Health warning over ‘inverted hallucinations’

Distracted: Those with the condition have a “blunted and distorted understanding of reality”.

Is there a deadly new plague sweeping through rich societies? Tomorrow, a leading psychologist will warn of the public health threat caused by lack of awareness of what is before our eyes.

Have you ever eaten a meal without really tasting the food? Crossed the road without looking — because you were so absorbed in something on your phone? Rushed home from school, and then been unable to remember the journey?

If so, you — and many other people like you — may be suffering from a newly identified psychological condition called “inverted hallucinations”.

Tomorrow, Dr William Van Gordon will give a public lecture at the University of Derby to introduce the condition to the world

On BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, he described it as an “an upside down form of hallucination”. Instead of seeing something that is not there, inverted hallucinations involve not seeing something that is there.

In an article published earlier this year, Dr Gordon and his fellow researchers claim that sufferers are “experiencing a distorted perception of reality and ‘missing out on their life’”.

In other words, they are unaware of the world around them.

Examples include unconsciously scrolling through social media (even in dangerous situations); being oblivious to other people’s wellbeing or personal space (for example, listening to music without headphones in public spaces); always rushing without noticing the journey, and having conversations without really listening to others.

If any of those behaviours sound familiar, you are not alone.

Dr Gordon says that most people experience inverted hallucinations “to a small degree at least, at some point in their lives”.

But more extreme versions of the condition could end up leading to chronic health problems, including depression and exhaustion.

It is essentially the opposite of the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness: focusing your attention on the present moment. This is often achieved through meditation. Studies have found that mindfulness has a whole host of benefits, including improved memory, better mental health and a more open-minded attitude.

Now you see me, now you don’t

Are inverted hallucinations a new and very modern plague? Dr Gordon will say that they are. One obvious cause is the addictive quality of so much social media — everything from collecting ‘likes’ to infinite scrolling is there to hold your attention for as long as possible, and to keep you coming back for more. Another cause is the rise of self-obsession and the idea that we all create our own reality.

Or is this a fuss about nothing and yet another example of trying to medicalise what is perfectly normal? When Thales of Miletus fell down a well while he was studying the night sky, or Einstein searched for his train ticket to remind him where he was going, it was because these two great intellects were focussing on something more important. Many say that absent-mindedness is not stupid — but a way of helping us focus on what matters.

You Decide

  1. Have you ever experienced inverted hallucinations?
  2. Is social media bad for you?

Activities

  1. As a class, complete the one-minute mindfulness exercise found under Become an Expert. Then discuss: How did it feel to focus on your own breath, without any distractions?
  2. Find out more about mindfulness. Create a leaflet answering the following questions: What is it? What are the benefits? How do you practise it?

Some People Say...

“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.”

Buddha

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The concept of inverted hallucinations was first introduced by psychologists in 2014. Dr Gordon and three colleagues published an article describing inverted hallucinations and their effects in more detail, earlier this year. They suggest that the hallucinations are a global problem, which could be linked to other diseases such as obesity and social media addiction.
What do we not know?
Whether it is directly linked to technology, or is simply something that happens to everyone from time to time. We also do not know what effects the condition might have on society and the wider world. A description of Dr Gordon’s lecture on the subject says that inverted hallucinations could “lead to the spread of ‘small-mindedness’”. Could this impact politics? Has it already?

Word Watch

Article
“The Prevalence, Communicability and Co-Occurrence of Inverted Hallucinations” was published in The Journal of Concurrent Disorders, earlier this year. You can read it in full under Become an Expert.
Wellbeing
Health and happiness.
Buddhist
Buddhism is an ancient Eastern religion, which originated in India between the 6th and 4th centuries BC. It spread throughout Asia and is still practised there and around the world. It is based on the teachings of the Buddha.
Meditation
Focusing on one thing, such as your breath or a visualisation, in order to quieten the mind. Most major religions include some form of meditation. It can also be practised separately from religion and has been found to help reduce some mental health problems.
Infinite scrolling
This is the name given to a social media or website feed which does not require you to click to find more pages of content. Instead, it will load more as you scroll. This is now seen as one of the addictive features of social media.
Thales of Miletus
Ancient Greek philosopher, mathematician and astronomer.