<strong>Leprechaun Hallucinations:</strong> As Saint Patrick's Day nears, our minds inevitably turn to the little people of Irish folklore. But diminutive fairy folk pop up in folk traditions around the world. Listen in for a celebration of the myth and science behind those Leprechaun encounters.
Julie: Welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind from HowStuffWorks.com.
Robert: Hey, welcome to Stuff to Blow Your Mind. My name is Robert Lamb.
Julie: And I'm Julie Douglas.
Robert: And this episode is coming to all you guys and gals out there, it is of course coming to you right as we're leading up into St. Patrick's Day which I have always loved St. Patrick's Day. I'm basically of Scotch-German heritage so I don't have that distinctive Irish roots link to it and I don't have the Catholic link to it either, but from a very early large, my family was always into St. Patrick's Day. My mom is a kindergarten teacher so we would have green things; we would eat green treats -
Julie: Green beer?
Robert: Well, no green beer but maybe a green cake or a cupcake or something and I still when St. Patrick's Day comes around I need to eat something that's green. I need to get a pistachio cupcake or have some pistachio pudding. But more importantly, to a certain extent, we would celebrate the Irish myth of the leprechaun. We would always watch Darby O'Gill and the Little People, that classic Disney film with Sean Connery in it.
Julie: Wow, you guys did it up.
Robert: Yeah, yeah, we were big into the holidays. So we would always watch Darby O'Gill and the Little People, Sean Connery would sing and it was awesome. Leprechauns would run around. There was a banshee. It was a great film. I still watch it from time to time.
Julie: I feel like this has really informed your ideas of creatures in the world like somehow this is a early influence on you.
Robert: Yeah, definitely. I mean we really got into Halloween and then we would really get - my big thing on holidays is that if a holiday has magic to it and creatures specifically then it's great. Obviously Halloween I love.
Robert: Christmas, you know the Christmas season can get a bit annoying with it's over commercialization but ultimately it's a season in which on one hand you have a magical man sneaking into your house to give you gifts, there's Krampas running around beating people, there's what's his name, Broomsnickle, the other Germanic holiday visitor there, various takes on St. Nick and then if you get into the more religious aspect of it too, you have like the Son of God being born on earth. There are all these fantastic things happening.
St. Patrick's Day is also in that vein unlike Valentine's Day where it's just about people are in love and stuff but St. Patty's Day, there's this backbone of myth and legend to it and it's awesome. So what is your background with leprechauns?
Julie: Well, quickly Valentine's Day clearly needs some sort of creature because it's lacking that.
Robert: Yes, we should really get into the idea of brainstorming that [inaudible].
Julie: Yep, that's a side project for all of us. But for me, St. Pat's has just always been St. Pat's. I gotta say in my family it was sort of like Santa Claus is really the dude down the street who's dressing up and leprechauns don't exist Julie.
Julie: And happy fourth birthday.
Robert: Oh, oh.
Julie: I'm just kidding. No, but really that's not really something that we celebrated much but I will say that the diminutive stature of leprechauns always thought were fascinating as a little kid and what I find even more fascinating is that there is a type of hallucination that deals with this Lilliputian quality and that's what we're gonna talk about today because again, in celebration of St. Patty's Day but also as a further investigation into how the mind works and how it scales our reality.
Robert: Yeah, so in this episode we're kicking off with a little pop culture leprechaun shenanigans here. I'm gonna talk just a little bit about the myth of the leprechaun because I think it's ultimately far deeper than Lucky Charms and Darby O'Gill and I wanna make sure I do that justice. And then we are going to get into hallucinations and how some of these hallucinations can contribute and/or possibly are responsible for our visions of little people.
Julie: That's right because as we had mentioned, this is a sort of subtype of hallucinations that exist across various conditions that we'll get into.
Robert: All right, so the leprechaun.
Julie: The leprechaun.
Robert: From Irish folklore. This is a fairy shoemaker and he goes by various names and it really depends on where you are in a particular region of Ireland and/or the history books. So you have luchorpán and again, this basically translates to little body and then there are various versions of that, lubrican, luchorpán, leipreachán, there are all these various takes on it but the one that we really go with today of course if leprechaun.
And the leprechaun is again a shoemaker. You generally would see him with just a single shoe. There would never be a second shoe around which is a little suspect and should have been a tipoff to people who end up messing with said leprechaun.
