Voices in Your Mind, Part 3: Understanding Hallucinations

The kinds of hallucinations I’m going to discuss in this post are ones that occur without the aid of drugs. When you ingest a potent mix of chemical substances, and then find your mind going haywire and producing a wild “trip” that is typically a combination of intense images, sensations, and emotions, there are slightly different mechanics at work than the ones I’m going to explain here.

Martha pours herself a cup of tea, then briefly leaves the room to get something. When she returns, she is overwhelmed with a very strong conviction that someone has poisoned her tea. Martha is alone in the house, and it would be physically impossible for anyone to have accessed the kitchen without her seeing them. Yet still she is certain that the tea has been tampered with. A second later, she becomes equally certain that she is not alone in the house, but that there is an intruder lurking above her in the attic crawlspace, watching her through the ceiling. Martha looks up at her ceiling, which is a solid wall of plaster with no way for anyone to peer through it. And yet when she looks up, she sees the lens of a spy camera fixed in the plaster directly above her head. She panics, grabs a can of black spray paint that happened to be on her counter, and sprays the lens to blind whoever it is. Then she rushes out of the room and calls the police. When they arrive, all they find is a smear of black paint over an otherwise normal ceiling. There is no camera lens, nor is there any evidence that someone has tampered with the plaster. The house and attic are searched and no evidence of an intruder is found. Yet Martha knows what she saw.

Nigel is busy chopping vegetables for dinner when he hears a strange noise behind him. He turns and is horrified to see the bloodstained corpse of his daughter standing just a few feet away from him. Her face is hideously mangled, just as it had been in real life when the family dog went berserk and attacked her. In real life, Nigel’s daughter died from the mauling six months ago, yet she keeps showing up when Nigel is alone. She doesn’t appear as a transparent ghost figure–instead, she looks as solid and real as a living person. She always asks the same question, in a small voice that is unquestionably his daughter’s: “Daddy, why didn’t you protect me?” These visitations terrify Nigel and leave him unable to function for many hours afterwards.

So what is happening with Martha and Nigel? Are they just “crazy”? No, but they are both in a crisis and they need help. While certain medications might help manage anxiety for these two, what is really needed is for the root cause of their hallucinations to be correctly identified and addressed. But before we can help Martha and Nigel, we first need to learn about some basic mechanics of hallucinations.

Two Purposes for Hallucinations

There are different types of hallucinations. Properly diagnosing the cause of one person’s problems requires time and discussion. The victim of the hallucinations is a critical source of clues as to what’s going on with them, so it’s important to listen to what the person is describing and to ask the right kinds of questions so you can rule out various possibilities.

While hallucinations are commonly thought of as random, pointless side effects of a biological illness, they are actually very purposeful things. There are two basic kinds of hallucinations: those created by your subconscious and those created by demons. Self-produced hallucinations have a similar function as your dreams: they are your mind’s attempt to resolve and/or protect itself from perceived threats. Demon produced hallucinations, on the other hand, are typically designed to amplify terror and/or reinforce false beliefs. Let’s now look at each of these things separately.

Self-Produced Hallucinations

Self-produced hallucinations are created by the subconscious and they tend to focus on the subconscious’ most pressing problems. You might think of these things as a form of dreaming while you are awake. Typically we dream when we are asleep, and when we wake up, we often conclude that our dreams were bizarre and hard to understand. This is because we try to interpret our dreams using our conscious, which is a very logical, straightforward thinker that doesn’t have much use for symbolic language. But dreams are produced by your subconscious, which prefers to communicate using visual imagery that is highly metaphorical. While at first glance your dreams seem nonsensical, they are actually very logical and creative. They are also doing a fabulous job of describing what your subconscious’ top concerns are.

