Culture and Hallucinations: Overview and Future Directions

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Abstract

A number of studies have explored hallucinations as complex experiences involving interactions between psychological, biological, and environmental factors and mechanisms. Nevertheless, relatively little attention has focused on the role of culture in shaping hallucinations. This article reviews the published research, drawing on the expertise of both anthropologists and psychologists. We argue that the extant body of work suggests that culture does indeed have a significant impact on the experience, understanding, and labeling of hallucinations and that there may be important theoretical and clinical consequences of that observation. We find that culture can affect what is identified as a hallucination, that there are different patterns of hallucination among the clinical and nonclinical populations, that hallucinations are often culturally meaningful, that hallucinations occur at different rates in different settings; that culture affects the meaning and characteristics of hallucinations associated with psychosis, and that the cultural variations of psychotic hallucinations may have implications for the clinical outcome of those who struggle with psychosis. We conclude that a clinician should never assume that the mere report of what seems to be a hallucination is necessarily a symptom of pathology and that the patient’s cultural background needs to be taken into account when assessing and treating hallucinations.

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