Julie: Is this like a waste management job like maybe that's for a leprechaun being a shoemaker?
Robert: Yeah, like you should be a little aware that where's the other shoe, there's something fishy going on. Also, and this is something that'll come up, especially if the leprechaun is pressed about his personal belongings. He carries a purse but the purse only contains a single shilling, much like a pizza delivery boy only carries $20.00 or less. So the idea here is oh, you're gonna try and steal me gold. I only have this one shilling. But I may have lots of gold elsewhere.
That's the big thing, this idea grows that leprechauns have access to a massive quantity of gold and certainly in the mythology they do. They're paid by the fairy folk for what I'm not sure. I guess repairing that one shoe over and over again. And they save up their money and there's a good bit -
Julie: So they're laundering the money is what you're saying?
Robert: Kind of. Kind of money launderers though, the leprechauns, but people get this in their mind. Oh, there's a leprechaun. If I capture the leprechaun, then I can get access to his fabulous gold. I can make him tell me where it is. And later you get into the idea of the leprechaun gives you three wishes but ultimately the root is if you catch a leprechaun, you can totally rob him of everything he owns. That's how the average leprechaun chasing individual was thinking.
So what would typically happen is you'd say - the classic story of course is the guy catches the leprechaun and says ah, take me to your gold and you have to know that if you look away from the leprechaun at all, then he can vanish, he can turn invisible. He's a supernatural creature with these powers at his disposal. So what happens is the leprechaun says oh well, I'll take you to the bush that I have the gold buried beneath and who knows if this bush actually has the gold under it or not. The trick works well either way but he takes him out there. He says oh, it's under this bush and then the guy who's captured the leprechaun realizes oh, I don't have a shovel.
I have no way of digging up this gold so he says I know what I'll do. I'll take this red bandana or this kerchief or whatever and I'll tie it, tie this red kerchief to this bush then I'll go home and I'll get my shovel and I'll come back. So he lets the leprechaun free, goes back home, he gets the shovel, comes back and what has the leprechaun done? The leprechaun has tied the red kerchief to every bush and tree in sight so there's no way for him to remember which bush. What's he gonna do, dig up all of them? He'll try for a little bit before he loses his mind I guess. But that's the trickster aspect of the leprechaun.
Julie: Okay, see that just takes me back to the 30 Rock maxim which is never follow a hippy to a second location.
Julie: Same thing with a leprechaun, right?
Robert: Yeah. So the leprechauns engage in various tricks like this. They are largely solitary creatures though they do have a king named Loubden.
Julie: They're all males too, correct?
Robert: Yeah, I did see some possible mention of female leprechauns and the idea being that female leprechauns do exist but they're even more tricky so I guess they're harder to observe in nature.
Julie: They're making that second shoe.
Robert: Yeah, or maybe they're lessen to messing around and deceiving humans because ultimately the idea here is that leprechauns are a type of fairy folk. They are fairies and the notion of fairy varies greatly around the world, but there exist a nearly global idea of diminutive magical humanoids that are out there in the world often generally hidden from view, kind of an underworld taking place or in the natural world or underground or somewhere that humans are less likely to see them during the courses of their day.
And they vary in temperament, depending on the myth. Sometimes they are benign, sometimes they're mischievous, sometimes they help humans out, sometimes they steal babies from cribs and replace them with changelings. It varies. Now Folk Historian Carol Rose, who I love, I've always loved her. She has two encyclopedias, one about monsters, one more about fairies and I always keep them by my desk next to Brewer's and my other monster books but she divides fairies into two types.
You have trooping fairies and these are fairies that have communities, kingdoms and governments. And then you have solitary fairies and these are the ones, kinda like the leprechaun, they're more associated with one place and they don't really necessarily have as much to do with the rest of their kind.
So for the Irish, the most famous solitary fairies are the leprechaun of course, arguably the banshee and then you also have their more famous trooping fairies, the Deenee Shee, formerly known as the Tuatha Dé Dannan which means the people of the Goddess Danu and these are a legendary race of super beings who overthrew two other ancient people in primordial Ireland that included the monstrous Fir Bolgs. These were the second inhabitants of Ireland, squat and dark, also known as the corka odeesi, the people of darkness or the corka duebne, the people of night.
