Popular Science Monthly/Volume 19/August 1881/The Visions of Sane Persons
IN the course of some recent inquiries into visual memory, I was greatly struck by the frequency of the replies in which my informants described themselves as subject to "visions." Those of whom I speak were sane and healthy, but were subject notwithstanding to visual presentations, for which they could not often account, and which in a few cases reached the level of hallucinations. This unexpected prevalence of a visionary tendency, among persons who form a part of ordinary society, seems to me suggestive and worthy of being put on record. In a previous article I spoke of the faculty of summoning scenes at will, with more or less distinctness, before the visual memory; in this I shall speak of the tendency among sane and healthy persons to see images flash unaccountably into existence.
Many of my facts are derived from personal friends of whose accuracy I have no doubt. Another group comes from correspondents who have written at length with much painstaking, and whose letters appear to me to bear internal marks of scrupulous truthfulness. A third part has been collected for me by many kind friends in many countries, each of whom has made himself or herself an independent center of inquiry; and the last, and much the most numerous portion, consists of brief replies by strangers to a series of questions contained in a circular that I drew up. I have gone over all this matter with great care, and have cross-tested it in many ways while it was accumulating, just as any conscientious statistician would, before I began to form conclusions. I was soon convinced of its substantial trustworthiness, and that conviction has in no way been shaken by subsequent experience. In short, the evidence of the four groups I have just mentioned is quite as consistent as could have been reasonably desired.
The lowest order of phenomena that admit of being classed as visions are the "Number forms" to which I have drawn attention on more than one occasion, but to which I must again very briefly allude. They are an abiding mental peculiarity in a certain proportion of persons (say five per cent.), who are unable as adults, and who have been ever unable as far back as they can recollect, to think of any number without referring it to its own particular habitat in their mental field of view. It there lies latent, but is instantly evoked by the thought or mention of it, or by any mental operation in which it is concerned. The thought of a series of consecutive numbers is therefore attended by a vision of them arranged in a perfectly defined and constant position, and this I have called a "Number form." Its origin can rarely be referred to any nursery diagram, to the clock-face, or to any incident of childhood. Nay, the form is frequently unlike anything the child could possibly have seen, reaching in long vistas and perspectives, and in curves of double curvature. I have even had to get wire models made by some of my informants in explanation of what they wished to convey. The only feature that all the forms have in common is their dependence in some way or other upon the method of verbal counting, as shown by their angles and other divisions occurring at such points as those where the 'teens begin, at the twenty's, thirty's and so on. The forms are in each case absolutely unchangeable, except through a gradual development in complexity. Their diversity is endless, and the Number forms of different men are mutually unintelligible.
These strange "visions," which are extremely vivid in some cases, are almost incredible to the vast majority of mankind, who would set them down as fastastic nonsense, but they are familiar parts of the mental furniture of the rest, where they have grown naturally, and where they remain unmodified and unmodifiable by teaching. I have received many touching accounts of their childish experiences from persons who see the Number forms, and the other curious visions of which I shall speak. As is the case with the color-blind, so with these seers. They imagined at first that everybody else had the same way of regarding things as themselves. Then they betrayed their peculiarities by some chance remark which called forth a stare of surprise, followed by ridicule and a sharp scolding for their silliness, so that the poor little things shrunk back into themselves, and never ventured again to allude to their inner world. I will quote just one of many similar letters as a sample. I received this, together with much interesting information, immediately after a lecture I gave last autumn to the British Association at Swansea, in which I had occasion to speak of the Number forms. The writer says:
The next form of vision of which I will speak is the instant association of color with sound, which characterizes a small percentage of adults, but apears to be rather common, though in an ill-developed degree, among children. I can here appeal not only to my own collection of facts, but to those of others, for the subject has latterly excited some interest in Germany. The first widely known case was that of the brothers Nussbaumer, published in 1873 by Professor Bruhl, of Vienna, of which the English reader will find an account in the last volume of Lewis's "Problems of Life and Mind," page 280. Since then many occasional notices of similar associations have appeared, but I was not aware that it had been inquired into on a large scale by any one but myself. However, I was gratified by meeting with a pamphlet a few weeks ago, just published in Leipsic by two Swiss investigators, Messrs. Bleuler and Lehmann. Their collection of cases is fully as large as my own, and their results in the more important matters are similar to mine. One of the two authors had the faculty very strongly, and the other had not; so they worked conjointly with advantage. As my present object is to subordinate details to the general impression that I wish to convey of the visionary tendency of certain minds, I will simply remark, first, that the persistence of the color association with sounds is fully as remarkable as that of the Number form with numbers. Secondly, that the vowel-sounds chiefly evoke them. Thirdly, that the seers are invariably most minute in their description of the precise tint and hue of the color. They are never satisfied, for instance, with saying "blue," but will take a great deal of trouble to express or to match the particular blue they mean. Lastly, no two people agree, or hardly ever do so, as to the color they associate with the same sound. I have one of the most extraordinary diagrams of these color associations that has, I suppose, ever been produced. It has been drawn by Mr. J. Key, of Graham's Town, South Africa. He sent me in the first instance a communication on the subject, which led to further correspondence, and eventually to the production of this diagram of colors in connection with letters and words. I have no reason to doubt its trustworthiness, and am bound to say that, strange as it looks, and elaborate as it is, I have other written accounts that almost match it.
