducing certain poisonous substances into the blood, and so occasion hallucinations: for example, when a person is poisoned with belladonna (deadly nightshade) he smiles and stares and grasps at imaginary objects which he sees before him, and is delirious. Other drugs will produce similar effects. A French physiologist has made a great many experiments in poisoning dogs with alcohol by injecting it into their veins, and he has found that he can arouse in them very vivid hallucinations: the dog will start up, perhaps, with savage glare, stare at the blank wall, bark furiously, and seem to rush into a furious fight with an imaginary dog; after a time it ceases to fight, looks in the direction of its imaginary adversary, growling once or twice, and settles down quietly.
The hallucinations which occur in fevers and in some other bodily diseases evidently proceed directly from disorder of the sensory centres, and not from the action of morbid idea upon sense; for we have seen that before they are fixed the intellect struggles against them successfully and holds them in check. A well-known and instructive instance of hallucinations, due to bodily causes, and which did not affect the judgment, is that of Nicolai, a bookseller of Berlin, who, being a person of great intelligence, observed his state carefully and has given an interesting account of it. He had been exposed to a succession of severe trials which had greatly affected him, when, after an incident which particularly agitated and distressed him, he suddenly saw at the distance often paces a figure—the standing figure of a deceased person. He asked his wife if she could not see it, but she, as she saw nothing, was alarmed and sent for a physician. When he went into another room it followed him. After troubling him for a day it disappeared, but was followed by several other distinct figures; some of them the figures of persons he knew, but most of them of persons he did not know. "After I had recovered," he says, "from the first impression of terror, I never felt myself particularly agitated by these apparitions, as I considered them to be what they really were—the extraordinary consequences of indisposition; on the contrary, I endeavored as much as possible to preserve my composure of mind, that I might remain distinctly conscious of what passed within me." He could trace no connection between the figures and his thoughts, nor could he call up at his own pleasure the phantoms of acquaintances which he tried to call up by vivid imagination of them; however accurately and intensely he pictured their figures to his mind, he never once succeeded in his desire to see them externally, although the figures of these very persons would often present themselves involuntarily. He saw the figures when alone and in company, in the daytime and in the night; when he shut his eyes they sometimes disappeared, sometimes not; they were as distinct as if they were real beings, but he had no trouble in distinguishing them from real figures. After four weeks they began to speak, sometimes to one another, but most often to him: their speeches were short and not disagreeable. Being recommended to lose some blood, he consented. During the operation the room swarmed with human figures, but a few hours afterward they moved more slowly, became gradually paler, and finally vanished. This example proves very clearly that a person may be haunted with apparitions, and yet observe them and reason about their nature as sanely as any indifferent outsider could do. It illustrates very well, too, the second mode of origin; for it is reasonable to suppose that they were produced by congestion of blood in the brain acting upon the sensory centres, and that they were dissipated by the removal of the congestion by bloodletting, This is the more probable, as cases have been recorded in which the suppression of an habitual discharge of blood from the body has been followed by hallucinations, and others again in which hallucinations have been cured by the abstraction of blood.
Exhaustion of the nerve-centres themselves by excessive fatigue, mental and bodily, or by starvation, or by disease, will cause a person to see visions sometimes. I may call to mind the well-known case of Brutus, who, as he sat alone at night in his tent before the decisive battle of Philippi, rapt in meditation, saw on raising his eyes a monstrous and horrible spectre standing silently by his side. "Who art thou?" he asked. The spectre answered: "I am thy evil genius, Brutus. Thou wilt see me at Philippi." He replied, "I will meet thee there." The religious ascetic who withdrew himself from the society of men to some solitary place in the desert or to some cave in the hills, there passing his lonely life in prayer and meditation, and mortifying his body with long fastings and frequent scourgings, brought himself to such a state of irritable exhaustion that he commonly saw, according to his mood of feeling, either visions of angels and saints who consoled him in his sufferings, or visions of devils who tempted and tormented him. The shipwrecked sailor, when delirious from the exhaustion produced by want of food and drink, sometimes has attractive visions of green fields and pleasant streams, and cannot be prevented from throwing himself overboard in the mad desire to reach them. The dying person, in the last stage of exhaustion from a wasting disease, has had his deathbed visions of joy or of horror; the good man, whose mind was at rest, has been comforted by visions of heaven; the wicked man, whose troubled conscience would not let him die in peace, has been terrified with spectres of horror—the murderer, perhaps, by the accusing apparition of his victim. These were thought at one time to be supernatural visitations; they are known now to be for the most part hallucinations, such as occur in the last stage of flickering life, when, to use Shakespeare's words—
"His brain doth, by the idle comments that it makes,
Foretell the ending of mortality."