It is the fact that your subconscious is the one inventing self-produced hallucinations that those hallucinations can seem so far fetched and wild, while at the same time, feel very valid and logical to the one experiencing them. After all, when you dream that a purple lion is chasing you around a forest, you don’t question it. While you are in a dream world, you accept all of the wild and crazy things that are happening to you and around you. You also have intense emotional reactions to the things that you experience in the dream.

Because it is your own mind inventing self-produced hallucinations, the imagery it comes up with feels rational to you in the moment. When Martha suddenly felt certain that someone had poisoned her tea, she didn’t stand there thinking “But how is that possible when I’m alone in the house?” Other people focus on the irrationality of Martha’s conclusions, because their minds aren’t the ones creating the story that Martha is currently swept up in. But in the midst of hallucinations, we respond the way we do in our dreams: instantly accepting what we see, feel, and hear, then trying to react to those things in logical ways.

Suppose you were in the midst of a dream in which an evil purple lion is chasing you and someone calls out to you, “Hey, silly, stop freaking out! There’s no such thing as purple lions!” Are you even going to listen to what that person has to say? Of course not, because you are entirely focused on protecting yourself from being mauled. The crisis is quite real to you, and you find it very alarming and confusing that other humans are pretending like they can’t see the beast who is chasing you.

The key point I want you to learn here is that self-produced hallucinations are real things. They are as real as dreams are, and they are also as purposeful as dreams. What makes hallucinations so problematic and potentially dangerous is that they occur while the person is awake, and so the person might react to what they are seeing in ways that could harm themselves or others.

In Part 1 of this miniseries, I explained how the four elements of your being each have their own thoughts, and that they are all communicating with each other throughout the day. But when a hallucination begins, it’s like the subconscious suddenly hogs the floor and starts shouting its own thoughts so loudly that none of your other elements can focus on anything else. Suddenly every part of your being–body, conscious, and soul–all become focused on reacting to the imagery and conclusions that the subconscious is producing. In Martha’s case, her subconscious produced the image of the camera on the ceiling. No camera actually existed, but her subconscious thrust an image of a camera lens into her conscious so forcefully that she felt as if she’d seen it with her physical eyes.

Seeing With Your Mind

When you look at things, it is your subconscious that sorts out the images your eyes see and makes sense of them. When a ball flies past your window, your subconscious misinterprets it as a passing bird. It feeds the conclusion “That was a bird” to your conscious, along with an image of an actual bird flying by. The image was formed by your subconscious editing some of your real life memory files. It probably took a bird image from one file, paired it with the image of your window, then caused the bird to move at a rate that matched the blur you actually saw. Your subconscious performs these kinds of edits all the time, resulting in you “seeing” many things that you didn’t actually see. It is this natural process that causes humans to be such poor eye witnesses. Our minds revise images with such skill that we don’t recognize the difference between something we actually saw and a revised version of what we saw. The key point I’m making here is that you don’t see with your eyes–you see with your mind. While your physical eyes are the ones collecting data, you do not define what you saw based on that data. Instead, your mind first tweaks the data, revising it to match its own expectations, and it is that final edited version that you use to conclude “I saw a boy” or “A red car just drove by.”

Once you understand that seeing is a mental activity, it becomes a lot easier to understand how you can see things that are not actually there. In real life, humans do this all the time in their every day lives. The classic joke of male blindness refers to the common scenario of a husband being unable to see the can of soup that is right in front of him in the cupboard until his wife comes over and points it out. Is it true that the man’s physical eyes did not record the data about the soup can? No, the man’s eyes relayed the same data as his wife’s eyes. But when that data reached their minds, their minds interpreted that data differently. The man’s subconscious relayed an image back to his conscious of a cupboard with no soup can, therefore he calls out, “Honey, we’re out of soup.” But the woman’s mind feeds her conscious an image with the soup can in it, so she rolls her eyes, grabs it and says, “It’s right in front of you, silly.” Mystified, the man doesn’t consciously understand why he didn’t see it. He didn’t see it because his subconscious controls his “sight.”