When the Tuatha Dé Dannan defeated them, they forced them to retreat into the mountain caves and they kind of devolved into grotesque goblin-like creatures in the ground. And then they also defeated the Fomorians who were themselves transformed into grotesque demons when they fell to the invading Fir Bolgs.
So what's really great about Irish legend and myth is that when you get past the leprechaun and the banshee, when you get past Darby O'Gill and Lucky Charms and the awful leprechaun movies, there's this rich, powerful epic story of these genocidal wars between these different races of super begins because the Deenee Shee, the Tuatha Dé Dannan, they had all these intense magical powers at their disposal. They could turn invisible. They could shape shift. They could blink out of existence here and blink back into existence over there and they were always fighting these wars.
For instance, they were fighting at one point against the Fomorian Chief Balor who had an evil eye in his forehead that destroyed all who looked upon it. And sometimes you see this as kind of like a third eye in his head. Some depict it that way. Others depict him as a one-eyed man and the one eye has to be covered because if anybody makes eye contact with it, they die.
One of my favorite artistic examples of this though is the idea that he has one eye where his two eyes should be but his brow has grown out into this grotesque flap that falls over his face and so to unleash the power of his eye in battle, he has to have two people with a wooden pole come up and use that wooden pole to lift his floppy brow up so that he can destroy them with his sight.
Julie: So, okay -
Robert: Well, one more and then I'm done. And then also the Tuatha Dé Dannan, they had a king named Nuada and Nuada lost an arm in battle and so they replaced it with a silver arm which they then grew flesh over so he had this amazing magical cybernetic arm so okay, I'll stop now.
Julie: No, I mean, well, we get into prosthetics here, it gets pretty crazy.
Robert: Yeah, well, what I'm trying to say is that they have a rich cultural history and some amazing mythology going on there beyond the leprechaun. But all this relates to fairy folk. Like eventually the idea is that even these magical people were defeated by essentially the modern-day Celts and they drive all these magical people out of the peripheries of the world but you can still glimpse them, you still see them sometimes.
Julie: Well, see this is what I think is so interesting about it is that it is so deeply engrained in the cultural fabric, particularly when we talk about leprechauns and Ireland, right?
Julie: And how this really informs everybody's perception of life and I wanted to point out a couple of things. One is that leprechauns are protected under European Union Law, I kid you not.
Robert: That was crazy to find out about.
Julie: Yes, at least the ones that dwell in Carlingford in Ireland. The directive is an effort to preserve the rich biodiversity of the area called the Slieve Foy Louth which is now a protected area for flora, fauna, wild animals and leprechauns. And this is a directive that was stemmed in part by a group of lobbyists who recounted a tale in 1989 of P.J. O'Hare who happened to be over by a wishing well, this man, and he heard a scream and he said he went to the wishing well and he found first of all a patch of burnt ground and beside this patch, he found a little hat, jacket and trousers with four gold coins in the pockets.
The clothes of the naked leprechaun as this leprechaun is called are actually on display at P.J.'s Pub in Carlingford so is this a tourist trap, absolutely, but again is it part of the imagination, the cultural fabric and I'm not saying that P.J. O'Hare that he actually witnessed this what we see as maybe a streaking leprechaun gone wild but perhaps P.J. O'Hare was also participating in some sort of cultural tradition, maybe had too much to drink or maybe he had a hallucination.
And this is where this really comes into play because according to Oliver Sacks and his World Science Festival interview about his new book on hallucinations, he says that hallucinations really are cultural in nature and specific to the individual's background so he said that seeing miniature people is one type of hallucination as we said a subtype.
But depending on the person's cultural background, the miniature person could be a leprechaun, a dwarf, a fairy, so that's why I think this is fascinating because if you have this hallucination, it is colored by your perception, what you have grown up with, the sort of stories, maybe the warfare, maybe the prosthetic arm of a leprechaun got lodged into your brain and this is the sort of thing that might be expressed depending on certain external conditions or neurological conditions that you have.
So of course, if we're going to talk about these Lilliputian hallucinations and that's what they are called, we should first sort of give a little bit of an intro on hallucinations.
Robert: Yeah, it's worth noting that hallucination is weird discussing here. It's just one way of looking at essentially paranormal experience. As we discussed in our alien abduction episode, people have always seen weird things in the woods, in the skies. It used to be fairies then depending on your cultural flavoring, maybe its angels or maybe sci?fi flavoring makes you see UFOs. We've have always seen things. We've always had these experiences and there are various ways you can explain them that range from simple imagination of a youngster to a neurological disorder and it's definitely happening for the person who's experiencing them.