I cannot, of course, enumerate all the bodily conditions in which hallucinations appear, but there is one more which I shall mention particularly, because it has been the foundation of a prophetic or apostolic mission. It is not at all uncommon for a vivid hallucination of one or other of the senses, of hearing, of sight, of smell, of touch, of muscular sensibility, to precede immediately the unconsciousness of an epileptic fit. It may be a command or threat uttered in a distinct voice, or the figure of a person clearly seen, or a feeling of sinking into the ground or of rising into the air; and a common visual hallucination on such occasions is a flash, a halo, or a flood of bright or colored light, which makes a strong impression before the person falls unconscious. When he comes to himself he remembers it vividly, and believes, perhaps, that it was a vision of an angel of light or of the Holy Ghost. There can be no doubt that angelic apparitions and heavenly visions have sometimes had this origin. Proceeding from the sensory centre, not from the higher centres of thought, they are calculated to produce the stronger impression of their miraculous nature; for, if the person knows that he was not thinking of anything of the kind when the vision occurred, he will naturally be the more startled and affected by it. I might give many striking examples in proof of what I say, but I will content myself with an ordinary and comparatively recent one. Two or three years ago a laborer in the Chatham dock-yard, who was epileptic, and had once been in an asylum for insanity, suddenly split the skull of a fellow-laborer near him with an adze. There was no apparent motive for the deed, for the men were not on bad terms. He was, of course, tried for murder, but was acquitted by the jury on the ground of insanity, in accordance with the medical evidence, but directly in the teeth of a strong charge of the judge, and much to the disappointment of certain newspapers, whose editorial feelings are sadly harrowed whenever an insane person escapes from the gallows. He is now in the criminal asylum at Broadmoor, and he has told the medical officers there—what was not known at the trial—that some years before the murder he had received the Holy Ghost; that it came to him like a flash of light, and that his own eyes had been taken out, and other eyes, like balls of fire, substituted for them. A characteristic epileptic hallucination! Let us suppose that this man had undertaken some prophetic mission, as epileptics have done, and had put into it all the energy of his epileptic temperament, he would have declared with perfect sincerity, so far as he was concerned, that the Holy Ghost appeared to him in a vision as an exceeding bright light, and, behold! his own eyes were taken out and balls of fire were in their places.
Some persons maintain that the earliest visions of Mohammed, who, like Cæsar, was epileptic, were of this kind, and that his change of character and the assumption of his prophetic mission followed an epileptic vision. Tradition tells us that he was walking in solitude in the lonely defiles and valleys near Mecca, when every stone and tree greeted him with the words, "Hail to thee, messenger of God!" He looked round to the right and to the left, but discovered nothing but stones and trees. Soon after this the angel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision on the mountain Hira, and announced to him the message of God. The origin of the hallucination seems to have been in this wise: While walking in the valley meditating in solitude on the degrading idolatry of the people, and girding himself to the resolution to undertake a great work of reform which might well seem beyond his strength, and make him pause, the intense thoughts of his mental agony were suddenly heard by him as a real voice, where there was no voice; and the vision which he saw when he next fell into an epileptic trance was deemed to be the apparition of the angel Gabriel.
If this be so, and much more if all the apparitions and visions which mankind have seen at different times were really hallucinations, it is startling to reflect what a mighty influence illusions have had on the course of human history. One is almost driven to ask in despair whether all in the world is not illusion, whether "all that we see and seem is not a dream within a dream." But there are countervailing considerations which may abate alarm. If a great work in the world has been done in consequence of a vision which was not, as it. was believed to be, a supernatural revelation, but an hallucination produced in accordance with natural laws, the work done, were it good or bad, was none the less real. And inasmuch as the hallucination, whatever its character, is in accordance with the habit of thought and feeling of the person to whom it occurs, and is interpreted, if it be not actually generated, by his manner of thinking, we may put it out of sight as a thing of secondary importance, as an incidental expression, so to speak, of the earnest belief, and fix our minds on this belief as the primary and real agent in the production of the effect. Had Mohammed never seen the angel Gabriel, it is probable that the great mission which he accomplished—the overthrow of idolatry and polytheism and the welding of scattered tribes into a powerful nation—would have been accomplished either by him or by some other prophet, who would have risen up to do what the world had at heart at that time. Had any one else who had not Mohammed's great powers of mind, and who had not prepared himself, as he had done, by many silent hours of meditation and prayer, to take up the reformer's cross, seen the angel Gabriel or any number of angels, he would not have done the mighty work. Who can doubt that the mission of Mohammed was the message of God to the people at that time, as who can doubt that the thunder of the Russian cannon has been the awful message of God to the Mohammedan Turks of this time?
