This paper (slightly amended here) first appeared in the March Issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2007, pp1-2.
Several weeks ago, while I was out my wife took a call from an elderly gentleman who had enquired with the University of Sheffield about a most unusual experience he was having. (I now have only an honorary appointment at the University but have indicated that I am interested in dealing with enquiries about paranormal or unusual phenomena.)
The gentleman, let's call him Mr Johnston, informed my wife that for some weeks or months he had been seeing very vivid faces in his field of vision. The faces were very large (some 'the size of a dinner plate'), bright and colourful. They even 'shimmered' and had halos. Mr Johnston explained to my wife that he was a medium and had researched psychic phenomena for 40 years. When he first saw these faces their eyes were closed. He had consulted friends and colleagues about his experiences and one of them, a clairvoyant, had informed him that the faces would soon open their eyes. Sure enough, one of them had already done so. The clairvoyant also predicted that they would start talking to Mr Johnston, but they had yet to do so. Then Mr Johnston revealed a remarkable fact: he was almost totally blind!
I rang Mr Johnston back and listened to his story. My impression was that he was an intelligent and rational man. Visual hallucinations may, of course, be a symptom of mental illness but they are not that common and one would normally expect other evidence of loss of contact with reality if they were of such a nature.
Mr Johnston described to me how, in the years of his involvement with spiritualism and psychic phenomena, he had had many wonderful experiences, but nothing like the faces he was seeing had ever 'come through' before. He reiterated his account of what his clairvoyant friend had told him and it was clear that he and his colleagues were fascinated and excited by what was happening.
Mr Johnston was hoping to be able to photograph the faces. He explained that his friends had already attempted to do this. He had projected one of the faces onto the back of one of his hands and someone had photographed his hand. No face was present on the print but some wisps of smoke seemed to be coming from the image of his hand. Mr Johnston wondered if they were using the wrong camera and asked me if I, as 'an expert' on these matters, could bring the right sort of camera along to take some photographs.
My best, though uninformed, guess was that Mr Johnston's experiences were physiologically related to his blindness and originated in his own visual system, perhaps in the form of sensory aberrations that the higher centres of his brain were elaborating upon, thus giving him the experience of seeing meaningful stimuli. I explained my theory to Mr Johnston but emphasised to him that I had no expertise whatever in this field. I added that if I were correct, then it would not be possible to photograph the faces, as they were not external to him. I also informed him that I knew nothing at all about photography, having never in my life personally owned a camera.
I then asked Mr Johnston what was the cause of his limited vision. He replied that it was a condition called macular degeneration. I was vaguely aware of the nature of this and later inspection of some basic literature confirmed that it refers to the degeneration of layers of tissue under the macula, the most sensitive area of the retina. I advised Mr Johnston that it would be a good idea for him to have a word with his eye specialist, who would be able to tell him if his experiences were related to his condition and perhaps tell him about the experiences of other patients. I also suggested that one of his friends do an Internet search for him, typing in 'macular degeneration' and 'hallucinations'. Mr Johnston was very receptive to this advice and said that he had a friend who was very familiar with the Internet. He seemed genuinely very grateful for my suggestion.
I was intrigued by Mr Johnston's account of his experiences and immediately after our conversation I decided to follow the advice I had given him. A Google search was very productive and my first thoughts were what a wonderful piece of technology the Internet is.
Charles Bonnet was an 18th century Swiss philosopher whose grandfather, Charles Lullin, had undergone cataract extraction in both eyes (see Note 1). In 1769 Bonnet reported that his grandfather, at the age of 89, described seeing birds and buildings that were not there. He recognized these as unreal. Since then it has been documented that people with severely restricted vision may occasionally experience visual hallucinations. Amongst these are people with age-related macular degeneration.
The hallucinations may be black and white or in colour, be moving or still, and may consist of lines, patterns and mosaics or more complex everyday objects such as animals, faces, people, buildings and landscapes. Sometimes the images re-occur so that, for example, the same people are seen at different times and become familiar to the person. The images themselves are largely pleasant but the experience can be frightening for the unprepared patient and the hallucinations may add to the person's difficulties in seeing his or her way around. Individual hallucinations can last from a few seconds to most of the day. Episodes may occur for periods ranging from days to years, though I understand that generally the hallucinations will have disappeared after about a year to 18 months. There appears to be no treatment of choice, although a psychiatrist colleague informed me that, even though it is not a mental disorder, it may respond to small doses of antipsychotic medication.
I immediately rang Mr Johnston and told him that his experiences were shared by other people with macular degeneration and the condition is known as Charles Bonnet Syndrome. I said that I would send him some information that I had downloaded from the Internet. He was very grateful but said, 'So it isn't psychic then?' With some discomfiture and hesitation I said no it wasn't and then he asked, 'Can you get rid of it?' I explained that this was something on which his specialist was best placed to advise him.
I wondered afterwards why I felt uncomfortable responding to Mr Johnston's response that his experience was not psychic after all. Perhaps I felt bad that he would be disappointed that there was a normal explanation for his experiences. But he seemed a very sensible man and I think my unease was simply because I felt I was assuming, or being cast in, the role of 'expert' and all I had done was provide him with information that anyone could access.
I duly sent Mr Johnston the information on Charles Bonnet Syndrome. A few days later my wife took another message from him, expressing his gratitude for my assistance. His final comment was 'But there is another angle to it'……...'
1. It is amazing to me that this operation was possible in the 18th century, but in fact eye surgery was being performed 1,000 years ago by Arabian physicians. (I have had a cataract operation that took about 15 minutes in an outpatients' department, after which I went home and, though temporarily relying on vision in only one eye, carried on more or less as usual.