Hospital Hallucinations — Consciousness and the Otherwordly

In a previous post, Consciousness and the Supernatural, I discussed at some length David Lewis-Williams’ contention that supernatural thinking arises naturally from fluctuations of consciousness.  These fluctuations range from normal (dreaming) to periodic (reveries) to pathological (delusions).  Deliberately induced — and dramatic — altered states of consciousness are of course a specialty of shamans around the world.

With these things in mind, Pam Belluck’s recent article in the New York Times — “Hallucinations in Hospital Pose Risk to Elderly” — offers some additional insight and research possibilities.  These are not simply drug induced hallucinations that afflict the frail of mind:

No one who knows Justin Kaplan would ever have expected this. A Pulitzer Prize-winning historian with a razor intellect, Mr. Kaplan, 84, became profoundly delirious while hospitalized for pneumonia last year. For hours in the hospital, he said, he imagined despotic aliens, and he struck a nurse and threatened to kill his wife and daughter.

“Thousands of tiny little creatures,” he said, “some on horseback, waving arms, carrying weapons like some grand Renaissance battle,” were trying to turn people “into zombies.” Their leader was a woman “with no mouth but a very precisely cut hole in her throat.”

Attacking the group’s “television production studio,” Mr. Kaplan fell from his hospital bed, cutting himself and “sliding across the floor on my own blood,” he said. The hospital called security because “a nurse was trying to restrain me and I repaid her with a kick.”

Mr. Kaplan’s hallucinations lifted as doctors treated his pneumonia. But hospitals say many patients are experiencing such inexplicable disorienting episodes. Doctors call it “hospital delirium,” and are increasingly trying to prevent or treat it.

Mr. Kaplan’s hallucinations sound awful, but have a familiar feel to them.  Shamans, prophets, and mystics throughout history report similar experiences.  It would be interesting to know how many of the elderly who experience hospital delirium interpret those experiences in spiritual or religious terms.

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