Julie: Yeah, and when we talk about hallucinations, we're talking about many different sensory modalities, talking about visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile and other and you can actually, if a person is undergoing a hallucination at the same time that they're doing an MRI, you can actually try to figure out the type of hallucination they're having by looking at the blood flow to the region of their brain.
So for instance, if you see increased blood flow to the fusiform gyrus which is where you detect faces, then you know someone is having some sort of visual hallucination having to do with perhaps even a little person. So it's kinda funny to me because when we talk about hallucinations, we really think about them as being apart from us and other worldly.
Robert: Yeah, we tend to think of them, an hallucination is seeing something in the world as it is not. It's seeing the world wrong, but that really implies that there is a correct and definitive way to experience reality.
Julie: Yeah, and because I was thinking about this, we really do have a very tenuous line between imagination and reality and I was thinking about this in the context of our blue sky because what is the blue sky but an illusion to us because if you think about it, the only reason why we're seeing a blue sky is because violet and blue have the shortest wave lengths and they scatter a lot more than long ones when particles like oxygen and nitrogen molecules are present so those are the ones that are most apparent to us so that's what we see when we're looking up in the sky.
And then it's not that we just see a purple and a blue sky, no, the mind can't even really sort of deal with that because of the machinery that we have with our perception of color, it kind of has to mix some of that with white until it turns out to this cohesive blue that we look up in the sky at.
Robert: Yeah, and as pointed out in the excellent colors episode of radio lab, it's arguable too that individuals who do not have a preconceived notion of blue would not really see the sky as blue. Like there's also that level of cultural layering on it so it really makes you think to what extent am I experiencing the world around you, I mean ultimately our brain, it's inside of some bone, it's inside of some skull. It depends on the sensory mechanisms to experience the world and then translate that into data so essentially the brain is blind anyway.
Julie: Well, and it's highly sensitive to suggestion and we mentioned this before but there's a 2011 study at Hull University in the U.K. and it asked participants to imagine a color while looking at a gray pattern. And what they found is that those people who were most susceptible to hypnosis; in other words, given to suggestion, they were able to actually hallucinate the colors at will when they were asked to which was corroborated by an MRI so again, there's this idea of what is, you know, we bring this up a lot like what is reality and how much of it is colored by our perceptions.
Robert: Yeah, so much of that, I mean you could argue that our perception of reality itself is an hallucination and any alteration of that is just a change in the flavoring. For instance, there's closed eyes visualization, closed eyes hallucination that occur. When I was a kid I would do this a lot where I would close my eyes and I guess just because I was bored and generally you see colors moving around. It's like an instant fireworks show. Maybe I was just easily amused. I don't know. I was an only child for a bit until my sisters were born so I had to spend a certain amount of time by myself.
But even now, as I've discussed before, in yoga when I'm engaged in Shavasana, the corpse pose meditation at the end of the yoga session. I'm closing my eyes and I'll end of seeing colors and ultimately I'll see forms and figures and faces even and really that is an example of closed eye hallucination. I'm not doing anything to my body in this instance except working out in yoga for a little bit and then sort of calming myself but I'm seeing things that are not there within my mind.
Julie: That's interesting because when I was little one of my favorite things to do was to close my eyes and pretend I was on a grid and shrink myself and then expand myself on that grid and I thought I was a little bit insane but I felt my body doing that and so it's interesting that there's part of our brain that we can really tap into to manipulate our experiences like this. We're gonna take a quick break and when we get back though, we are going to talk about the specific type of hallucination that deals with the detection of tiny things, tiny people, tiny animals.
Robert: So we were talking about leprechaun gold earlier. Here's a little gold for you. In the time it takes you to go to the post office, you can probably finish any number of other important tasks on your busy schedule including finally kidnapping that leprechaun so why keep wasting your time like that when you can go to stamps.com and get postage right from your desk?
Julie: That's right because with stamps.com you can buy and print official U.S. postage for any letter or package using your own computer and printer. And you can get everything from stamps to shipping labels the instant you need it, 24/7 then just hand it to your mail carrier. You'll never have to go to the post office again.
