The Physicalism of Hallucinations

by Vovan UK

Within the realm of folk psychology, defined as ‘common sense’ by your author, humans in the western world have been shunted down a pathway of thought that seems to write off the ideas, images and concepts gleaned from certain altered states of consciousness; such as hallucinations, illusions and their ilk.  Whilst it’s understandable that not all of these thoughts are worthy of further contemplation once analysed, it is also poor form to cast them aside, pre-analysis, as diseased concepts from pathological minds.

Within the artistic and literary world, however, such states of consciousness are less readily cast aside as worthless; this maybe due to the supposed link between madness and creativity – the mad scientist, the eccentric writer or crazed musician are all stereotypes that perforate western thought. Dostoevsky’s work, for example, is replete with allusions and autobiographical allegories to his epilepsy as a means of ‘understanding the final cause’. Dostoevsky saw his seizures as ‘ecstatic’, and he interpreted them as consisting of a direct, revelatory power, coupled with a sense of feeling that originated from a supreme being.

Lionel Trilling’s 1947 essay Art and Neurosis makes the distinction between pathological states and normalcy, yet Trilling is at pains to point out that, in the subjective sense, both groups of people still have direct access to reality. The only difference being the scale of the detail perceived: ‘…..there is no doubt that what we call mental illness maybe the source of psychic knowledge. Some neurotic people, because they are more apprehensive than normal people, are able to see more of certain parts of reality and to see them with more intensity. And maybe neurotic or psychotic people are in certain respects in closer touch with the actualities of the unconscious than are ‘normal people’. Further, the expression of a neurotic or psychotic conception of reality is likely to be more intense than a normal one’ (1). So here we have the case that pathological people can be experiencing parts of reality in ‘high-definition’ compared to that of ‘normal’ people or, in other words, an experience of the heightened awareness of certain areas within the sensory stimuli  and their subsequent evaluation by the brain.

One step on from Trilling’s idea is that contained within Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited (1958, 253): ‘The real hopeless victims of mental illness are to be found among those who appear to be most normal’ (2). This sentence, as a paraphrasing from the psychiatrist Dr. Eric Fromm, underlines the fact that for one to be truly ‘insane’ one must fulfil the prerequisite of not having the faintest idea that this problem is so.  Fromm proceeds to blame society for this madness, and in some ways intense social stigma can force latent swells of feelings of persecution to the surface within one’s mind. If such feelings become chronically reinforced then pathology can be forthcoming, especially within certain cultures that have a very strict definition of what it is to be ‘normal’. Inside the cultures dominated by the English language, a feeling of ‘I’, or of self agency, is a register of ipseity.  This means that people with paucity or delusions within the domain of the ‘self’ can suffer from a muddying of the boundaries that separate the ‘self’ from the ‘others’; hence the ‘I’ no longer becomes the initiator of action but rather a mechanism of an ‘others’ action (3). This is most apparent among sufferers of schizophrenia, who report feelings of agency ‘as if they are under control of some other agent rather than caused by their own volition’ (4).

If we contrast this western idea with other cultures that allow certain unusual states of mind as being part of the human condition, for example those cultures that are based around shamanism, we find sympathy and acceptance of a greater range of conscious states woven into their fabric. A shaman can undergo a torrid time at the mercy of induced, extreme states of mind – which readily include an assault of hyper-excitation upon certain areas of the sensory system. Yet shamans can cope mentally with the ordeal, as they inhabit a culture that allows ways of dealing with such experience in an allegorical manner. Couple this with support from the community at large and you have a reflexive mechanism to help people in and at the conclusion of states of mind that, as Trilling put it, are ‘in closer touch with the actualities of the unconscious’. In the western world such support is less forthcoming, as can be seen in the instances of UFO ‘abductees’.  Such people are usually the victims of sleep paralysis, which, in turn, can provoke a phantasmagorical collection of hypnopompic or hypnologic hallucinations. The lack of a defensive mechanism, or allegorical framework, to help cope with such lucid and vivid encounters provokes them to use a current zeitgeist to help contextualise these ordeals, which, since the 1940s, has readily included science fiction as a resource.  However they may express such experiences, our culture tends to expose them to ridicule, blaming it on pathology and writing it off as such (5).

