Once outside, the young Davidd soon got the hang of it and was zooming up and down the garden path. Then something over the way caught his eye, it was Father Christmas climbing out of a chimney of a house that backed onto Davidd’s house. Santa got into his sleigh and set off flying into the early morning sky. That was the last Davidd saw of him.
Now many of you will think this is a crazy thing for Davidd to tell people and that it is obviously a made up story but after doing some research, we can reveal that it may not be as unbelievable as it initially seems. Recent scientific study has found that if children become overly excited – like the joy of receiving presents at Christmas time – then they can have hallucinations that they perceive to be true.
Hallucinations are more common in children than we previously imagined. For years, kids’ accounts of seeing, hearing and experiencing things that weren’t really there were considered to be part of the same invented world – an “overactive imagination”; a “fantasy world”. The Alice in Wonderland approach, perhaps. But as it was recognised that hallucinations can be reliably identified in children, science has begun to look at why these illusory experiences are many times more common during our early years.
Recent studies have thrown up some surprising statistics about how common they are. One UK study found that almost two-thirds of children reported having at least one “psychotic-like experience” in their lives, a category that also includes unrealistic beliefs or sightings – like seeing Father Christmas on a neighbour’s roof. When focusing purely on hallucinations, a review of research found that about twenty percent of pre-teens have these experiences at any one time. The number roughly halves in teenagers and drops again in adults.
It is interesting that hallucinations become less common as we move towards adulthood. Because very young children are more difficult to test and haven’t been studied as widely, it’s not clear whether we start out in a more hallucinatory world, which becomes increasingly stable as we age, or whether middle childhood is a peak time for unreal experiences. For all its reputation for causing emotional mayhem, puberty might be a stabilising force on our perceptions.
These figures don’t mean that if a child is having hallucinations that they are ill or unwell. In the majority of cases, children’s hallucinations disappear within a short time-frame and are not a cause for concern. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, severe psychosis, represented by diagnoses such as schizophrenia, are extremely rare in young children. Most hallucinations in children concern “monsters under the bed” or isolated hallucinations that fade over time.
Then there are imaginary friends that are not hallucinations but vivid fantasies, which have been the subject of much adult hand-wringing over the years. Because of this, they have been surprisingly well researched and most people are delighted to live in a world where there are genuine imaginary-friends. It turns out that children with make-believe companions tend to have better social skills and more developed language abilities than kids who lack imaginary buddies. And neither, the research shows, are these illusory companions a compensation for a lack of real friends. They seem to reflect the child’s brain running in overdrive, expending excess energy, delighting in the limits of imagination and playing with the possibilities of the social world.
Cutting a very long and complicated story short, it appears that children who have short hallucinations, a good imagination and even imaginary friends are well adjusted young people.
Who would have thought it, perhaps Davidd is normal after all – just keep talking to us bears!