Robert: We use stamps.com when we have to send out the odd bit of merchandise or correspondence and I can totally see where it would be really valuable to have this if you were starting or running a small business of your own and we really want you to try stamps.com as well so right now, we have this special promo code, STUFF, and it opens you up for this special offer. You can get a no?risk trial plus $110.00 bonus offer. It includes the digital scale and up to $55.00 in free postage so do not wait. Go to stamps.com.
Before you do anything else, click on the microphone at the top of the home page and type in STUFF. That's stamps.com, enter STUFF and start printing some postage.
All right, we're back and in this episode we of course started off by talking a little bit about fairy folk and leprechauns, paranormal experience essentially and we're getting into the discussion of how hallucination, particular modes of hallucination make us see tiny people and tiny things.
Julie: Yeah, and before we start talking about this perception or this illusion of tiny people or things, I wanted to point out that it is amazing when you think about it that our eyes and our minds are able to visually reconstruct things. So for instance, if you have a plate on the table and a fork next to it and you continue to look back and forth at those items, your brain has to over and over again visually reconstruct those items and also do that in the context of moving back and forth so it's got the movement element and what we're talking about here is perceptual constancy.
So what your mind is doing is saying that plate is still a plate and it is still the dimension that it is. It's still the scale that it is. And this is a lot of work for your brain to do and your eye to do to take in all of this data and make us feel as though we are on the same constant state where things are the same and have a constancy to them.
Robert: Yeah, one of the things of this discussion of hallucination really drives home is that sight and our perception, the mental processes that make sight possible, are pretty complex. And the least little bit of something can go wrong or change and it can have some pretty dramatic effects on how you perceive reality.
Julie: Yeah, it's funny because you really do take it for granted how stable the images are around you and how stable the story that your perception is telling you is all because of these different parts of your brain is working in concert. There is something called Micropsia or Alice in Wonderland Syndrome and this is when objects actually appear smaller and it's not necessarily the mechanics of the eyes but it's really the interpretation of the data that causes the objects in the visual field to appear miniscule. So when you have these Lilliputian hallucinations, they are forming complex visual hallucinations of people, objects or animals that are greatly reduced in size.
Robert: Or sometimes exaggerated.
Julie: Yes, sometimes exaggerated.
Robert: Yeah, and which also ends up going into all sorts of mythological possibilities there as well.
Julie: Right, we've got some examples too that really sort of dwell on this. And the hallucinations are vivid and they evoke varied responses including fear, anxiety or even pleasure. They've been seen across the board in people how are experiencing delirium tremens from alcohol withdrawal, people who have eyesight problems such as macular degeneration and people with mental disorders like schizophrenia although in schizophrenia, even though hallucinations are more common, this type of hallucination, this Lilliputian is very rare.
Robert: Yeah, and most of the cases that we're looking at with Lilliputian; it's a situation where the person is otherwise mentally fine. They're not a disturbed individual or a "crazy" person. It's not like oh, that crazy person down the street is seeing little people. Of course they are. They're crazy. No, it's for instance one of the cases that Oliver Sacks talks about in his book Hallucinations, which is excellent, highly recommend anyone at all interested in this, pick that up. It's very readable, just a great book. In his book, he talks about a patient that he refers to as Zelda who he treated in 2009.
She was an historian and some of the hallucinations that she ended up seeing included she saw a great-granddaughter, she saw a trio of witches, she saw her hair rising up in the mirror like it was weightless, she saw tiny people crawling out of the TV, she saw gaily dressed figures sort of parading around, she saw six ominous tall men in brown suits around her hospital bed, she saw little men in green caps and she saw small fairy-like children sort of moving around as well just to give you an idea because a lot of these hallucinations again, it's things are larger or smaller than they need to be so you're encountering giants, you're encountering little people.
Oftentimes, they're really brilliant to behold. The color scheme will be amazing and the costuming, if costumes are perceivable, the costumes will be crazy and exotic and bright so you can really see where the idea of a fairy folk can emerge from this because oh, they were little people and they were dressed like they were from another world and their colors were unreal and magical.
Julie: Well, and they were mischievous too, right?
Julie: A lot of times these accounts have the little people that are running around doing various things that are nefarious or -
Robert: Yeah, and they're disappearing or they're reappearing. They're not necessarily obeying the physical laws of our world.