In Oliver Sacks’ 2012 book Hallucinations he suggests that such experiences of reality are not to be thought of as pathological until they turn vindictive or aggressive towards the subject or outside world (6). This point seems to be a crucial nub here and, within Hallucinations, case study after case study is put forward to highlight the fact that otherwise ‘normal’ people keep quiet about their own hallucinations for fear of being written off as mentally unstable.  So here we have not Fromm’s abnormal society making people mad, but everyone consisting of a base-level of ‘abnormality’ denied to them by a society with a skewed set of standards; the deviation from the above quote contained within Huxley’s Brave New World is narrow, but deep, I feel.

In Sacks’ 2012 essay for The Atlantic entitled Seeing God in the Third Millennium he states that ‘hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience’(7).  Pertinent stuff, I’m sure you will agree. But what Sacks is alluding to is that such events in a person’s life will be, one day, theoretically describable in function and cause. As the Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman, once remarked of nature, ‘it does no harm to a mystery to know a little more about it’.  This is part of physicalism’s central idea that ‘the universe is theoretically comprehensible, even physically comprehensible’ (8).

Kevin Nelson, in his 2011 book The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain (p62) breaks down the feeling of selfhood into two parts; the implicit and the explicit self. The implicit self being that which lies outside of regular consciousness, such as heartbeat regulation, homeostasis, the workings of our internal  systems etc. (this could be considered as the ‘body’). The explicit self consists of ‘that which rises to the surface of our consciousness’, such as precise movement of limbs (or the perception of the ‘mind’).  Even as Nelson creates a seemingly dualistic approach to the self, as is postulated in Cartesian Dualism, he is in fact promoting a ‘monochotomy’, as both the explicit and implicit self are born of the same matter – they just express themselves in slightly different ways. Nelson goes on to explain that the loss of ‘self’ that occurs during the numinous feelings of psychotropic drugs, religious epiphany or any other ‘mystical’ experience can be understood in terms of a ‘severe contraction of the explicit self and an expansion of the implicit self’ (9).  He even goes on to state that no matter how strong the feelings of ‘loss of self’ can be ‘we can’t know oneness without retaining a speck of separateness’ for ‘the self is contained within consciousness. It is difficult to imagine – no matter how powerful the sense of a complete loss of self is – that no vestige of the self remains while consciousness is present and autobiographical memoires are created’. Free association could then allow a certain reflection here; Freud’s analogy ,within his essay Civilisation and its Discontents (1930), of the evolution of the mind, or ‘primitive’ mind at least, is born out of snapshots of surviving impulses passed down from species that contribute to the contingency of (in this case) human evolution (10). This results in a melting pot of latent impulses, with each person containing an unique combination, based on the constitutes of that contingency.  This is an echo that can be heard from Charles Darwin’s Notebook M (1838); ‘Our descent then, is in the origin of our evil passions! The Devil under form of Baboon is our grandfather!’ (11)

So a deep experience can be thought of as being precisely that – deeply down-reaching to our older ‘circuitry’. Sacks, again, makes this point in Hallucinations (p197), ‘The sensory system is contingent. Yet higher functions control the lower functions. Elaborate deliria and psychoses have a top-down as well as a bottom up quality, like dreams.  They are volcano-like eruptions from the ‘lower’ levels in the brain – the sensory association cortex, hippocampal circuits, and the limbic system – by they are also shaped by the intellectual, emotional, and imaginative powers of the individual.’

The degree of separation, redundancy and association within a system underpins its true complexity. We see this within living organisms and within the progress of technology. A system increases in complexity the further towards the future you follow its lineage. The major difference between technology and evolution is that within technology the newer forms merely replace the older. Evolution tries to perform this feat, yet fails, as the older versions are always lurking, sometimes vestigially, or sometimes actually serving as a hindrance. For example the recurrent laryngeal nerve (RLN) within higher organisms has a length directly dependant on the neck length of the particular organism it is contained within. So for giraffes the RLN length can be up to 5 meters long, and within certain types of dinosaurs the length became mind bogglingly long. This is evidence of a ‘quirk of post-hoc’ evolutionary contingency (12), and an example of how not to design a RNL efficiently.  If, then, the nervous system is at the mercy of this type of modification, then so is the brain. It follows on, logically, that deep impulses, which are the cause of detailed, resplendent hallucinations, when the brain and sensory system are in a state of hyper-excitation – as is this that case after consumption of psychotropic drugs, or whilst under the grip of a pathology and/or mystical experience – it will dredge up feelings of the implicit self from different parts of our personal and evolutionary history. The brain is thus induced into having to interpret such a cacophony of impulses. Our consciousness can be thought of as the mechanism for the cognitive rearrangement and interpretation after the impulse has activated regions of the brain (13).

