What do these hallucinations mean?
January 19, 2009 5:13 PM   Subscribe

While going about my daily life, I often get random, recurring flashes of morbid/gruesome imagery in my mind. Is this weird?

I don't consider myself a dark person. I have experienced bouts of depression (nothing I couldn't handle) but normally I have a tendency to goof off and keep things light-hearted. I'm together as a person, for the most part. Nothing really troubling in my life.

For as long as I can remember, I get random flashes of gross imagery while doing completely mundane or fun things. For example, I'll be driving and will suddenly visualise my eye being sliced across with a knife. Or joking with a friend or co-worker I might get a vision of biting my own lip off and eating it. I have had flashes of smashing my hand with a heavy rock, driving myself off a road, scraping my skin off with gravel, the list goes on. The knife/eye thing is the most common image. They are split second visions. I'm so used to them that it was only a couple years ago that I thought it might be weird. Up until then, I don't know, I guess I assumed everyone had them. I did describe them to a couple friends at the time (not all the visions, just the eye/knife one) and they did think it was weird. I thought it was maybe related to The Imp Of The Perverse. Or something.

Does the Hive Mind think it's weird? Does anyone else experience this or something like it? What is it and what does it mean? What, if anything, should I do about it?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (46 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I have this from time to time too. Especially to do with the eye, though my visions are not so vivid. At least you're not alone.
posted by wingless_angel at 5:18 PM on January 19, 2009

Purely anecdotal, but: completely normal.

For example, sometimes, while cruising through the grocery store, I often wonder what would happen if I punched that old woman (the one on aisle 8 grabbing some cabbage) square in the face. Not that I would, but things like that pop into my mind on occasion.
posted by nitsuj at 5:19 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

This tormented me when I was younger, because I thought it was a sign of madness. It still happens, but it doesn't torment me, because I've learned that it's very common, and not a cause for that kind of concern. I strongly recommend the book The Imp of the Mind -- in fact, I don't know of another resource to help deal with this at all. It's not a visible problem, and I think this is because most people are frightened of the consequences of discussing it -- I do not blame them.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:26 PM on January 19, 2009

Could go either way. For what it's worth, I'm not know to be depressive, and I regularly have brief, almost overwhelming ... ideas about terrible things. For instance, I don't like to follow people in a car caravan because I'm convinced, at various points along the drive, that an unseen plane will plunge from the sky and destroy the friends/co-workers in the car ahead.

I just think it's random brain BS that doesn't mean anything about my overall state of mind.

Also have sudden, unbidden thoughts about sex, food, winning the lottery, and so forth which have nothing to do with reality. I believe most people do. When they appear, I can make them go away, or noodle around with them.

If this happens to you more, more powerfully, and with with more horrible images times when you're mental health is a little off, then I'd talk to a professional. If it's just part of who you are like taking the almonds out of your Almond Joys, then I would just let it go.
posted by Lesser Shrew at 5:28 PM on January 19, 2009

Have you ever taken LSD? You might be having flashbacks, if so.
posted by Effigy2000 at 5:28 PM on January 19, 2009

Happens all the time.

I used to think when I was a little kid that if I could imagine something gruesome I got automatic immunity from it. Thus I would spend many nights going over all sorts of fantastical ways to shake off the mortal coil.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:28 PM on January 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm dittoing that this is more or less normal, though undeniably freaky. I get a broken-glass throat slitting thing myself. And, as per "The Imp of the Perverse," well--at least I don't find myself _doing_ the worst thing in a situation: just running through it in full, blood-soaked color.