So much, then, for the nature of hallucinations and their principal modes of origin. Although they sometimes originate primarily in the sensory centres, and sometimes primarily in the higher centres of thought, it is very probable that, in many instances, they have a mixed origin. It can hardly be otherwise, seeing how intimate is the structural and functional connection between the nerve-centres of thought and sense, and how likely so closely' connected nerve-centres are to sympathize in suffering when the one or the other is disordered.
No one pretends that a person who, laboring under hallucinations, knows their true nature, as Nicolai did, is insane; but it is often said that he has passed the limits of sanity and must be accounted insane when he does not recognize their real nature, and believes in them and acts upon them. But the examples which I have given prove this to be too absolute a statement. I should be very loath to say that either Mohammed or Luther was mad. When the hallucination is the consistent expression of an earnest and coherent belief, which is not itself the product of insanity, it is no proof of insanity, although it may indicate a somewhat unstable state of the brain, and warn a prudent man to temper the ardor of his belief. When, however, a person has hallucinations that are utterly inconsistent with the observation and common-sense of the rest of mankind; when he cannot correct the mistakes of one sense by the evidence of another, although every opportunity is afforded him to do so; when he believes in them in spite of confuting evidence, and when he suffers them to govern his conduct, then he must certainly be accounted insane: he is so much out of harmony of thought and feeling with his kind that we cannot divine his motives or reckon upon his conduct, and are compelled to put him under restraint. Persons of this class are apt to be troublesome and even dangerous; believing that they are pursued by a conspiracy, hearing the threatening voices of their persecutors wherever they go, seeing proofs everywhere of their evil machinations, smelling poisonous fumes, feeling the torture inflicted by concealed galvanic wires, they endeavor to protect themselves by all sorts of devices—appeal to the magistrates and the police for assistance, become public nuisances in courts of justice, are, perhaps, driven at last, either from despair of getting redress, or by the fury of the moment, to attack some one whom they believe to be an agent in the persecution which they are undergoing. Some of them hear voices commanding them peremptorily to do some act or other—it may be to kill themselves or others—and they are not unlikely in the end to obey the mysterious commands which they receive.
Having said so much concerning the causation and character of hallucinations, I ought, perhaps, before concluding, to say something about the means of getting rid of them. Unfortunately, it is very little that I can say, for, when once they have taken firm hold of a person, they are seldom got rid of. When they occur during an acute case of insanity, where there is much mental excitement, they certainly often disappear as the excitement passes off, or soon afterward, just as they disappear when the delirium of fever subsides; but, when they have become chronic, they hold their ground in defiance of every kind of assault upon them. Over and over again the experiment has been tried of proving to the hallucinated patient in every possible way, and by every imaginable device, that his perceptions are false, but in vain:
Forbid the sea for to obey the moon
As or by oath or counsel shake
The fabric of his folly, whose foundation is
Piled upon his faith, and will continue
The standing of his body."
There is more to be done to prevent hallucinations, I think, than to cure them; that is to say, by prudent care of the body and wise culture of the mind. Looking to their mode of origin, it is obviously of the first importance, trite maxim as it may seem, to keep the body in good health; for not only will bodily disorder directly occasion hallucinations by disturbance of the sensory centres, but by its depressing influence on the entire nervous system it hinders sound, and predisposes to unsound, thought and feeling. Every one knows how hard a matter it is to perceive accurately, to feel calmly, and to think clearly, when the liver is out of order; there is then a good foundation for hallucination. It has so long been the habit to exalt the mind as the noble, spiritual, and immortal part of man, at the expense of the body, as the vile, material, and mortal part, that, while it is not thought at all strange that every possible care and attention should be given to mental cultivation, a person who should give the same sort of careful attention to his body would be thought somewhat meanly of. And yet I am sure that a wise man, who would ease best the burden of life, cannot do better than watchfully to keep undefiled and holy—that is, healthy—the noble temple of his body. Is it not a glaring inconsistency that men should pretend to fall into ecstasies of admiration of the temples which they have built with their own hands, and to claim reverence for their ruins, and, at the same time, should have no reverence for, or should actually speak contemptuously of, that most complex, ingenious, and admirable structure which the human body is? However, if they really neglect it, it is secure of its revenge; no one will come to much by his most strenuous mental exercises, except upon the basis of a good organization—for a sound body is assuredly the foundation of a sound mind.