This same principle applies to all of your physical senses. You don’t hear with your ears. Like your eyes, your ears simply relay data to your mind, but it is your subconscious that interprets it. You think you hear someone call your name in a restaurant so you whirl around, eager to wave to the friend who is supposed to meet you there. But there is no friend, and no one actually called your name. Or, you snap at your wife, certain she just made a cutting remark when in reality she said something completely different.

What determines when and how your mind will create these false interpretations of what is happening around you? Your subconscious’ expectations, past experiences, current beliefs, and current stresses all play key factors in shaping the way it interprets reality.

So then, we all hallucinate, but we only use that word to refer to interpretations of reality that seem extremely far off base and that result in people behaving in very abnormal ways. But is it really abnormal for a woman to scream when she sees a four foot spider running towards her? No, her response is quite normal. We only call her behavior abnormal because we don’t see the spider.

It’s helpful to realize that folks who hallucinate are still behaving in very rational ways. In other words “crazy” people aren’t as hard to relate to as we often think they are. Instead, they are acting as sane as the rest of us–only they are seeing, hearing, and feeling things that the rest of us aren’t. If we could gain a better understanding of what it is they are experiencing, it would help us feel less alarmed by their behavior.

When hallucinations are being generated by the subconscious, identifying what the subconscious is feeling stressed about should be the first goal. Like an infant who screams in his crib for someone to come and help him deal with his personal crisis, hallucinations are a serious cry for help from a very stressed subconscious. The subconscious plays a vital role in keeping all of your elements working in harmony with each other. It is also the one protecting your conscious and body from undue stress and injury. Once the subconscious becomes so caught up in its own stresses that it starts manufacturing hallucinations, it starts abandoning other essential functions. Here is where we find the man who believes he is a bird trying to leap off of a high roof. Normally the man’s subconscious would warn his body about the danger of falling from a great height and prevent him from approaching the edge. But once the subconscious starts hyper-focusing on its own stresses, it stops doing its close monitoring of the body, and this greatly increases the risk of physical injury.

Two Agendas

Self-produced hallucinations have different agendas, all of which are motivated by overwhelming stress. Positive and neutral hallucinations are often attempts to block out a current threat or to prevent the memory of a traumatic experience from resurfacing. In both cases, these are attempts to protect from harm. Here is where we have the girl who believes she has morphed into a powerful dragon the moment she finds herself in a doctor’s office. The last time the girl was in a similar office, she underwent a horrifically painful and terrifying procedure which has severely traumatized her mind. When her subconscious sees a similar environment, it leaps to the conclusion that it is about to be attacked again with no means of protecting itself. In a frantic effort to keep the past memory of trauma submerged and try to ward off a new attack, it produces a hallucination in which it metaphorically depicts the girl as a super powerful being. In real life, the subconscious feels dangerously low on power, and this is a belief which it can’t deal with. So it tries to protect itself and its co-elements by manufacturing a comforting illusion for all of the elements to become absorbed in. If the girl is physically interacted with in this state, her mind will likely scramble to portray all of those touch sensations as something other than they are within the dragon fantasy. A firm grip on her arm might be portrayed as a harmless vine caught around her dragon limb. A needle moving towards her might be transformed into a thorny rose. The purpose of such imagery would be stress management: a vine is less scary than adults manhandling her, and being accidentally pricked by a pretty rose is less scary than a needle. But of course the real problem here is that the girl has not received help to process her earlier medical ordeal. Until her mind gets help in re-framing what was done to her in that situation, she’ll continue to panic in any environment that feels too similar to the setting of her original trauma.

While positive self-produced hallucinations are often attempts to manage stress by blocking out the reality of a current or past trauma, negative hallucinations are often attempts to express and possibly analyze past traumas. A grown woman diagnosed with severe schizophrenia keeps insisting that her father is the devil in disguise, and that he made her give birth to a whole host of demonic creatures when she was a child. The woman claims that she delivered her first demon offspring at age 6, long before it would be anatomically possible for her to become pregnant. And yet to the woman, this hallucination feels very real. So what’s going on here?

