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Medicine Science

Visual Hallucinations Are a Normal Grief Reaction 550

Posted by kdawson
from the who-goes-there dept.
Hugh Pickens writes "Vaughn Bell has written an interesting essay at Scientific American about grief hallucinations. This phenomenon is a normal reaction to bereavement that is rarely discussed, although researchers now know that hallucinations are more likely during times of stress. Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. A study by Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved's passing. It's not unusual for people who have lost a partner to clearly see or hear the person about the house, and sometimes even converse with them at length. 'Despite the fact that hallucinations are one of the most common reactions to loss, they have barely been investigated and we know little more about them. Like sorrow itself, we seem a little uncomfortable with it, unwilling to broach the subject,' writes Bell. 'We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the "ghost" while the reality is, in many ways, more profound.' "
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Visual Hallucinations Are a Normal Grief Reaction

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  • And yet.... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:16AM (#25974045)

    Yet, there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy...

  • Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tehcyder (746570) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:18AM (#25974053) Journal
    One thing that the death of someone I loved has proved to me is that there are no ghosts, and certainly no afterlife.

    The dead only live on in people's memories.

  • Eh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Futile Rhetoric (1105323) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:20AM (#25974055)

    Yes, misfiring braincells are way more profound than the possibility of a life after death and all that it entails.

  • by seanellis (302682) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:48AM (#25974269) Homepage Journal

    You've been living with someone for years, you develop a model of their behavior in your brain. With them there, this helps to predict where they are likely to be, what they said in that indistinct murmur from the other room, how they are likely to react when you say that you're late for the third time this week.

    So this model is going to be still running even after they have gone. You "know" that your spouse will be in the living room watching "Strictly Come Dancing" because it's 7pm. So your mental model will fill them in, and as you walk into the room it will take a little time for the model to adjust. Is this the "corner of the eye" effect at work?

    OK, so I'm not a clinical psychologist, not even close. But it seems a very plausible model to me.

  • Re:What if.. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bandman (86149) <bandman@gm a i l . com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @09:59AM (#25974341) Homepage

    Of course it's happening in your head, but why on earth should that mean it's not real?

  • Re:Eternal (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Corporate Troll (537873) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:00AM (#25974355) Homepage Journal

    Do you have any proof for such assertions? The most simple explanation is: we each have one life, it stops when your brain dies. End of story.

  • by handy_vandal (606174) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:05AM (#25974429) Homepage Journal

    Sounds to me like the social equivalent of phantom limb pain [wikipedia.org]: "My other half is gone, but I still feel his/her presence."

    I'm also reminded of sensory deprivation [wikipedia.org] -- when deprived of normal sensory input, the mind generates hallucinatory sensations.

  • Re:Eternal (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:08AM (#25974467)
    If I had a cosy delusion like that, I'd not want to believe in hallucinations either.
  • by unity100 (970058) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:09AM (#25974473) Homepage Journal
    and couldnt be anything else.

    because, as mankind, we have discovered all secrets of existence up to this point.
  • by Ian Alexander (997430) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:09AM (#25974475)
    It's possible. So are flying spaghetti monsters, Santa Claus, and God. I can haz evidence, plz?
  • by hey! (33014) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:11AM (#25974481) Homepage Journal

    I've said this for years. You leave a you-shaped hole in the people around you when you die; and they in the people around them. Added up, it's a kind of immortality. After all "I" am not a collection of cells, I think of myself more as a collection of habits, behaviors, ideas and beliefs.

  • Re:Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:11AM (#25974491)

    One thing that the death of someone I loved has proved to me is that there are no ghosts, and certainly no afterlife.

    How exactly did someone's death prove there is no afterlife? I can understand not believing in an afterlife, but how did someone you love's dying prove it?

    Seems like a very subjective opinion, and no "proof" as such.

    I can only assume he was referring to the fact that his grief caused him to feel that the person was still there (i.e. hallucinating), and this experience was resembling the "ghost" phenomenon to such an extent that he can see why people would think there are ghosts.

  • by Andr T. (1006215) <andretaff AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:17AM (#25974561)
    Of course it could. But (and now I'm restricted to the realm of science) if you want to claim something is supernatural, you'll have to have good evidence to prove it.

