By Kasun Kamaladasa –
It is a popular myth circulating among us that science has a poor understanding of the mind, although far from fully understanding it; Numerous branches of science have been studying the human mind for decades. This essay attempts to view the mind through “hallucinations” and similar phenomena.
Mouse flavoured cat food (How our receptors work in perception)
This is a question I saw in Reddit that I think is the perfect place to start.
My son has just asked me a question which is so unanswerable that I fear it may rip a hole in space-time continuum: Why is there no mouse-flavoured cat food?
It is hard to say whether the father’s statement is literal or metaphorical. For those of you who might be completely lost here; space-time continuum is derived from the “four-dimensions” in the theory of relativity and is a geeky way of saying “reality”. This could be metaphorical since the questions opens up a discussion on how food is tasted and whether it is, false advertisement or bad science that leads us to this conundrum; either which, explaining to a youngling would be difficult.
This could be literal since closer to home religions like Buddhism believe that reality is made out of a combination of tastes, vision, smell etc. (basically from the mind), hence once you realize mouse-flavor isn’t something that cats and humans share. Whole “reality” would literally rip apart.
[I am aware that not all Buddhist texts and sects agree on this]
So why is mouse-flavor not a thing? Well apart from regulations and difficulty in getting food certifications. Creating mouse flavor, unless we packet mice would require food testers who can confirm the taste by tasting both mice and synthetic compounds. However, even with such methods of testing authenticity of flavor, a cat’s taste is different from our own.
Cats for example generally can’t taste sweets. Compared to humans they have less gustatory (taste) receptors in their tongue, more olfactory(smell) receptors in their nose, cats see and feel touch differently, making food texture different from what we experience, cat whiskers that are located on their face and forelegs also helps cat’s see objects close by and is why cats sometimes can’t see what is in their bowl 2 inches from their face.
Fun fact: Just like cats and humans perceive the same taste differently, humans even within the same cultural backgrounds can perceive taste differently due to difference in our sensory systems, genes and preconceptions. If you take 10 of your closest friends and think of the food they like you’d probably know this is true.
The part the brain plays in perception
If you have ever cooked for someone you probably experienced that many factors help in food “tasting good”. Most research material available agree that the dominant part of “taste” comes from smell (Olfactory) receptors and not taste (gustatory) receptors. This, however, is just the part receptors play in perceiving “taste”. For those who skipped basic biology classes; receptors sense outside stimuli, creates a signal and sends it to part of the brain that processes that stimuli, then it interacts with other parts of the brain to create a perception of what it had sensed.
This brings us to how brains understand smell. While olfactory and gustatory receptors bind with chemicals in “food” and send signals to the brain it is the brain that tells us what we are tasting. This is why we think our mother’s iconic ambulthiyal dish is “tasty” while our friends might not like it as much. This is also why people with anosmia (absence of smell) or hyposmia(decreased sense of smell) due to defects of olfactory receptors or the nerves that carry those signals to the brain, may experience phantosmia (olfactory/smell hallucinations).
However, one does not necessarily need to have sensory disabilities to be deprived of senses. Villagers seeing daemon dogs, prisoners making invisible friends, temples visited by godly apparitions, wanderers in the desert talking with gods are all good examples of how people with completely well-functioning eyes and ears, can see, hear and feel things that do not exist.
Oliver Sacks’ book “Hallucinations” has several such examples of people with similar experiences. Sacks argues; Hallucinations are commonly associated with insanity or mental disability, but from what we have observed hallucinations are not limited to the mentally “broken”. Charles Bonnet syndrome is a well-documented case to explain both brains involvement in sensory perception and its independence from mental disorders, where people who lost their eyesight start “seeing”. Research suggests that 10% of people with visual loss see these hallucinations, yet Sacks believes that it is highly under-reported due to the fear of being labelled as a “crazy” person.
You might be asking by now; We already knew “crazy” people see hallucinations, villagers and prisoners are “crazy” too… now we know that blind people can see hallucinations and people with anosmia can smell it, but this is not a concern for us “normal” people?
Before answering this question, we need to understand more about perceptions. “crazy” people is not something that is defined in modern medicine, it is a wide umbrella term used by societies to categorize people who seek help in mental institutes and sometimes others as well. The difference between a “crazy” person and a “normal” person isn’t that far apart as we are made to believe. The “hallucinations” we experience can be very diverse from what is stereotyped in movies portraying most hallucinations to be visual; we might also hear, smell, taste or even feel hallucinations. Unfortunately, even in medical circles having “hallucinations” tend to lead towards an instant diagnosis for schizophrenia. However, hallucinations can arise from common acute illnesses such as fevers and headaches, or chronic illnesses such as brain tumors and epilepsy.
Hallucinations can also be very hard to define since they may overlap with delusions, illusions, misperceptions and polyopia. Clinicians distinguish these as very separate cases in theory; Hallucinations are sensing things that are not actually there like snakes talking to you, Illusions are seeing things that actually exist in a different way like mistaking a snake to be having a crown on its head, polyopia is when you see one snakehead as five, Delusions are when you believe that those snakes come from an ancient lost society without any proof.
