There is a rare hallucination that makes you see tiny people, and no one knows why

In all its dazzling complexity, the human brain can indeed produce remarkable experiences. For some, it means hallucinations of tiny people, rushing in front of their eyes.

Hallucinations of little humans can be entertaining or terrifying depending on who you ask, and accounts of these “microoptical” or “Lilliputian” visions are rather rare in the scientific literature. In fact, few researchers have tried to figure out what is behind these strange experiences in the first place.

What are Lilliputian hallucinations?

In the early 1900s, French psychiatrist Raoul Leroy became interested in sightings of human figures comparable to the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s famous 1726 novel, Gulliver’s travels. For him, it was a mystery of the mind, which begs for a scientific explanation.

“Such hallucinations exist outside of any micropsy, whereas the patient has a normal conception of the size of the objects which surround him, the micropsy bearing only on the hallucination”, writes Leroy in the introduction of a specific case.

“They sometimes occur on their own, sometimes accompanied by other psycho-sensory disorders.”

The small handful of cases Leroy curated were remarkably diverse, although in general he noted that the visions were vividly dressed, very mobile, and most importantly affable. Sometimes the observations involved individual characters, although most patients reported them appearing in groups, interacting with the material world as if they were really present, climbing on chairs, crawling under doorways and respecting the attraction of gravity.

Not all experiences were so benign. In one study, Leroy reported a 50-year-old woman with chronic alcoholism who claimed to have seen two men “as big as a finger”, dressed in blue and smoking a pipe, sitting high on a telegraph wire. Watching, the patient claimed to have heard a voice threatening to kill her, at which point the vision disappeared and the patient ran away.

“In my previous communication to the Medico-Psychic Society, I said that these hallucinations had a rather pleasant character, the patient looking at them with as much surprise as with pleasure”, remarks Leroy.

“Here, as in the case of Messrs. Bourneville and Bricon [two other cases], the appearance caused a feeling of dread. “

Illustration from the 1900 edition of Gulliver’s Voyages. (Public domain)

What we might dismiss as mere delusions that Leroy interpreted as possible symptoms of mental illness, worthy of classification so that doctors could find better ways to diagnose and even treat the illness.

Influenced by Leroy’s work, some psychologists try to explain the phenomenon. The accounts were for the most part limited to unverifiable hypotheses involving the mysterious functioning of the midbrain, or some kind of Freudian regression.

Despite this early interest, Lilliputian hallucinations do not appear as a criterion for any disease in the International statistical classification of diseases and related health problems. It seems like an almost random brain quirk.

Charles Bonnet syndrome is a notable exception: it is a rare condition where hallucinations occur as a result of vision loss. While these hallucinations don’t always take the form of tiny people (they could be flashes of light, geometric shapes, or even just lines), they can also be of the Lilliputian variety.

A 2021 study of a sample of volunteers with active Charles Bonnet syndrome found that their hallucinatory experiences actually increased in frequency and importance during the COVID-19 pandemic, most likely due to the loneliness of the blockages . In some cases, the size of Lilliputian hallucinations has assumed more human proportions.

What do we know about Lilliputian hallucinations today?

Despite Leroy’s historic work and advances in understanding many conditions of the mind, surprisingly little is known about why some brains concoct visions of tiny people.

Recently Jan Dirk Blom, a medical historian and psychotic disorder researcher at Leiden University, sought to change this by undertaking a rigorous search for case reports of Lilliputian hallucinations in modern medical records.

After a long hunt, Blom managed to find only 26 articles on Lilliputian hallucinations that could be considered relevant. Of these, only 24 provided original case descriptions.

“During the 1980s and 1990s, new cases were only rarely published, and the question of the underlying source of the Lilliputian hallucinations has faded into oblivion,” Blom wrote in his 2021 study, published in Opinion on neuroscience and biobehaviour.

“Despite a renewed interest in the phenomenon over the past two decades, this situation has remained largely unchanged.”

Turning his research towards more historical and less clinical references, including book chapters and medical theses, Blom finally assembled a catalog of 226 unique cases to compare and contrast.

Their experiences and backgrounds were varied, evenly split between male and female, the oldest 90 years old, the youngest just four years old. But there was a lot in common.

Most people have reported hallucinations dressed in striking colorful clothing. These weren’t vague shadows lurking around the corner of the eye – it was a vibrant circus of clowns, harlequins, or even jumping soldiers. Only a small handful of cases reported visions in “moody” or dull shades of gray or brown.

Virtually all of the characters were strangers, with a few having reported familiar faces, including in a few reports of autoscopy cases (seeing oneself in tiny form). In a fifth of the cases, the visions were accompanied by auditory hallucinations, often muffled or having a high pitched tone.

Humans weren’t the only entities observed either. In almost a third of the reports, patients claimed to have seen animals, such as small bears or small horses pulling small carts.

Of particular note is the fact that 97% of the cases were projective, appearing in three dimensions, and engaging real-world physics. The rest were reported as 2D projections on a surface, or moved with the movement of the viewer’s head.

It is also interesting to note that almost half of the cases remained affected negatively, in fear or anxiety. Unlike Leroy’s assessment at the time, only a third of these cases were appeased or entertained by their experience. One case of a depressed patient claimed that the visions were his only remaining joy.

When it comes to clinical diagnostic reports, Blom has identified 10 distinct groups, the most important of which are psychiatric disorders, alcohol or drug intoxication, and central nervous system damage.

It is not difficult to imagine some kind of involvement of the visual system of the brain; MRI studies on patients with Charles Bonnet syndrome confirm this. But something more specific has to happen, and detailed neurological investigations are so far lacking.

Blom suggests that a loss of peripheral sensory input could mean that parts of the brain usually involved in information processing are no longer working, mustering what little stimulus they can find to weave a fantastic scene of crowds and crowds. colors.

The fact that this is a common experience for people with Charles Bonnet syndrome, and visions for people with conditions such as Parkinson’s disease sometimes reporting twilight hallucinations, seems to add weight. to this assumption.

Other models could also explain visions, perhaps a means of “dream intrusion,” where usually suppressed imagery bubbling under a blanket of everyday perceptions appears, blending into reality in eerie ways. Or maybe it’s a mix of neurological phenomena, inspirational theft of memories, or reinterpreting otherwise mundane physical sensations such as the eye floaters we all see shaking in the corner of our vision. .

Considering the importance of tiny human figures in folklore around the world, in the form of mischievous elves and playful imps, or terrifying demons or wise old dwarfs, we seem more fascinated by reports as a stories only as quirks of neurology.

Maybe that will change one day, and our stories of the little people among us will tell us as much about how our brains work as they do about our cultural heritage.

All Explainers are determined by fact checkers to be correct and relevant at the time of posting. Text and images can be edited, deleted or added as an editorial decision to keep information up to date.

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