Viewing hallucinations as waking dreams helps us reach for the right analytical tools. Instead of taking the woman’s claims literally, we should view them as metaphorical. Clearly she hasn’t given birth to fifty demon babies, starting when she was age 6. And clearly her father is not Satan incarnate. But why is her mind choosing such imagery? In any dream analysis, the first thing to consider is what the symbols mean to the dreamer. To our frantic woman, the devil is a very scary character who symbolizes great power and malice. The fact that her hallucination is centered around the theme of her father sexually violating her strongly suggests some kind of sexual abuse happened to her in real life. Did she really start having babies at age 6? No, but an adult mind has had time to learn that sex and pregnancy are related concepts. Perhaps the girl was impregnated by her father at some point, or perhaps the real significance of the childbirth imagery in her hallucination is its frequency. Fifty babies is a lot of babies, and the high number suggests a long history of sexual assault.

As is the case with dream analysis, the emotions felt during hallucinations are very important clues as to what the mind is really concerned about. In the case of our woman, she is expressing a lot of fear of her father, while also expressing rage over what he did to her. In humans, anger is a cover for fear and pain, both of which are common reactions to traumatic experiences. What our woman really needs help with is processing her past sexual traumas. She also needs help with how she views her father, because it’s obvious that that relationship has become a source of great stress for her.

Because hallucinations are waking dreams, and because dreams are highly metaphorical, it’s important to keep an open mind and not rush to form conclusions too quickly. In our example, the woman’s father might not have been the one to abuse her. It could have been someone else, and her mind is fixating on her father because she blames him for not protecting her or because it feels safer to her mind to fixate on him than to face who the real attacker was. Gathering more information will help clarify what the real issue is, but one thing is certain: the woman has been through some very traumatic experiences in the past and her mind doesn’t currently have the tools to deal with its stress in a healthy way. Helping the woman deal with her past is going to be much more useful than trying to convince her that her father isn’t the devil.

When you criticize a mind’s choice of hallucination imagery, you just make it feel invalidated and defensive. Minds naturally feel that their own creative imagery is brilliant, and they are never looking for approval from third parties. Instead, they are speaking a message through the images and revealing their underlying concerns. Decoding the message is the important bit, and the imagery–no matter how wild–is always loaded with important clues.

Third Party Hallucinations

In cases where demons are producing hallucinations, a different agenda is at work. Demons use both positive and negative imagery, sensations and stories to strengthen false beliefs. Creating hallucinations is just one of many methods that demons use to harass humans, but they primarily use this tool on those who are already in a state of psychological or spiritual trauma.

Traumatized minds and souls are already feeling very stressed, and this makes them easier for demons to mess with. Imagine how much easier you are for me to scare if you’re already feeling very anxious than if you’re feeling calm. When you’re already on the edge of your seat, I can probably get you to jump in fear just by suddenly popping into view shouting “boo!” But if you’re feeling very calm, you might not be scared at all, and just think I’m acting ridiculous.

Trauma is fueled by upsetting beliefs. When demons use hallucinations to upset traumatized souls, they typically try to create hallucinations that will confirm traumatic beliefs that already exist. Earlier in this post, I used the example of Nigel, a man who keeps seeing his dead daughter appear to him in a grotesquely mauled form, asking him why he didn’t protect her. This is a classic case of a demon created hallucination. The image of the girl is very real to Nigel, but he isn’t producing the image himself. Instead, he’s being fed the image by demons. His mind, soul, and body are then reacting to that image. Now in real life, Nigel’s soul feels he is morally responsible for his daughter’s death. His soul feels immensely guilty and it is afraid that God is going to treat this as an unpardonable sin. Meanwhile, Nigel’s subconscious is wrestling with its own fears about what happened. Nigel’s subconscious has developed an intense fear of dogs that he needs help with. He is mystified as to how such a calm, trustworthy animal morphed into such a terrifying monster so suddenly. Right now, Nigel doesn’t have any logical way of explaining his former pet’s behavior. But he is having nightmares about being attacked by a dog every night as his subconscious wrestles with its terror and confusion. Those nightmares leave Nigel feeling very exhausted, and then demons amplify his stress by causing him to hear the sound of a dog barking and snarling at random moments.