A third curious and abiding fantasy of certain persons is invariably to connect visualized pictures with words, the same picture to the same word. I have collected many cases of this, and am much indebted to the authoress, Mrs. Haweis, who sees these pictures, for her kindness in sketching some of them for me, and her permission to use her name in guarantee of their genuineness. She says:
Some of the figures are very quaint. Thus the interrogation "what?" always excites the idea of a fat man cracking a long whip. They are not the capricious creations of the fancy of the moment, but are the regular concomitants of the words, and have been so as far back as the memory is able to recall.
When in perfect darkness, if the field of view be carefully watched, many persons will find a perpetual series of changes to be going on automatically and wastefully in it. I have much evidence of this. I will give my own experience the first, which is striking to me, because I am very unimpressionable in these matters. I visualize with effort; I am peculiarly inapt to see "after-images," "phosphenes," "light-dust," and other phenomena due to weak sight or sensitiveness; and, again, before I thought of carefully trying, I should have emphatically declared that my field of view in the dark was essentially of a uniform black, subject to an occasional light-purple cloudiness and other small variations. Now, however, after habituating myself to examine it with the same sort of strain that one tries to decipher a sign-post in the dark, I have found out that this is by no means the case, but that a kaleidoscopic change of patterns and forms is continually going on, but they are too fugitive and elaborate for me to draw with any approach to truth. My deficiencies, however, are well supplied by other drawings in my possession. They are by the Rev. George Henslow, whose visions are far more vivid than mine. His experiences are not unlike those of Goethe, who said, in an often-quoted passage, that, whenever he bent his head and closed his eyes and thought of a rose, a sort of rosette made its appearance, which would not keep its shape steady for a moment, but unfolded from within, throwing out a succession of petals, mostly red, but sometimes green, and that it continued to do so without change in brightness and without causing him any fatigue so long as he cared to watch it. Mr. Henslow, when he shuts his eyes and waits, is sure, in a short time, to see before him the clear image of some object or other, but usually not quite natural in its shape. It then begins to change from one object to another, in his case, also, for as long a time as he cares to watch it. Mr. Henslow has zealously made repeated experiments on himself, and has drawn what he sees. He has also tried how far he is able to mold the visions according to his will. In one case, after much effort, he contrived to bring the imagery back to its starting-point, and thereby to form what he terms a "visual cycle." The following account is extracted and condensed from his very interesting letter:
I have a sufficient variety of cases to prove the continuity between all the forms of visualization, beginning with an almost total absence of it, and ending with a complete hallucination. The continuity is, however, not simply that of varying degrees of intensity, but of variations in the character of the process itself, so that it is by no means uncommon to find two very different forms of it concurrent in the same person. There are some who visualize well and who also are seers of visions, who declare that the vision is not a vivid visualization, but altogether a different phenomenon. In short, if we please to call all sensations due to external impressions "direct," and all others "induced," then there are many channels through which the induction may take place, and the channel of ordinary visualization in the persons just mentioned is very different from that through which their visions arise.