I blame too many horror movies, indigestion, and a manifestation of the universal death drive, not necessarily in that order.
posted by LucretiusJones at 5:30 PM on January 19, 2009

I've never had this happen. Maybe that makes me the crazy one?
posted by 0xFCAF at 5:42 PM on January 19, 2009

Totally normal.
The most recurrent one for me is totally ridiculous.
Everytime I step into or out of an elevator, I imagine the car suddenly dropping just as I cross the threshold, slicing me neatly in half. No idea why I always think about it, but I do.
posted by nightchrome at 5:52 PM on January 19, 2009

If it ever drifts into becoming a compulsion, then worry about it. Otherwise regard it as mind static - I think everyone has brain jitters but the specific form they take varies.
posted by benzenedream at 5:53 PM on January 19, 2009

Your question immediately made me think of this question, which was about vocalized, random outbursts. I will go on board and say that both that, and the question you've presented happen to me as well. My theory is just that it's sneaky brain-junk, and as long as it stays random and doesn't interfere with your daily life (in the form of obssession, etc.), then you are just like everyone else!

Except 0xFCAF. He/She's crazy! :)
posted by waitangi at 5:56 PM on January 19, 2009

I often wonder what would happen if I punched that old woman (the one on aisle 8 grabbing some cabbage) square in the face.

I do this specifically, in addition to continually flashing on a variety of grotesque imagery that, were I to journal it, would horrify anyone (except perhaps yourself). In all (other) respects I'm a very plain, vanilla guy, the imagery doesn't bother me, and there's no connection for me between thinking it and realizing it. It's simply background mental noise to which I occasionally and idly pay attention.

I'd say perfectly normal.
posted by fatbird at 5:58 PM on January 19, 2009

Every time I'm about to walk down a flight of stairs, I get a flash of myself falling down them. Not that unusual. What I do is try to visualize myself walking down the stairs without falling, and that usually stops it. So if these images disturb you, try to think about something nonviolent, a scenario in which nothing bad happens. But if you're not bothered by it and just want to know whether it happens to other people, it does.
posted by decathecting at 6:04 PM on January 19, 2009

I have friends who worry about flashes like these. Good folks one and all.

Especially if you have flashes about doing bad stuff to others, there's the guilty conscience and "what kind of a person am I" etc. But unless you're acting on the impulses, or they handicap you in your everyday life, you're fine - in my non-doctory humble opinion.

I wonder if I could kick that babies head clean off? is one I get occasionally (Based on a Spirou comic IIRC) but hey, haven't done it yet! Knock on wood!
posted by monocultured at 6:08 PM on January 19, 2009

Trying to directly control your thoughts is a recipe for trouble. If you have a thought, accept it as just a thought and part of the human experience. Don't worry about it and don't try to censor it. It's actions that matter.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 6:13 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

All the time. I fancy it up though with speculations about many-worlds interpretations of quantum mechanics, which says* that there's a universe in which, as I'm typing this, my house turns into a giant rabbit (due to lots and lots of astronomically unlikely quantum tunneling events all happening simultaneously).

*I'm pretty sure it doesn't actually say this.

posted by dmd at 6:19 PM on January 19, 2009

Yeah, this is very common. I would say that 50% of the time I pick up a pair of scissors or a knife I imagine stabbing myself in the eye, or chopping off my balls. Part of the horrible thrill is in imagining what would be next, what would happen to life (the answer: it would be not good). Like monocultured, I sometimes imagine kicking people in the head, particularly small children, and consider how long it would take for the accompanying parent to understand what had been done and what their reaction would be (the answer: not long / it would be not good).
posted by cincinnatus c at 6:29 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Paper cuts on my nipples. Several times a week I have thoughts like that but never really to the point of serious distraction.
posted by Sailormom at 6:33 PM on January 19, 2009

IANAD - I suspect it may be related to rehearsing - keeping yourself in a heightened state of arousal.
I too see myself falling down stairs or off curbs. Then I imagine the bones in my wrists shattering, etc.
I've never broken a bone, so I think I may fear it excessively. Have you ever scratched your eyeball? It sucks.
posted by kristymcj at 6:43 PM on January 19, 2009

I've always thought this was quite normal, like mind static as benzenedream said, but thought that it would cross a line if they were to be acted upon. I've noticed they tend to freak me out more when I'm tired or in control of something (driving a car, holding a knife, etc...).