Julie: Now these are called release hallucinations because it's thought that they are released or instigated by the removal of normal visual afferent input into the association cortex. So in the case of Zelda, there was reduced blood flow to the optical and parietal lobes and so this caused the hallucinations. But probably one of the things that is most associated with this is something called the Charles Bonnet syndrome.
Robert: Yes, or CBS. And this is a common condition among people with compromised vision. So when we're saying compromised vision, of course we're not saying the person is necessarily completely blind. They might be suffering from just age-related macular degeneration, cataracts, glaucoma, diabetic eye disease. Their sight may be somewhat limited, but they're still able to visually perceive the world to a certain degree.
Julie: Yeah, the idea is that the information received from your eyes actually stops the brain from creating its own pictures so when you lose your sight or partially lose your sight or it's damaged, your brain is not receiving as much information from your eyes as it's used to and it begins to fill in those gaps by creating this sort of fantasy pictures or patterns and then when this occurs, you experience the images stored in your brain as hallucinations.
Robert: Yeah, it's kinda this idea that the world that we live in because you can - like when we're just looking around a room, we're looking at particular little spaces and then we're looking at another little space. Basically the world that we're in exists in our minds and we use our vision to constantly upgrade the details of that mental image that we interact with.
Julie: There is one case of a [inaudible], an 80?year?old woman, she complained of little people dressed in blue and gray leaves hiding in her cupboards and she also saw a tiny black cat from time to time and her chief complaint was that the little people liked to watch her undress. So of course she was examined. They found that her cognitive functions were fine and that really again, it came down to impairments in her visual field, again creating this story from this lack of information that was being processed.
Robert: Another interesting aspect about Lilliputians, especially as it related to CBS, Oliver Sacks points out that most CBS hallucinations are old [inaudible], inspiring, pleasant, even friendly. Not to say they all are, there will be some that are a little bit serving such as the brown dressed men that are really tall that are around Zelda's hospital bed.
That was ominous in nature but for the most part, they tend to be lighter and more amusing and magical in an uplifting sense whereas there's a lot that goes on with paranormal experience be it alien abduction scenario which is rooted in say sleep paralysis which is terrifying because you're mind, body connection is doing something weird and add a little flavoring to it from whatever your worldview or mythology is and it can be a terrifying situation, but with CBS you tend to see these more sort of like huh, there are little people in my closet. That's totally cool but I would rather them not look at me while I'm naked.
Julie: Yeah, there's this idea too that perhaps, you know, it has an adaptive function in terms of people who, in general with hallucinations, not just little people, that if someone has lost someone and particularly in the elderly, if they hallucinate maybe a loved one who's departed, that this is a source of comfort to them.
Robert: And bereavement and hallucinations, this is a whole area as well. Yeah, it's this idea that as if we're losing our ability to update the mental image in our head, we're having to update it internally. Like imagine you're inside your house and you're wanting to paint an image of your backyard. So you look out the back window every day and you paint a little more of this image and you update it a little more and then one day your windows are walled up or they're frosted over and you can't see out them all that well, well then you have to -
Maybe you're listening, maybe you're drawing on your memory to try and alter that picture and make it as accurate as possible but then inevitably, you're bringing in errors. You're bringing in even magical creations into that painting.
Julie: That reminds me of Anton Syndrome. When in error you have someone who is trying to replace "their reality" with a hallucination to simulate eyesight because -
Robert: Oh, because this occurs in generally people that are really totally blind or -
Robert: Or extremely deteriorated eyesight.
Julie: Totally blind from cortical damage and that damage can be caused by stroke and this affects the optic lobes so these people are absolutely unaware of their blindness and they insist that they can still see.
Robert: Yeah, like you'll say hey, you're blind, don't try and walk across the living room because there are toys all over the floor and they'll say I can totally see and they believe they can see. Now they'll end up stepping on the toys because ultimately they can, they are blind but to them they feel they're experiencing it right. If you tell them hey, describe that person sitting on the couch over there. They won't blink. They'll just describe the person. The description may be completely wrong or it may be reasonably correct based on previous knowledge of the individual, whatever, but they won't hesitate because in their mind, they do see.
Julie: And see I find that example so fascinating just because that really does point to this adaptive function because if you have lost your eyesight and you are lacking that stimuli, then your brain is just making a simulacrum of that, of reality which I think is just fascinating.