The following is a good instance of this condition. A friend writes:
The number of persons who see visions no less distinctly than this correspondent is much greater than I had any idea of when I began this inquiry. I have in my possession the sketch of one, prefaced by a description of it by Mrs. Haweis. She says:
A common form of vision is a phantasmagoria, or the appearance of a crowd of phantoms, perhaps hurrying past like men in a street. It is occasionally seen in broad daylight, much more often in the dark; it may be at the instant of putting out the candle, but it generally comes on when the person is in bed, preparing to sleep, but is by no means yet asleep. I know no less than three men, eminent in the scientific world, who have these phantasmagoria in one form or another. A near relative of my own had them in a marked degree. She was eminently sane, and of such good constitution that her faculties were hardly impaired until near her death at ninety. She frequently described them to me. It gave her amusement during an idle hour to watch these faces, for their expression was always pleasing, though never strikingly so. No two faces were ever alike, and they never resembled that of any acquaintance. When she was not well the faces usually came nearer to her, sometimes almost suffocatingly close. She never mistook them for reality, although they were very distinct. This is quite a typical case, similar in most respects to many others that I have.
A notable proportion of sane persons have had not only visions, but actual hallucinations of sight, sound, or other sense, at one or more periods of their lives. I have a considerable packet of instances contributed by my personal friends, besides a large number communicated to me by other correspondents. One lady, a distinguished authoress, who was at the time a little fidgeted, but in no way overwrought or ill, said that she saw the principal character of one of her novels glide through the door straight up to her. It was about the size of a large doll, and it disappeared as suddenly as it came. Another lady, the daughter of an eminent musician, often imagines she hears her father playing. The day she told me of it the incident had again occurred. She was sitting in a room with her maid, and she asked the maid to open the door that she might hear the music better. The moment the maid got up the hallucination disappeared. Again, another lady, apparently in vigorous health, and belonging to a vigorous family, told me that during some past months she had been plagued by voices. The words were at first simple nonsense; then the word "pray" was frequently repeated; this was followed by some more or less coherent sentences of little import, and finally the voices left her. In short, the familiar hallucinations of the insane are to be met with far more frequently than is commonly supposed, among people moving in society and in normal health.
I have now nearly done with my summary of facts; it remains to make a few comments on them.
The weirdness of visions lies in their sudden appearance, in their vividness while present, and in their sudden departure. An incident in the Zoölogical Gardens struck me as a helpful simile. I happened to walk to the seal-pond at a moment when a sheen rested on the unbroken surface of the water. After waiting a while I became suddenly aware of the head of a seal, black, conspicuous, and motionless, just as though it had always been there, at a spot on which my eye had rested a moment previously and seen nothing. Again, after a while, my eye wandered, and, on its returning to the spot, the seal was gone. The water had closed in silence over its head without leaving a ripple, and the sheen on the surface of the pond was as unbroken as when I first reached it. Where did the seal come from, and whither did it go? This could easily have been answered if the glare had not obstructed the view of the movements of the animal under water. As it was, a solitary link in a continuous chain of actions stood isolated from all the rest. So it is with the visions; a single stage in a series of mental processes emerges into the domain of consciousness. All that precedes and follows lies outside of it, and its character can only be inferred. We see in a general way, that a condition of the presentation of visions lies in the over-sensitiveness of certain tracks or domains of brain-action, and the under-sensitiveness of others; certain stages in a mental process being vividly represented in consciousness while the other stages are unfelt. It is also well known that a condition of partial hyperæsthesia and partial anæsthesia is a frequent functional disorder, markedly so among the hysterical and hypnotic, and an organic disorder among the insane. The abundant facts that I have collected show that it may also coexist with all the appearances of good health and sober judgment.
A convenient distinction is made between hallucinations and illusions. Hallucinations are defined as appearances wholly due to fancy; illusions, as misrepresentations of objects actually seen. There is, however, a hybrid case which deserves to be specifically classed, and arising in this way: Vision, or any other sensation, may, as already stated, be a "direct" sensation excited in the ordinary way through the sense-organs, or it may be an "induced" sensation excited from within. We have, therefore, direct vision and induced vision, and either of these may be the ground of an illusion. So we have three cases to consider, and not two. There is simple hallucination, which depends on induced vision justly observed; there is simple illusion, which depends on direct vision fancifully observed; and there is the hybrid case of which I spoke, which depends on induced vision fancifully observed. The problems we have to consider are, on the one hand, those connected with induced vision, and, on the other hand, those connected with the interpretation of vision, whether the vision be direct or induced.
