Forced Hallucinations Reveal Secret Reason Why Some People Are Scared of Things That Aren't There

Many people hear voices from people who aren't there, but not everyone is hospitalized for it. BOB DAEMMRICH/AFP/Getty Images

Hallucinations—perceiving things that aren't there—are common, but responses to them vary widely. Some people are not disturbed by hearing voices or seeing images that aren't actually present while others require hospitalization. New research from England helps explain the difference, a finding that could improve treatment and prevention for those who suffer from such imaginings.

To better understand our responses to hallucinations, researchers from various institutions throughout the UK induced them in 259 volunteers. Of the patients, 84 were clinical psychosis patients, meaning those with symptoms—imagining things that weren't there—severe enough to require medical care. Ninety-two were nonclinical psychosis patients, who also hallucinated but were able to carry on their lives and did not medical intervention. Lastly, 83 were a control group of patients who did not hallucinate.

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The team of researchers tasked the volunteers to play two games: a memory game that made it seem like the computer could read their minds and a smartphone game that gave the illusion the researcher had read the player's mind. In a third exercise, a sound audible through headphones was made to seem like it was coming from another source.

Reactions to the different mind tricks varied among the groups. The clinical group who'd been treated for hallucinations were far more likely to interpret the experiences as negative—many thought the tasks were a plot to embarrass or trick them, Live Science reported. The nonclinical group and the control group were not disturbed by the tricks to the same extent and did not interpret them to have darker meanings. People who feared their hallucinations were more likely to require hospitalization, and those who saw them as positive or at least nonthreatening were living normal lives that did not require professional intervention. The study now published online in The Lancet.

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The finding helps identify the determining factor in how people respond to hallucinations. Lead researcher Emmanuelle Peters, who studies psychology and psychotic symptoms at King's College London, told Newsweek that based on these results, the ability to distinguish between reality and hallucinations does not seem to affect how well patients cope with psychosis.

Rather, attitudes towards the hallucinations seem to have the biggest influence on whether or not a hallucinator may need hospitalization. "Viewing the tasks [mind tricks] as threatening and with unhelpful attributions was only found in the clinical group," said Peters, explaining that the nonclinical group often had spiritual explanations for their strange perceptions.

There were virtually no differences in symptoms between the clinical and non-clinical group. The only difference was that former group was unable to function with their psychosis and the latter was.

An estimated five percent of the population experience at least one hallucination in their lifetime. Why some people adopt one attitude toward these perceptions and others adopt another is unclear. Identifying this trait may be key to providing better treatment for hospitalized psychosis patients. Peters pointed out that the non-clinical psychosis group tended to be more mindful and spiritual than the other two groups.

In fact, many of the volunteers recruited to this group either worked as psychics or were part of spiritual groups and churches. "Perhaps these are protective factors," she suggested. She plans to further investigate this in future research.