In respect of the mental cultivation to be adopted, in order to guard against hallucination, I can now only briefly and vaguely enforce one important principle—namely, the closest, most exact, and sincere converse with nature, physical and human. Habitual contact with realities in thought and deed is a strong defense against illusions of all sorts. We must strive to make our observation of men and things so exact and true, must so inform our minds with true perceptions, that there shall be no room for false perceptions. Calling to mind what has been said concerning the nature of perception—how the most complete and accurate perception of an object is gained by bringing it into all its possible relations with our different senses, and so receiving into the idea of it all the impressions which it was fitted to produce upon them—it will appear plainly how necessary to true perception, and to sound thought, which is founded on true perception, and to wise conduct, which is founded on sound thought, are thoroughness and sincerity of observation. So to observe Nature as to learn her laws and to obey them, is to observe the commandments of the Lord to do them. Speculative meditations and solitary broodings are the fruitful nurse of delusions and illusions. By faithfully intending the mind to the realities of Nature, as Bacon has it, and by living and working among men in a healthy, sympathetic way, exaggeration of a particular line of thought or feeling is prevented, and the balance of the faculties best preserved. Notably the best rules for the conduct of life are the fruits of the best observations of men and things; the achievements of science are no more than the organized gains—orderly and methodically arranged—of an exact and systematic observation of the various departments of Nature; the noblest products of the arts are Nature ennobled through human means, the art itself being Nature. There are not two worlds—a world of Nature and a world of human nature—standing over against one another in a sort of antagonism, but one world of Nature, in the orderly evolution of which human nature has its subordinate part. Delusions and hallucinations may be described as discordant notes in the grand harmony. It should, then, be every man's steadfast aim, as a part of Nature, his patient work, to cultivate such entire sincerity of relations with it, so to think, feel, and act, always in intimate unison with it, to be so completely one with it in life, that when the summons comes to surrender his mortal part to absorption into it, he does so, not fearfully, as to an enemy who has vanquished him, but trustfully, as to a mother who, when the day's task is done, bids him lie down to sleep.—Fortnightly Review.
- This is a Mohammedan receipt for summoning spirits:
"Fast seven days in a lonely place, and take incense with you, such as benzoin, aloes wood, mastic, and odoriferous wood from Soudan, and read the chapter 1001 times (from the Koran) in the seven days—a certain number of readings, namely, for every one of the five daily prayers. That is the secret, and you will see indescribable wonders; drums will be beaten beside you, and flags hoisted over your head, and you will see spirits full of light and of beautiful and benign aspect."—"Upper Egypt; its People and Products," by Dr. Klunzinger, p. 386.
An acquaintance of his, who had undergone the course of self-mortification, said that he really saw all kinds of horrible forms in his magic circle, but he saw them also when his eyes were shut. At last he got quite terrified and left the place.
- In the second part of "Henry VI.," Shakespeare gives an instance of a fearful death-bed hallucination, when Cardinal Beaufort is at the point of death:
"King. How fares my lord? Speak, Beaufort, to thy sovereign.
Cardinal. If thou be'st death, I'll give thee England's treasure,
Enough to purchase such another island,
So thou wilt let me live, and feel no pain.
King. Ah, what a sign it is of evil life,
Where death's approach is seen so terrible!
Warwick. Beaufort, it is thy sovereign speaks to thee.
Car. Bring me unto the trial when you will.
Died he not in his bed? where should he die?
Can I make men live, whether they will or no?
Oh, torture me no more! I will confess.
Alive again? then show me where he is:
I'll give a thousand pounds to look upon him.
He hath no eyes, the dust hath blinded them.
Comb down his hair; look, look, it stands upright,
Like lime-twigs set to catch my wingèd soul.
Give me some drink; and bid the apothecary
Bring the strong poison that I bought of him."