A visual hallucination (VH) is the experiencing of a visual image in the absence of an external stimulus. VH can vary widely in content, with common experiences being visions of people, animals, faces, or objects. The qualities of VH can range, with some being experienced as clear and realistic (e.g., a life-sized image of a familiar person) and others as vague and hazy (e.g., a shadow, haze, or colorful aura). They can be static and unchanging, or can shift in size, shape, and color. VH can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Some people who experience VH may be aware that what they are seeing is not actually occurring. Others may perceive VH to be real, and may respond to the images with actions such as moving towards, moving away from, or engaging with them. For some people, these images are frightening and can cause distress.
Visual hallucinations most frequently occur in conjunction with a medical or psychological condition, but can also occur without the presence of a disorder. The most common mental health disorders associated with VH are schizophrenia and mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder . Visual hallucinations can also occur as a result of a medical condition such as eye disease, dementia, migraine, certain sleep disturbances. It is also common for individuals who have partially or fully lost their sight to experience VH, which is called Charles Bonnet syndrome. VH tends to be linked to negative emotions, such as anxiety or stress. Sometimes, people who are grieving the loss of a loved one may experience visual hallucinations of the deceased. Additionally, certain substances, such as LSD, can also produce visual hallucinations, which typically dissipate after the effect of the substance has subsided.
Research indicates that VH occurs in approximately 27% of individuals with schizophrenia, 15% of people with mood disorders, and 7.3% of people without a known disorder .
Visual hallucinations can be very different for different individuals. Here, one man talks about his experience with visual hallucinations.
On this segment of ABC 20/20 called “Virtual Hallucinations,” Dr. Timothy Johnson participates in a virtual reality simulation of the auditory and visual hallucinations that a person with schizophrenia might experience.
The Schizophrenia and Related Disorders Alliance of America (SARDA) provides resources, education, and advocacy for schizophrenia and other mental illnesses. SARDA also provides a directory for Schizophrenics Anonymous support groups around the country.
The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) provides information about treatment, services, and research for individuals living with schizophrenia and other mental illnesses, and their loved ones and caregivers. NAMI also provides various programs for support, such as the Peer-to-Peer recovery education course for individuals experiencing a mental health challenge. The Family-to-Family program provides resources and opportunities for connection among caregivers of individuals with mental illness.
- Waters, F., Collerton, D., ffytche, D. H., Jardri, R., Pins, D., Dudley, R., … Larøi, F. (2014). Visual Hallucinations in the Psychosis Spectrum and Comparative Information From Neurodegenerative Disorders and Eye Disease. Schizophrenia Bulletin, 40(Suppl 4), S233–S245. http://doi.org/10.1093/schbul/sbu036
- Teeple, R. C., Caplan, J. P., & Stern, T. A. (2009). Visual Hallucinations: Differential Diagnosis and Treatment. Primary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 11(1), 26–32. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2660156/
- G.Jayakrishna Menon, Imran Rahman, Sharmila J Menon, Gordon N Dutton, Complex Visual Hallucinations in the Visually Impaired: The Charles Bonnet Syndrome, Survey of Ophthalmology, Volume 48, Issue 1, January–February 2003, Pages 58-72, ISSN 0039-6257, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/S0039-6257(02)00414-9.