It’s very easy for demons to manufacture sights, sounds, smells, and physical sensations. When they do these kinds of pranks, they always have a malicious goal in mind. In Nigel’s case, they enjoy keeping him stressed out, and they are trying to reinforce his growing fear of dogs, which is starting to make it impossible for Nigel to leave the house. They are then haunting him with reappearances of his daughter to try and amplify his soul trauma.

It’s much easier for demons to amplify fears that already exist than it is for them to create new ones. This is what makes traumatized people especially vulnerable to demon cons. Mistaking a demon produced hallucination for a self-produced one can lead to all kinds of new fears and problems. It’s very helpful to recognize when you are being harassed by a third party versus when your own mind is flagging you that it is feeling overwhelmed by stress. Sometimes it is very difficult to tell the difference between self-produced and demon produced hallucinations, and things get even trickier when both are occurring at the same time (which is quite common). When you’re having trouble identifying the source, focus instead on identifying what real life events from your past are likely contributing to making you feel so stressed today.

Nigel needs help understanding why dogs sometimes go berserk, he needs a better understanding of how God judges him, and he needs help with judging himself more reasonably. Dealing with these root stresses will not only help Nigel’s mind and soul calm down, it will also make it harder for demons to torment him. Just as it’s easier to keep pushing a piece of heavy furniture that is already in motion than it is to start pushing one that is still, it’s always easier for demons to amplify stress that already exists than to try to create it from scratch. By facing and addressing your own unresolved fears and pain, you keep your mind and soul calmer, and you make it harder for third parties to mess with you.


So then, are you “crazy” if you’re experiencing hallucinations? No, you’re stressed for legitimate reasons, and you need tools for dealing with that stress in more productive ways. Since psychological and spiritual stress are fueled by beliefs, trying to pinpoint specific beliefs that are stressing you out today would be a good place to start (see Practical Steps for Correcting Traumatic Beliefs).

Learning more about how dreams work would also be helpful (see What Are Dreams?). A major mistake I see hallucinating people make is taking their hallucinations too literally instead of realizing that they are metaphorical. Yes, the ginormous bug that attacks you out of nowhere feels very real in the moment, but in real life, that is either a symbolic image produced by your mind to draw your attention to an upsetting belief, or its demons just trying to amplify fears that you already have. Either way, the bug itself is not an actual bug, which means you don’t have to then invest in a bunch of tools for fending off freakishly huge insects. Instead, you need to either figure out what the bug symbolizes or what underlying fears demons are leveraging against you.

When you find yourself being sexually assaulted by a supernatural monster, it’s vital to realize that the monster himself is not what he appears to be. He is either a symbolic figure being produced by your subconscious, or he is a demon in costume who is trying to freak you out. Either way, the monster isn’t actually having intercourse with you, it can’t steal your reproductive material, nor can it impregnate you.

When you take hallucination imagery too literally, you end up drawing all sorts of terrifying conclusions and grossly exaggerating the power of demons. When you write off all hallucinations as demonic attacks, you can miss important indicators that your mind is asking for help. In real life, hallucinations can either be self-produced or thrust on you by a third party. Either way, they can be responded to productively and should never be viewed as evidence that you are too “messed up” to help. No matter how dramatic the symptoms are, there is always hope of recovering from stress.

To learn more about demon cons, read my book A No-Nonsense Guide to Demons.

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