It is probable that much of what passes for hallucination proper belongs in reality to the hybrid case, being an illusive interpretation of some induced visual cloud or blur. I spoke of the ever-varying patterns in the field of view; these, under some slight functional change, might easily become more consciously present, and be interpreted into phantasmal appearances. Many cases, if space allowed, could be adduced to support this view.
I will begin, then, with illusions. What is the process by which they are established? There is no simpler way of understanding it than by trying, as children often do, to see "faces in the fire," and to carefully watch the way in which they are first caught. Let us call to mind at the same time the experience of past illnesses, when the listless gaze wandered over the patterns on the wall-paper and the shadows of the bed-curtains, and slowly evoked faces and figures that were not easily laid again. The process of making the faces is so rapid in health that it is difficult to analyze it without the recollection of what took place more slowly when we were weakened by illness. The first essential element in their construction is, I believe, the smallness of the area upon which the attention is directed at any instant, so that the eye has to move much before it has traveled over every part of the object toward which it is directed. It is as with a plow, that must travel many miles before the whole of a small field can be tilled, but with this important difference—the plow travels methodically up and down in parallel furrows; the eye wanders in devious curves, with abrupt bends, and the direction of its course at any instant depends on four causes: on the most convenient muscular motion in a general sense, on idiosyncrasy, on the mood, and on the associations current at the moment. The effect of idiosyncrasy is excellently illustrated by the "Number forms," where we saw that a very special sharply defined track of mental vision was preferred by each individual who sees them. The influence of the mood of the moment is shown in the curves that characterize the various emotions, as the lank, drooping lines of grief, which make the weeping-willow so fit an emblem of it. In constructing fire-faces it seems to me that the eye in its wanderings follows a favorite course, and notices the points in the pictures at large that coincide with its course. It feels its way, easily diverted by associations based on what has just been noticed, and so, by the unconscious practice of a system of "trial and error," at last finds a track that will suit—one that is easy to follow, and that also makes a complete picture. The process is essentially the same as that of getting a clear idea from out of a confused multitude of facts. The fancy picture is dwelt upon, all that is incongruous with it becomes disregarded, while all deficiencies in it are supplied by the fantasy. These latest stages are easily represented after the fashion of a diorama. Three lanterns are made to converge on the same screen. The first throws an image of what the imagination will discard, the second of that which it will retain, the third of that which it will supply. Turn on the first and second, and the picture on the screen will be identical with that which fell on the retina. Shut off the first and turn on the third, and the picture will be identical with the illusion.
Visions, like dreams, are often mere patchworks built up of bits of recollections. The following is one of these:
Recollections need not be joined like mosaic-work; they may be blended, on the principle I described two years composite portraits admitted of being made photographically  from a large number of components. I suspect that the phantasmagoria may be due to blended memories; the number of possible combinations would be practically endless, and each combination would give a new face. There would thus be no limit to the dies in the coinage of the brain., of making composite portraits. I showed that if two lanterns were converged upon the same screen, and the portrait of one person was put into one and that of another person into the other, the portraits being taken under similar aspects and states of light and shade, then on adjusting the two images eye to eye and mouth to mouth, and so superposing them as exactly as the conditions admitted, a new face will spring into existence. It will have a striking appearance of individuality, and will bear a family likeness to each of its constituents. I also showed that these
I have tried a modification of this process with but small success, which will at least illustrate a cause of the tendency in many cases to visualize grotesque forms. My object was to efface from a portrait that which was common among persons of the same race, and therefore too familiar to attract attention, and to leave whatever was peculiar in it. I proceeded on the following principle: We all know that the photographic negative is the converse (or nearly so) of the photographic positive, the one showing whites where the other shows blacks, and vice versa. Hence the superposition of a negative upon a positive transparency of the same portrait tends to create a uniform smudge. By superposing a negative transparency of a composite portrait on a positive of any one of the individual faces from which it was composed, all that is common to the group ought to be smudged out, and all that is personal and peculiar to that face ought to remain.
