This Is What A Psychotic Hallucination Feels Like, Study Shows

Hallucinations experienced during psychosis are often multimodal. Image: ShotPrime Studio/Shutterstock.com

Researchers have created a series of “body maps” revealing the range of physical sensations that occur when people with psychosis experience hallucinations. Previously, scientists have tended to focus on “unimodal hallucinations” such as hearing voices, yet the authors of this new study say that “multimodal hallucinations” which include sensory, emotional, and embodied elements are in fact more common than previously thought.

The authors asked 12 people with a psychotic-spectrum diagnosis to keep a record of their daily hallucinations for a period of one week. Each participant was given a diary with a body map on each page, enabling them to draw and annotate to document their experiences.

Describing their findings in the journal EClinicalMedicine, the researchers explain that every participant had at least one hallucination per day, and that “all documented hallucinations co-occurred with bodily feelings.”

“Hallucinations were characterised by numerous feelings arising at once, often including multimodal, emotional, and embodied features,” they write, adding that sensations were “generalised across the body and extended beyond the body into peripersonal space.” They also explain that confusion, fear, and frustration were the most common emotions accompanying hallucinations.

Overall, the researchers noted a considerable degree of variation in the anatomical locations of physical feelings between different participants. However, individuals tended to experience recurrent sensations in the same areas, with “pain, heat or tension” being concentrated in specific body parts.  

Among the physical sensations described by participants were “tingly feet”, a feeling of “being touched” or “pressing on my shoulders”, and “tension in the back of my neck, lower head.”

Example of participant annotations, used to create novel but simple multimodal unusual sensory experience (MUSE) body-maps. Credit: University of Leicester

The study authors amalgamated the data and generated 42 multimodal unusual sensory experience (MUSE) maps, providing the most detailed descriptions to date of the multimodal sensations that arise during hallucinations.

Study author Dr Katie Melvin explained that “the methods and outcomes of this study can contribute to advances on how we understand hallucinations and how we can support people who experience them. The next steps for this area of research will be further understanding the embodiment and feeling of hallucinations in different populations and developing interventions to support with this.”

For example, the researchers say that a better understanding of the nature of hallucinations could lead to the development of embodied therapies such as breathing meditations or music-based interventions.

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