The Frontal Cortex

I See Dead People

Vaughan Bell, of Mindhacks fame, wrote a really interesting article on “post-bereavement ghosts” over at Mind Matters. I had no idea that such hallucinations were so ubiquitous:

Mourning seems to be a time when hallucinations are particularly common, to the point where feeling the presence of the deceased is the norm rather than the exception. One study, by the researcher Agneta Grimby at the University of Goteborg, found that over 80 percent of elderly people experience hallucinations associated with their dead partner one month after bereavement, as if their perception had yet to catch up with the knowledge of their beloved’s passing. As a marker of how vivid such visions can seem, almost a third of the people reported that they spoke in response to their experiences. In other words, these weren’t just peripheral illusions: they could evoke the very essence of the deceased.

Occasionally, these hallucinations are heart-rending. A 2002 case report by German researchers described how a middle aged woman, grieving her daughter’s death from a heroin overdose, regularly saw the young girl and sometimes heard her say “Mamma, Mamma!” and “It’s so cold.” Thankfully, these distressing experiences tend to be rare, and most people who experience hallucinations during bereavement find them comforting, as if they were re-connecting with something of the positive from the person’s life. Perhaps this reconnecting is reflected in the fact that the intensity of grief has been found to predict the number of pleasant hallucinations, as has the happiness of the marriage to the person who passed away.

In other words, we hallucinate a loved one because the brain can’t bear to let go. It’s like a phantom limb, only the phantom is actually a phantom. William James, a rationalist who cultivated an interest in seances and ghosts, would have had something interesting to say about this.

Comments

  1. #1 Ste
    December 2, 2008

    I remember quite vividly, soon after my mother’s death, stopping mid-stride on the top step of the stairwell in our house with a sigh as I turned around to go back downstairs and see what it was she had called my name for, only to feel doubly guilty for such a sigh.

    It’s interesting, though, that knowledge of death is a prerequisite for these hallucinations of loved ones. I frequently see various acquaintances from high school and college who most certainly are not where I’m living now or, granted a marginal possibility that they are, at least not as commonly as my weekly double-takes would make them seem to be. Yet I never mistakenly see my still living or long-distance loved ones. Given, I generally know where their bodies are at the moment, but not those of the acquaintances.

  2. #2 gort
    December 2, 2008

    Interesting article, but how do you address the comments that the sightings are presumed to be hallucinations even though there is not much research? This is a “live” topic for me because my sister has been trying to prove the existance of god from her having seen the ghost of our grandfather. I’m looking for good grounds to refute her (rather than just the obvious ones that seeing a ghost doesn’t equal god exists).

  3. #3 Ritergal
    December 3, 2008

    My sister has seen many of these “hallucinations.” They occur within minutes of death, before the phone rang and she knew the person was gone, so they can’t be explained by previous knowledge of the death. They take various forms, usually not a vision of the actual body. She was hugely disappointed that our mother did not pay her a visit on her way “out.” She has never had one that wasn’t accurate.

    They aren’t scientifically verifiable, because they all depend on her reporting. But, why would she report disappointment about our mother if she were fabricating these experiences?

    Woo woo!

  4. #4 kkearney
    December 3, 2008

    @Ritergal She didn’t make up a story about her mother’s death so all the ones she did make up MUST be true. Brilliant logic, there.

  5. #5 h
    December 3, 2008

    I had one of those hallucinations the night we found out Mother died. I was crying my eyes out and I suddenly heard her voice saying “Don’t cry dear, and don’t you worry, I’m just fine!” It was extremely comforting and helped me a lot. A hallucination I was grateful to experience.

  6. #6 jb
    December 3, 2008

    These ‘hallucinations’ also commonly occur before someone dies, to the dying person. They will report seeing a deceased loved one in their room and sometimes hold a conversation. Rachel Naomi Remen, the author and cancer patient therapist, reported in one of her books that her dying mother was visited by her deceased mother, another Rachel. RNR had never met her grandmother but was named after her. On one afternoon RNR’s mother took great pleasure in hosting a three way conversation with RNR and her deceased grandmother.

    These apparitions are usually welcome and comforting to the dying person but not always. My elderly neighbors recently lost a grown son to cancer. He had ‘visits’ from a beloved, deceased aunt before he died but there was also an unwelcome and unidentified male who would get on the bed despite protests from the dying man.

  7. #7 ali
    December 17, 2008

    i didn’t hallucinate when my grandmother died, but i did have several lucid & vivid waking dreams– where we sat & talked– somehow knowing that we were breaking the “rules” and that she was dead– but that i could have a little bit more time with her to visit.
    it was of great comfort, as i spent her last night by her side but was not able to see her prior to delirium setting in– and so was not really able to properly say goodbye.
    since her voice & person helped shape my thoughts & my inner self – it’s fitting that she was still there in a way– able to help.

  8. #8 sharron deakin
    May 18, 2009

    My daughter was visited by dead poeple, she was speaking to this man as i could not see him this freaked her out and she had poeple shouting in her ears. There was other dead people trying to comunicate with her but she has been so scared.

    She has a guardian angel which is her late uncle.

    Today she has had buzzing noises in her ears and soe head and nausea also. could you give me some information that can help her with this.

  9. #9 Judy Levi
    June 13, 2009

    My sister sees her husband often. She has thoughts of sucicide. She says the visions are plesant, so I don’t understand her thoughts of death. My husband passed and I don’t even dream of him…we had a very good relationship.

    Judy

  10. #10 Matt Plummer
    September 30, 2011

    On a side note, I’ve dreamt events before they happened, especially under stress. It is usually about other stressful things to come, death of loved ones,and other pivotal decisions. Many family members believe me, when I tell them of things coming, because I’ve told them and the events have happened. Unfortunately, I have no concept of when things will happen. Some dreams have been a few days later, and others are years later. There is definitely a problem with linear thinking. Our idea of time is really off. Try to think hard where the past ends and the future begins. Where is the present? The line that separates also connects. And, really, isn’t only our words shaping our reality? The Greeks see the past in front of them, and the future is, yet, unseen, behind them. Ask yourself this, “how does the chair you’re sitting in continue to exist, if what is past is really just the past? Perhaps, there is just as strong an inexorable bond into the future? Enough of a bond with our own selves, that we can be witnesses to events that have yet to unfold. And, since all things are as much connected by the very things you’ve arbitarily designated as separators, it is possible to transcend time, theoretically, somehow, through our senses…absorbing and feeling, letting everything flow through you. My weak, inadequate explanation. You take it from here.

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