I have found that the peculiarities of visualization, such as the tendency to see Number-forms, and the still rarer tendency to associate color with sound, is strongly hereditary, and I should infer, what facts seem to confirm, that the tendency to be a seer of visions is equally so. Under these circumstances we should expect that it would be unequally developed in different races, and that a large natural gift of the visionary faculty might become characteristic not only of certain families, as among the second-sight seers of Scotland, but of certain races, as that of the gypsies.
It happens that the mere acts of fasting, of want of sleep, and of solitary musing, are severally conducive to visions. I have myself been told of cases in which persons accidentally long deprived of food became subject to them. One was of a pleasure-party driven out to sea, and not being able to reach the coast till nightfall, at a place where they got shelter but nothing to eat. They were mentally at ease and conscious of safety, but they were all troubled with visions, half dreams and half hallucinations. The cases of visions following protracted wakefulness are well known, and I also have collected a few. As regards the effect of solitariness, it may be sufficient to allude to the recognized advantages of social amusements in the treatment of the insane. It follows that the spiritual discipline undergone for purposes of self-control and self-mortification has also the incidental effect of producing visions. It is to be expected that these should often bear a close relation to the prevalent subjects of thought, and, although they may be really no more than the products of one portion of the brain, which another portion of the same brain is engaged in contemplating, they often, through error, receive a religious sanction. This is notably the case among half-civilized races.
The number of great men who have been once, twice, or more frequently subject to hallucinations is considerable. A list, to which it would be easy to make large additions, is given by Brierre de Boismont ("Hallucinations," etc., 1862), from whom I translate the following account of the star of the first Napoleon, which he heard, second-hand, from General Rapp:
It appears that stars of this kind, so frequently spoken of in history, and so well known as a metaphor in language, are a common hallucination of the insane. Brierre de Boismont has a chapter on the stars of great men. I can not doubt that fantasies of this description were in some cases the basis of that firm belief in astrology which not a few persons of eminence formerly entertained.
The hallucinations of great men may be accounted for in part by their sharing a tendency which we have seen to be not uncommon in the human race, and which, if it happens to be natural to them, is liable to be developed in their overwrought brains by the isolation of their lives. A man in the position of the first Napoleon could have no intimate associates; a great philosopher who explores ways of thought far ahead of his contemporaries must have an inner world in which he passes long and solitary hours. Great men are also apt to have touches of madness; the ideas by which they are haunted, and to whose pursuit they devote themselves, and by which they rise to eminence, have much in common with the monomania of insanity. Striking instances of great visionaries may be mentioned, who had almost beyond doubt those very nervous seizures with which the tendency to hallucinations is intimately connected. To take a single instance, Socrates, whose daimon was an audible not a visual appearance, was subject to what admits of hardly any other interpretation than cataleptic seizure, standing all night through in a rigid attitude.
It is remarkable how largely the visionary temperament has manifested itself in certain periods of history and epochs of national life. My interpretation of the matter, to a certain extent, is this: That the visionary tendency is much more common among sane people than is generally suspected. In early life, it seems to be a hard lesson to an imaginative child to distinguish between the real and visionary world. If the fantasies are habitually laughed at, the power of distinguishing them becomes at length learned; any incongruity or nonconformity is noted, the vision is found out and discredited, and is no further attended to. In this way the tendency to see them is blunted by repression. Therefore, when popular opinion is of a matter-of-fact kind, the seers of visions keep quiet; they do not like to be thought fanciful or mad, and they hide their experiences, which only come to light through inquiries such as these that I have been making. But let the tide of opinion change and grow favorable to supernaturalism, then the seers of visions come to the front. It is not that a faculty previously non-existent has been suddenly evoked, but one that had been long smothered is suddenly allowed expression and to develop, without safeguards, under the free exercise of it.—Fortnightly Review.
- See a previous article on "Mental Imagery," "Popular Science Monthly," vol. xviii, p. 64.
- See "Fortnightly Review," September, 1880.
- I have latterly much improved the process, and hope shortly to describe it elsewhere.