    You can believe anything you want (and anyone will have a hard time proving you're wrong, even if you really are). It's just a matter of choice. But if you want your claims to be heard (by me at least, a very skeptic person) you have to follow some more criteria. But that's just me.

  • Re:Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) <obsessivemathsfreak@@@eircom...net> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:20AM (#25974621) Homepage Journal

    Because belief in an afterlife didn't make him feel any better. Since that was in fact its major selling point, as an all purpose disaster recovery solution, he wisely decided not to renew the license after the incident.

    People really need to understand that while religious solution providers have great marketing departments, by objective measures their systems leave a lot to be desired and often don't justify the TCO, or the inevitable lock in to the providers total solution suite.

  • Imagine that (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:37AM (#25974831)
    On the human brain: Large enough to support a vast, fertile imagination, yet still too small to often recognize imagination for what it is.
  • Re:And yet.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Paranatural (661514) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:41AM (#25974877)

    Like sorrow itself, we seem a little uncomfortable with it, unwilling to broach the subject,' writes Bell. 'We often fall back on the cultural catch all of the "ghost" while the reality is, in many ways, more profound.' "

    I think you may be inadvertently particlaly correct. I believe there are both more and less things here on Earth than we think. Less ghosts and spirits, more real things like elbowed squid and shrimp that breathe methane and live in 500 C thermal vents.

    Truthfully though, I think the reason people are uncomfortable to research it is who wants to tell the 70 year old woman that the conversation she had last night with her dead husband that has now brought her some peace was a hallucination/dream?

    Besides, the researchers may well find themselves on the other end of that hallucination.

  • Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Doc Ruby (173196) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:52AM (#25975021) Homepage Journal

    Or, they're ghosts.

  • Re:Morning (Score:4, Insightful)

    by yakmans_dad (1144003) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:53AM (#25975039)
    I suffer from bad insomnia which I had thought was even worse until my wife proved to me that a lot of my sleeplessness was caused by my habit of dreaming that I was awake. I'd be lying in bed fretful because I couldn't sleep while my wife was trying to rouse me because I was snoring so loud.

    The illusion of being awake was so strong -- the cliche that we can tell the difference between reality and dreams is a crock -- that I refused to believe her until I had to rouse her for doing the same thing.
  • Re:Love? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Lurker2288 (995635) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:55AM (#25975053)
    To be honest, this just sounds like a 'no true Scotsman' argument. 'Love' is defined as only those parts of love which are positive, uplifting, and nuturative, and the potentially nasty baggage (possessiveness, obsession, etc) are wtritten off as something separate.

    Nor would I necessarily agree that love is the basis of all human society. I live in a big city where there are fairly consistent patterns of behavior which you'd consider polite and civil (folks hold doors for each other, say excuse me when they bump into someone, offer subway seats to the elderly or infirm, etc). I don't think this is due so much to some hidden wellspring of love for our common man as much as a desire to keep things running smoothly--I treat you with a certain amount of respect and politeness, and you do likewise. For all I care you might be thinking about how nice it would be to strangle me, but as long as you keep your behavior civil we can get along. It's more 'social contract' than 'love'.
  • Re:What if.. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by ABasketOfPups (1004562) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @11:15AM (#25975335)
    Someone hand this person "+1, Nerd" for working a Harry Potter reference in.
  • Re:Ghosts (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Ploum (632141) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @11:23AM (#25975441) Homepage

    Simple scientific procedure :

    1) There's no scientific theory that would explain that our "spirit" still live after our death. At the opposite, we can easily conceive that our "spirit" (or soul or personnality or whatever you called it) use our brain as an hardware support and that destroying the hardware also destroy the spirtir/soul/...

    2) There're are no fact that could lead us to think after-life exists (from a scientifical point of view)

    3) There are no facts that could be explained in an easier way if we admit the existence of an after-life. Instead, it makes things a lot more complicated.

    Any logical mind would infer that after-life do not exist (or has little chance to do) from one of those 3 points. So the 3 points together make it highly logical that we just die with our body.

    I know that some will invoke traditions and culture, telling that, if people believe it or even have evidence, it might be true. Yeah, sure. Same apply for Little tooth fairy, santa claus, UFOs and God.

  • Re:Imagine that (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @11:23AM (#25975447)

    On the human brain: Large enough to support a vast, fertile imagination, yet still too small to often recognize imagination for what it is.

