Skip to content


7 January, 2012


Hallucinations (Photo credit: Sudhamshu)


I’ll accept arguments that what is described below cannot be called hallucinations since the definition of a hallucination is a sense perception for which there is no stimulus.  While there is a fine line between sensations that are purely intrapsychic and those that have some foundation in near-subliminal but actual stimuli, I’ll stick by my guns in calling these experiences hallucinations.


This is a common experience for survivors and occurs almost exclusively when they are alone, night time being a factor that can increase the probability of the experience. The experience involves a powerful, unshakable feeling that someone is in the home with the survivor though there should not be.  Survivors describe having constantly to look over their shoulders because of the sensation, and may even conduct a thorough search of the home, trying to satisfy themselves that “it’s just my imagination.”  The feeling can be enhanced by stimuli which mask the senses, such as the noise caused while vacuuming.  It is akin to the sensation many non-survivors have had of being watched in a crowd … of someone looking at them.  If asked, survivors will describe the presence as malevolent — and sometimes not human.

Far less frequent is the emotional experience that the presence is positive, such as the spirit of a loved one who has long since departed, such as a beloved grandmother.


So where does actual sense perception come in?  Human beings are enormously sensitive to their environments, and not all stimuli reach the level of a conscious perception.  There can be the slightest change in ambient light, the manner in which light illuminates surfaces, or a slight change in reflections or shadows.  The same is true of auditory sensations in the form of minute changes in sound absorption or reflection occasioned by someone or (god forbid) something entering the auditory field.  Most people have had such experiences.  Perhaps one has been reading intently and is prompted to look up or around to see someone they did not, and could not have, seen or heard directly.  It is my belief that humans are hard-wired to have that sort of fine-tuned situational awareness, though some may be more attuned to the psychological elbow nudge such stimuli provide.

Some people, sexual abuse survivors and war veterans among them, have solid reason to be more acutely tuned into such experiences.  It’s not “It feels like there’s someone over there,” it is more like “Alert — a potential threat has entered the field.” In the clearest of such experiences, it is as if one has received a psychological nudge from an inner observer — a sort of psychological poke in the ribs from that observer’s elbow, prompting her to focus on something which is not in her actual experience.

More commonly, what is experienced is an emotion or feeling which would accompany a perceptual experience had it actually occurred.  For instance, if, in reality, one was walking through a parking structure late at night and actually saw a figure lurking behind a pillar, one would probably experience feelings of heightened alertness and trepidation.  If one did not actually see or hear anything to suggest such a figure was actually there but had a sixth sense experience that there was something there, one might only experience a sudden and perhaps puzzling feeling of heightened alertness and trepidation.  Is there a threat or not?

Nothing was seen or heard and yet the feelings are very insistent that someone, or some thing, is there.

On the other hand, using the example of a psychological elbow nudge, it is not uncommon for someone to walk into his or her home, see his or her partner in another room from behind, and have an instant sense of the other person’s mood.  Though there is nothing tangible that is picked up by conscious senses, the person may think “Uh-oh – he/she is upset” — and be dead on right.

Such experiences have an almost psychic quality about them but there are, no doubt, many subtle clues are being responded to; the slope of the shoulders, the posture, and the way the person moves.  It is just that those cues are subliminal.  What bubbles up into consciousness is the processed perception itself rather than the sensory bases for it.  I strongly suspect that survivors have hallucinations of such subtle environmental clues.  Though that hypothesis is essentially not possible to test, it is the most consistent with known facts about human psychology in general, and the symptoms of survivors in particular.  After all, as noted previously, they have solid reason to be more alert to signs of danger.  It is on the basis of the human capacity for sensitively to such subtle sensory clues that I call these experiences hallucinations because the survivor is alone.  There could be no such actual subliminal stimulus, and the experience that the stimulus is there can only be called a hallucination.



Edmund Burke was a philosopher in the mid-1700s.  In his essay On the Sublime and the Beautiful,  he noted that in order for something to elicit feelings of unearthly horror the stimulus had to have a quality of uncertainty.  That fact is commonly exploited in horror movies, where it is common to use the shadowy or otherwise obscured image of a monster rather than a clear view of it to elicit feelings of dread.  The viewer may instinctively hope for an eventual clear view of whatever the threatening entity is as the mind innately attempts to clarify what that threat actually is.  I have sometimes explained it as follows:  If you are blindfolded and tied to a train track and know that a train is due to come on that track in 15 minutes, you will experience fear.  If you are similarly blindfolded and tied to the track but don’t know for sure if the track is even used anymore, you will experience anxiety.  Anxiety is about what is not known, while fear is about the known.

Leave a Comment

Comments and criticisms are encouraged

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: