Bioethics Blogs

Charles Bonnet syndrome, musical ears, and normal hallucinations

by Jonah Queen

In a previous post on this blog, I wrote about the Mad Pride movement, which advocates for the rights of, and the end of stigma against, those diagnosed with psychiatric disorders. I discussed how the lack of a clear distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” psychology even leads some activists to think of these conditions as extreme emotional or sensory experiences rather than illnesses. Mad pride advocates see a trend of increasing medicalization within psychiatry, arguing that feelings and behaviors are too readily classified as pathological. But this concern with over-medicalization is not unique to the Mad Pride movement. It is expressed by a wide range of individuals, including those within the mental health establishment. But there is one area where the field of mental health seems to be moving in the opposite direction: hallucinations. DSM-5, which has been criticized for overly broad definitions of psychiatric disorders, is restricting the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, making it so that hearing voices (with no additional symptoms) is no longer sufficient for a diagnosis.

The cover of the report in which Charles Bonnet first described the condition which would be named after him (from demneuropsy.com.br)

This change is due to current research that shows hallucinations are not always a sign of psychosis and are also surprisingly common (according to some sources, ten percent of the population occasionally hears voices). Doctors, researchers, and patient advocacy groups are working to spread this knowledge and to overcome the belief among the general population that experiencing hallucinations makes someone “crazy.”

A hallucination is defined as a perceptual experience that does not come from an external source.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.