So if the combined activation includes such primitive parts of the internal systems, then such ‘qualia’ maybe indecipherable as they stand.  In Hallucinations Sacks tells of a patient of his that is sent into delirious hallucinations by the fact that his body cannot regulate protein uptake correctly. So if every solute or compound has the capacity to make one ‘trip balls’ under the correct circumstances, then psychotropics are a slight variation on this theme. Powerful psychotropic hallucinations would be then the result of chaotic firing of multilayered and multifaceted nervous impulses, akin to voluntary submission to a fleeting dose of ‘madness’. The similarities are too apparent for such an idea to be brushed away rationally (all one must be wary of is the certain stigmas attached to words such as madness or pathology etc., and be aware to inflame prejudices in their utility). Such over-loading of the sensory systems, in waves, or all at once, will lead the brain to struggle with interpretation. Maybe Mckenna’s ‘machine elves’ were merely the best his brain could make of the available information, at the time, under difficult circumstances.

If it does turn out that such psychotropically induced hallucinations are the expression of long lost, or buried qualia, that are subsequently interpreted in a particular way by the brain, then developing mechanisms to decode such experiences will be of great benefit in the struggle against western world folk psychology.  When it comes to dealing with mental health western folk psychology is beginning to be stood up to by certain fields of psychiatry, psychopharmacology and psychology.  This means that an appreciation of the physicalism of hallucinations can only assist and not detract from helping to reshape common attitudes, within our population, towards how mental health is considered in general. As a contingent problem, based upon a contingent process, the solution must involve ideas from all ages and draw from the entire width and depth of the human experience. A good example of this kind of work, centred around the ‘physicalism of hallucinations’, can be heard described at length by Dr. Robin Carthart- Harris, as he discusses his studies on psilocybin in an interview on London Real TV.


1)      Trilling, L. 2009. Art and Neurosis.  The Moral Obligation to be Intelligent: Selected Essays. Northwestern University Press.

2)      Huxley, A. 2004. Brave New World Revisited. HarperCollins Publishers.

3)      Choudhury, S., and Blakemore, S-J. 2009. Intentions, Actions, and the Self. In Does Consciousness Cause Behaviour?, edited by Pockett et al. The MIT Press.

4)      Blakemore, S-J., Sarfati, Y., et al. 2003. The detection of intentional contingencies in simple animations in patients with delusions of persecution. Psychological Medicine 33.

5)      Mehaust, B. 1987. UFO abductions as Religious Folklore. In UFOs, 1947-1987: The 40 year Search of an Explanation, edited by Evans and Spencer. London: Fortean Pres2

6)      Sacks, O. 2012. Hallucinations. Macmillan Publishers Limited.

7)      Sacks, O. 2012.Seeing God in the Third Millennium. The Atlantic Website Archive (12/12/12).

8)      Maxwell, N. 1998. The Comprehensibility of the Universe: A New Conception of Science. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

9)      Nelson, Kevin. The Spiritual Doorway in the Brain. (2011). Dutton Publishers.

10)   Freud, S. 2004. Civilization and its Discontents. (2004). Penguin Books – Great Ideas.

11)   Barrett, P. (1980). Metaphysics, Materialism, and the evolution of mind: the early writings of Charles Darwin. University of Chicago Press.

12)   Wedel, M. J. 2012. A Monument of inefficiency: The presumed course of the recurrent laryngeal nerve in sauropod dinosaurs. Acta Palaentological Polonica 57.

13)   Jeannerod, M. 2009. Consciousness of Action as an Embodied Consciousness. Does Consciousness Cause Behaviour?, edited by Pockett et al. The MIT Press.

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