Robert: Sacks also shared an account of a patient who in the 1980s, a blind patient, went on a drinking binge and saw again, while in the midst of this drinking binge like the next morning remembered having seen as if his sight had returned.
Julie: But it was a hallucination?
Robert: It was a hallucination, yeah. But and again, a lot of this really drives home just how complex sight is and how complex our observation of the world is. To what extent is all of our sight an hallucination?
Julie: Yeah, again, this idea that there's this visual constancy that goes on that's running in the background and we don't even think about how tenuous that is.
Robert: So as Oliver Sacks points at, Lilliputian hallucinations can also occur in migraines. Particularly he points out the Migraine Blog by Siri Hustvedt on New York Times which is a blog just about the author's experiences with migraines. Now do you experience migraines?
Julie: I do, yeah.
Robert: Yeah? What are they like for you? Do you ever see anything with them or -?
Julie: Sometimes I've seen lights and actually a good many of the females in my family have histories of really pretty intense histories with migraines and they complain of something they call an aura. It's a feeling and they also get the strobe light effect.
Robert: Interesting. I've never experienced a migraine. My father used to get them and I think my sister experiences them from time to time as well. But in their more extreme nature, it's almost like a supernatural experience. It's like something from another world is reaching out and touching your brain rather painfully but in a certain way, illuminatingly for a few seconds or minutes or what have you.
Julie: And again, what we're talking about is a sort of impairment of the visual field here, right?
Robert: Yeah, yeah, people will see lights like you said, geometric patterns, flashes of light, zigzags, blind spots, shimmering spots or stars, auras and in some cases, tiny men and tiny animals. On the Migraine Blog, the author was talking about how they were reading a book, lying there and they looked down and they saw a small pink man and his pink ox, perhaps six or seven inches high. The author says they were perfectly-made creatures and except for their color, they looked very real. They didn't speak to me but they walked around and I watched them with fascination and a kind of amiable tenderness.
They stayed for some minutes and then disappeared. I have often wished they would return but they never have. Which is just amazing to think of that, you know, this migraine hits and you look down and there's a little pink farmer and his ox and they're not really concerned with you which ties in nicely with talking about fairy experiences and alien experiences, paranormal experiences around the world, they vary so much. Sometimes it is a terrible experience where you're like oh, I'm being abducted by aliens or I'm tormented by demons but in other cases, it's a matter of, for a brief second, you have a peek into a magical world just beyond our own.
Julie: Well, I think anybody who has ever had a really bad migraine can attest to one of the things that is probably interesting to them as well as me is that when you have an awful one, it feels like the fog is rolling in and to some degree, it does feel like your vision is being affected, not just with the strobe light effect, but as if something is just kinda moving over your brain like a cloud so it's interesting to see that that sort of deprivation of stimulation or stimuli might manifest itself with a Lilliputian hallucination.
Robert: Yeah, in the book, Sacks points out that in a migraine a wave of "electrical excitation" slowly moves across the visual cortex and on the way it's possible that it directly stimulates clusters of orientation sensitive neurons in the visual cortex and this direct stimulation causes patterns patients to see shimmering light, zigzag fortifications, etc. And as we see the wave move through the brain during a migraine, when we're looking at brain scans, it's matching the movement of the shimmering bars in the patient's sight.
Julie: Huh, so that's very interesting that that sense of movement isn't necessarily an illusion.
Robert: Yeah, it's amazing. I mean I'm not envious of people who have to deal with migraines because like I say as just a normal headache sufferer, I would see my father get these migraines and it was like well how can a headache be that bad that you're just gripping your skull like I've never had a headache that bad. But now that I see a little bit more what's involved in it, I can totally get it.
Julie: Well, there you go. I hope that everybody has a wonderful St. Patrick's Day and that you keep in mind these Lilliputian hallucinations as you go about your day, cladding green, drinking green beer.
Robert: And maybe thinking a little more about leprechauns, being respectful of them, knowing not to chase them.
Julie: Be respectful, yes.
Robert: Don't try and kidnap them and rob them because they will trick you. And maybe also when you're thinking about Irish culture and Irish mythology, know that there's a lot of rich stuff in there in addition to the leprechaun and addition to Lucky Charms and the awful leprechaun horror movies. I mean you have the Tuatha Dé Danann and that they're pretty fabulous.
Julie: And post-leprechaunism transformations with prosthetics. That exists for futurist leprechauns out there.