    Today, I truly wish I had mod points. Most insightful thing I've read all day.

  • Re:Eh (Score:5, Insightful)

    by DriedClexler (814907) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @11:41AM (#25975651)

    Yes, plus, your perceptions are also highly influence by your expectations, both conscious and unconscious. I think that applies here too: if you've come to expect someone being around, your brain will "fill in the missing gaps" (similar in concept to a running-average algorithm).

    In another context, that's why you can't tickle yourself: because your brain "expects" the feeling of your fingers, since you're also the one generating that touch. In order to successfully tickle yourself, you have to introduce a time lag: set up some device such that when you operate it, a few seconds later it your motions get transformed into a tickling motion against your skin.

  • Re:Ghost stories (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Koiu Lpoi (632570) <koiulpoi.gmail@com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @12:39PM (#25976467)

    same hallucination at the same time.

    I am reminded of cases where people's story for court testimony can be changed by reinforcement of those around them.

    Either that or an Arwen-Liv-Tyler-Ninja really did walk past your room.

  • by MickLinux (579158) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:01PM (#25976783) Journal

    The human brain seems to be very good at making shortcuts to speed up processing.

    So when I'm around my wife, my human brain assumes that the person I see is my wife (shoot, it even assumes the warmth next to me in bed is my wife, and that the person I'm talking to is my wife), and interprets it that way for me.

    So in bereavement, suddenly you're deprived of the actual stimulus. But that doesn't mean that the brain is going to let those circuits sit idle. No... the moment any unknown stimulus comes in, it's going to try to match it to the "wife" circuit. And if the "wife" circuit triggers better than anything else, then that's what I'm going to see.

    In other words, we don't see things as they are; we see them as we interpret them.

    So I suspect that this is just a case of the bereaved person mistaking a cat streaking around the house for their spouse. Or a bird in the air, etc.

    Which doesn't mean that I don't believe in the human soul, and heaven and hell. But I don't think this is it. There's a better, simpler explaination at hand, and one that matches my occasional experience even nowadays, when I'm not bereaved.

    "Laura, is that you out there?" ... oh no, sorry. It's just my son's friend.

  • by Tubal-Cain (1289912) * on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:07PM (#25976861) Journal

    Next thing you know those awful secularists will be claiming that anecdotal stories of "I saw Jesus three days after He died" represent something fundamentally normal about the human experience.

    Groups of people don't hallucinate the same thing at the same time, and certain individuals weren't grieving very much at his passing (Saul of Tarsus, Thomas, James)

  • by Lurker2288 (995635) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:27PM (#25977147)
    Modern science may be a long way off from what was accepted 500 years ago, but the fact is that 500 years ago there was some kind of consistently observable phenomenon that somebody made note of. Somebody studied it, and thought about it, and theorized about it, and new conclusions were established. Somebody else carried the work a little farther, or maybe new technologies allowed greater insights than previously possible. But eventually, science advances.

    Contrast this with what we currently consider pseudoscience, where despite the best efforts of many people, there's almost nothing to observe: no experiments you can do, no verifiable, measurable examples to provide the seed of a hypothesis, much less a basis for an entirely new branch of science. For something to be understood, first it has to be, you know, REAL.

    And comparing modern science to any church just proves your stunning ignorance. There's nothing scientists love more than tearing down old theories and replacing them with something new, and there's no quicker way to get your name in the history books. It may take time for new ideas to catch on (as it should--it takes time to build evidence and persuade people) but valid concepts don't get buried just because they're inconvenient. Spend some time with any real scientists and see if you're still willing to make such an inane statement.
  • Re:Imagine that (Score:3, Insightful)

    by macraig (621737) <mark DOT a DOT craig AT gmail DOT com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:35PM (#25977269)

    Sometimes delusion masquerades as imagination.

  • Re:Ghosts (Score:3, Insightful)

    by turtledawn (149719) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:39PM (#25977329)

    If it's not, we'll find out later- either all of us scientifically at some point in the future when our methods have improved, or individually in the no-as-distant future when we arrive there ourselves.

