Hallucinatory experiences are much more closely tied to ordinary perception than we once thought.
We know from fMRI studies that hallucinations activate the same brain areas as sight, areas that are not activated by imagination. Many other hallucinations, including smells, sights, and sounds, also involve the same brain areas as real sensory experiences. Because of this, the cerebral cortex is thought to play a part in hallucinations. This thin layer of grey matter covers the entire cerebrum, with different areas processing information from each of our senses. But even in people with completely unimpaired senses, the brain constructs the world we perceive from incomplete information.
For example, our eyes have blind spots where the optic nerve blocks part of the retina. When the visual cortex processes light into coherent images, it fills in these blind spots with information from the surrounding area. Occasionally, we might notice a glitch, but most of the time we’re none the wiser. When the visual cortex is deprived of input from the eyes, even temporarily, the brain still tries to create a coherent picture, but the limits of its abilities become a lot more obvious.
By studying hallucinations, we stand to learn a great deal about how our brains construct the world we see, hear, smell, and touch. As we learn more, we’ll likely come to appreciate just how subjective and individual each person’s island universe of perception really is.
For more on the science and research of hallucinations, check out the TED-Ed Lesson What causes hallucinations? – Elizabeth Cox
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