Robert: Yes, one day. One day we can transform into leprechauns. So if anyone has anything you would like to share be it on Irish myth and legend, be it on your own history with leprechauns but more importantly, your thoughts on the hallucination aspect of this episode. Do you deal with migraines? And if you do, what kind of hallucinatory experiences do you encounter? We'd love to hear about that. Do you see the grid pattern, the fortification? Have you ever seen little people?
Do migraines due to CBS, due to any other kind of paranormal experience, we'd love to hear from you because we are curious about how other people perceive the world and about how neurological things can contribute to that. And if we share your material, obviously we're gonna do so in a respectful manner so let us know.
In the meantime, let's call the robot over and do some quick listener mail. We recently of course did the slime episodes and we did the Valentine's Day episode about slugs which there you go, if you need a monstrous creature to associate with Valentine's Day. You add a little magic.
Julie: You're right, you're right.
Robert: Then the slug is perfect.
Julie: In particular the banana slug which is a penis-chewing slug so to speak.
Robert: Yes, and it is also a mascot.
Julie: Yes, at UC Santa Cruz which we mentioned and we had a bit of a laugh about and lo and behold we heard from a listener who is a Ph.D. candidate at UC Santa Cruz.
Robert: So she writes in with this fabulous postcard for starters and says, "Hi. I just wanted to say thanks for the shout?out to WCSC in your podcast Slug Life. It came out the same week I handed in my Ph.D. dissertation on Lizard Mating Behavior, not slugs." And by the way, the title of the paper is Male Aggression Varies with Throat Color in Two Distinct Populations of the Mesquite Lizard.
She continues, "It was still a perfect timing though because your podcast has helped me through many long hours in the lab. Please enjoy some slugged?theme goodies as a token of appreciation - Beth." So, yeah, so she sent a box that contained first of all some buttons which are nice and these, I don't mind them. One of them says 100 percent slug which means that you're 100 percent behind this team and their slug mascot. And then there's also this other button, that I actually don't mind either, that has the university insignia and then has this cartoon slug that's reading the works of Plato, and he has little glasses on.
Julie: It's pretty adorable actually.
Robert: And he has arms for some reason. So I can stand that too because it's like all right, he's a slug sort of but he's also, he's reading Plato, he's even more intelligent than we thought. But then she also sent this - there's another portion of the care box that is kind of horrifying.
Julie: Okay, so this is a box of chocolates. What could be horrifying about that?
Robert: Well, because they're all shaped like slugs.
Julie: They're beautiful. And some of them are banana slugs too by the way.
Robert: Yes, some of them are yellow coated in something and others are just more like a dark chocolate and some seem to have like a white chocolate infusion that gives them kind of that mottled color that is common to slugs.
Julie: Yeah, I was gonna say that looks like the leopard slug as we know is the gymnast of the sexual reproductive world. This is so cool Beth. Thank you so much and congratulations. I'm glad that we could be in your holes with you while you were working on your dissertation and I think that's just awesome.
Robert: Indeed. We always love to hear from listeners who - all listeners but also when they have some science in their lives, it always fun.
Julie: And thank you for making Robert squirm with that chocolate. It's pretty priceless.
Robert: Yeah, I do not know if I will ever eat one of these but we were talking, it would be an interesting experiment to see to what extent the people of the office here actually ate them and if they did, would they only eat the rear portions of the slug because for me, if I had to, I would break off the rear end of the slug and eat that because as we discussed in the podcast, all sorts of horrible stuff happens at the front of the slug. It's the rear of the slug where you're safe ironically.
Julie: Yeah, the front's got the penis, the anus but we'll definitely need a control box of chocolates to place alongside it -
Robert: Yeah, what disappears first.
Julie: To do a fair representation of what happens here but all of this is awesome so thank you again Beth.
Robert: So if you would like to reach out to us, you can find us on Facebook. You can find us on Tumblr. We are Stuff to Blow Your Mind on both of those. On Twitter, we go by the handle Blow the Mind. And if you ever do get a wild hair and you wanna send us a letter or something, feel free to send us some snail mail or slug mail if you will. You can find our address on the How Stuff Works web site. Just do a search for HowStuffWorks.com/contact and you'll find the page that has the mailing address.
Julie: And you can always contact us by sending us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[End of Audio]
Duration: 44 minutes