  • Re:Ghosts (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ultranova (717540) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @01:45PM (#25977413)

    While vendor lock-in is a common feature in products from established Western vendors,

    It isn't, actually. The source has been open for nearly two millennia, and numerous forks exist. Nowadays the legal issues have been settled too, so you are unlikely to be met by the Spanish Inquisition for starting a new one or compiling a custom kernel of beliefs for your personal use.

    Just beware of malware [encycloped...matica.com] and ignore the nay-sayers [encycloped...matica.com].

  • Re:Ghosts (Score:4, Insightful)

    by joss (1346) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @03:21PM (#25978611) Homepage

    Insightful, my ass. Points 2&3 are the same for a start.

    > 2) There're are no fact that could lead us to think after-life exists (from a scientifical point of view)

    Er, no. This whole topic is exactly that. The fact that vast numbers of people think they are feeling/seeing/conversing with their loved ones after their death certainly could lead one to think that there *might* be an after-life. Frankly any other position is unscientific. If one is just going to assume that all these people *have* to be hallucinating, because the only alternative you can think of leads one to an "unscientific" possibility, you're not being more scientific - you just have blind faith in what you think of as "science".

    A scientific approach is to question the theory, make predictions and test them. For instance, if the theory is that people's grief is leading them to hallucinate, then the more upset people are, the more likely they would be to hallucinate, this could be measured and tested, a strong correlation between level of grief and likeliness of hallucination would strengthen the theory, etc.

    Disclaimer: I don't believe in life after death, but this argument stinks of smugness.

  • Re:What if.. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hao Wu (652581) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:47PM (#25979997) Homepage
    Psychiatry is trying its very best to destroy peoples faith.

    Demand for their pills and services goes down when they are competing with inner personal strength.

    They have to make people crazy somehow. Exploiting their grief is one way.
  • Re:And yet.... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by brkello (642429) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @04:49PM (#25980019)
    And I had a dream last night that there was a loud speaker in my house that said one of my co-workers had died and I needed to come in to work. Here I am at work and no one has died. Not really interesting since nothing happened...but if it did, then I would have the same sort of story you did.

    We dream all kinds of crazy things. Just because every now and then a coincidence happens doesn't really mean anything. It isn't science because it isn't repeatable. Now if every night your dreams could predict something real, then you might have something. Right now you just have a +5 interesting story.
  • Re:Obviously (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Koiu Lpoi (632570) <koiulpoi.gmail@com> on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @06:06PM (#25981379)
    Have fun failing to get grant money (or succeding at all, really) for basing your hypothesis on wild speculation instead of ANY basis in fact or reality. Science isn't a bunch of people going "huh I wonder". If they had any reason to believe it was "ghosts", it would be based on something other than a bunch of superstitions.

    And how, exactly, would one go about detecting a "ghost"? I doubt you could even define what that is, let alone what device/spectrum/way that you could even think of detecting it (read: because it's not real). Other than just running brain scans to see that these people (almost certainly) are just hallucinating.

    I wish there were ghosts too. And aliens. And psychics. It'd make the world a lot more interesting. But we're talking about reality here. Or so I assumed.
  • Re:And yet.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Free the Cowards (1280296) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @08:41PM (#25983171)

    It seems pretty mundane to suppose that after going through the most fundamental transformation a person can possibly experience, they have nothing better to do than hang around their old family some more.

  • Re:And yet.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Free the Cowards (1280296) on Wednesday December 03, 2008 @10:38PM (#25984177)

    I think you should read the first post in this thread again.

    You mean the one which reads "Yet, there are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy..."? What is that supposed to prove?

    And also read up on the Rhine experiments, as only one example.

    Said experiment's results have never been successfully replicated. When faced with that fact, the reasonable conclusion is that the experiment was flawed, not that ESP is real.

    Strange things happen all the time, and they don't have to all simply be misperception.

    Sure, they don't have to be. But there's no reason to think that it's anything else.

    Sure, our brains are great at making connections which aren't really there. But there also *countless* probability-defying examples of people's minds making connections which ARE there - but which they would have no possible way of knowing, if our brains are really "just meat".

    Name three documented examples.

    After all, consciousness itself is a metaphysical phenomenon. It is generated by physical means, as far as we know; and it very well may not outlast our physical components. But it still is something that is more than merely matter; that in itself should tell you that other forms of more-than-matter are at least *possible*, if not probable.

    I admit that it's possible. Now what? That has absolutely no bearing on the rest.

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