I remember getting up and there was a massive parcel all wrapped in Christmas paper waiting for me downstairs. I tore off the paper and there was a blue, metal, pedal car. I was made up. The weather outside wasn’t too bad so I was wrapped up in a coat, hat, and scarf and up and down the path I was racing in my brand-new pedal car. It was tiring work pedalling the car so I stopped at the end of the path to catch my breath. I remember a feeling of euphoria; life couldn’t have been better. It was Christmas morning; I had a great new toy and I was out playing in it while Granny (who was probably called mummy in those days) was cooking the dinner.
I sat there at the end of the pathway looking at the houses opposite. Suddenly I noticed a sleigh parked on the roof-top of one of the houses. I couldn’t believe me eyes. I looked on in amazement as Father Christmas climbed out of a chimney pot, got into the sleigh, and flew away into the morning sky.
I know you are all thinking; the old fella has finally lost it, but I swear on everything I own that is what I saw. A few years ago, I started researching online thinking that maybe I was a nut, or something, and it turns out that childhood hallucinations are more common than I first thought. For years, kids’ tales of seeing, hearing, and experiencing things that weren’t there, were considered part of an invented world – an “overactive imagination”; a “fantasy world”. The Alice in Wonderland approach. But as it was recognised that hallucinations can be reliably identified in children, science began to look at why these imagined experiences are many times more common during our early years.
Hallucinations often reflect a bizarre, blurry version of our realities and because play is an everyday reality for children, the content can seem similar. Both can contain quirky characters, strange scenarios and inspire curious behaviour. One child described how he saw a wolf in the house, another that he had “Yahoos” living inside him that ate all his medicine. On the surface, these could just as easily be a child’s whimsy, but genuine hallucinations have a very different flavour. “In play and make-believe, children are imagining,” says Elena Garralda, a professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Imperial College London. “They do not have the actual perceptual experience of seeing and hearing.” Another key difference, notes Garralda, is that “hallucinations feel imposed and children cannot exercise any direct control over them”.
A recent 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 unshiftable and unrealistic beliefs and fears. When focusing purely on hallucinations, a review of research found that 17% of 9-12-year-olds 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.
One thing on which the experts agree, is that hallucinating does not cause a child any harm. They do not put much credence into their hallucinations and tend to shrug them off, I know I did when I saw Father Christmas.
So, if you did laugh when I told you of my childhood hallucination, bear in mind, as Christmas approaches, I shall not be putting in a good word for you with my childhood friend with the beard and the red, fur-lined jacket.
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