In practice, it is hard to separate and generalize. For example, if a statue of a snake appears to be alive is it a hallucination or an illusion? Right now our best guess is that if many people see it, it is an illusion created by an artist, if few people see it, it is a hallucination (or an object that induces hallucinations). When it comes to delusion it is even more difficult to clearly see the borders of our categories; For example, when a person starts experiencing visual and auditory hallucination there can be a time where he or she sees it as real. Especially, if it is in context to something they know/believe to be possible; an alien, messenger of God, dead person or a snake from a long lost civilization. (Please note that the perspective of a doctor in this regard is defined; delusional patients can’t be convinced that something they perceive is just a belief)
Even without hallucinations/illusions, when a person believes in something unperceivable, it is a delusion. Identifying such delusions are quite a difficult feat, since people may believe in unperceivable things that may actually be true. When I lived in a hostel, one of my friend’s girlfriend came to me and told me she wanted to meet him and run away with him, because her husband wanted to kill her. I offered to escort her to the police but she told me that the policemen were bribed and would likely lock her up. I can’t remember everything that happened after that but the next day one of my friends called me from the psychiatry hospital to tell me that this girl was admitted to her unit, suffering from delusion. When interviewed later the girl insisted that the psychiatry unit was also bribed to silence her. Although very unlikely in that particular situation, this scenario might be true where police and doctors lack transparency. This is why countries like Sri Lanka need more transparent health services and police services.
Another major flaw is that when understanding group delusions, we are forced to take a different approach, in medicine if a significant part of society is deluded by the same set of beliefs we call it a religion or a misbelief. (There are of course political/diplomatic/moral reasons for this and clinicians do have the liberty of brainstorming and referring to literature to get a relatively less subjective judgement)
I think it is important to note here: Traditionally doctors playing an individualistic treatment role in society deemed it ethical, not to discuss about individual and group delusions outside their circles. Possibly due to privacy laws, misunderstandings and moral reasons, but certain individuals in politics have brought this method of thinking into question (but that is a discussion for another day)
Back to our question about “normal” people; we already discussed that people suffering from fever and headaches can see hallucinations, what is fascinating is that it has been observed that childhood hallucinations are common and some might even turn into delusions where no amount of facts may change that person’s mind… it maybe that none of us are “normal”
The most common hallucination among humans are auditory, where we hear our names. Leading to the most common “delusion” we have of a guardian angel looking over us. A guardian angel that is signalling us to be safe in disasters, while also allowing thousands of others to suffer or die. A guardian angles whose actions are only realized once we are safe.
Hallucinations we have talked so far may have misled us into believing that they are simple, but there are case studies of people experiencing hallucinations with all sensory inputs. A study in the Netherlands, for example, has observed people(patients) experiencing sexual hallucinations; That is a combination of touch, smell, vision and taste. While it may sound like a night-time dream for some people because we use common neurons to dream and hallucinate, experiencing this in an environment that one has no control over can be terrifying. The more terrifying fact is that most of these people having hallucinations are victims of childhood abuse. This isn’t however a phenomenon that is related to just sexual abuse; some studies have shown, different types of abuse during childhood leads to auditory hallucinations enduring even in adulthood. Human dynamics like this, is one of the major reasons why child protection services keep trying to stop abusive behaviour of teachers in school, not because of some liberal propaganda as people claim.
This is where our exploration gets even more interesting; Hallucinations by definition are not controllable. But many circumstances may lead to seeing them; abuse, self-abuse, drugs, sleep deprivation, sensory deprivation, starvation, stress and meditation are good examples. If we are honest to ourselves, most of these things, we experience during our life, although each person to a different degree. On the other hand, dream-like states such as lucid dreaming may blur the lines of hallucination and dreaming allowing us to have some sort of control over what our brain conjurers. It might be disheartening to realize that sensory deprived meditative states of religious figures showed them some sort of hallucinations (awakened dreams as they sometimes call it themselves) or it might be fulfilling to know that we may too experience such a state without taking drugs, attaining nirvana and ceasing to exist or having to listen to god’s messengers.
Coming back to the mouse-flavored cat food question; believers of Buddhism, I have not completely dismissed Buddhist teachings, in fact I believe they may be true in this case… the explanation that “reality” is created from the mind when taken metaphorically is true, in the sense, our mind creates the world that we experience hence it is “our reality”. Just do not confuse it with the “reality” of the world thousands of other humans and animals experience day-to-day.
Like many things in life, “hallucinations” aren’t “good” or “bad”, seeing a ghost in a lonely village might be our brains’ way of filling the blanks but it means we never need to be alone. Illusions may trick our minds but it is what makes artistic shadows and depth in two-dimensional screens possible. Delusions of religion might lead people to kill and hate each other, but delusions of love keep others together.