If youre worried you might ever confuse them with normal thoughts or operating then I would look more into doing something about it (what? beats me...therapy maybe). For instance, do they affect you more when you're drowsy, does it ever take your brain a little extra time to rationalize?
posted by nzydarkxj at 6:44 PM on January 19, 2009

I used to often. Mine were usually images of flesh eating bacteria or burn victims... skin stuff.

I stopped watching horror movies or tv shows, seeing images that were even remotely creepy, and I stopped reading scary things to the point that I don't even read mysteries... (I started reading the answers to this question and quickly stopped). Now, I don't get the flashes anymore. =) Also, no longer afraid of the dark or strangers or "things" hiding behind corners.

I think it has taken somewhat of a toll on my creativity though. I feel like my imagination doesn't work as vividly or umm... fantastical as it used to.
posted by simplethings at 6:51 PM on January 19, 2009

I get the same weird, sudden visualizations, and frequently react as if they've actually happened--sudden gasping, or jerking my ahead away and shutting my eyes. I hate it. I would blame horror movies but I don't watch them.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 6:53 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

It happens to me a lot around blackboards. Everybody knows what it's like to run your nails down one, or to at least hear it, and I sometimes think, what if I ran my teeth down it? Just my two front incisors?
posted by turgid dahlia at 6:57 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does it happen to you just at random, or when you're feeling anxious or stressed? Because for me, I notice this sort of thing more when I'm having a little bit of a rough time -- I just feel more sensitive to violence, or I dwell on it more.

I don't think it's anything to worry about, though.
posted by darksong at 7:00 PM on January 19, 2009

Yes, it's normal.
posted by Electrius at 7:00 PM on January 19, 2009

Spot on, Peanut_mcgillicuty!

Usually reserved for the "attacked by nazis and stomped to a pulp" scenario, or "falling on a knife" accident. More pronounced if in foul mood or gloomy.

I recall reading somewhere that Kafka had recurring fantasies about dying in elaborate ways. Anyone?
posted by monocultured at 7:03 PM on January 19, 2009

Also, Cincinnatus, we could have fun walking down a mall…

– Were you thinking what I was thinking?
– Y'mean the dog?
– Yeah!
– Totally!
* High five! *

posted by monocultured at 7:09 PM on January 19, 2009

Whenever I'm in the kitchen with someone else who's holding a butcher knife, I think about them stabbing me, and how surprised I would be.
posted by you're a kitty! at 7:48 PM on January 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Omg. Thank you! I get the most gruesome images, mostly of things happening to people I love most. Down to a detail that a horror movie couldn't capture. But my most common one is the eye thing, especially if I get/drive by something that looks sharp or jagged.I will have to physically move away/shut my eyes as well.

I feel much less alone and much better now...
posted by Vaike at 8:16 PM on January 19, 2009

I get that kind of thing al the time. Have since I was young. I'd sometimes be using a knife and wonder what it would be like to shove it into my eye, or wonder what it would be like to kick a head.

As long as you're not acting out any of this stuff you'll perfectly normal.
posted by AzzaMcKazza at 8:27 PM on January 19, 2009

Wow. Does anyone know if there's a technical term for this thing or whether there are articles written about it? My Google-fu is appalling.
posted by mooza at 8:46 PM on January 19, 2009

This happens to me too; both scenarios - me hurting myself or me hurting others. Just these odd little flashes of something I'd never do.
posted by deborah at 9:11 PM on January 19, 2009

I get this from time to time. Overactive imagination? I stayed on the 19th floor of a hotel last week, and had random visions of flinging myself off the balcony, or thinking how easy it would be to accidentally fall (the rail was rather low). I am not suicidal and enjoy my life very much.
posted by medeine at 9:33 PM on January 19, 2009

This is a symptom of obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is often paired with depression. Someone I know with OCD used to have these violent images and thoughts quite often, like three or four times a day. I myself can only remember three or four times in my life when I've had thoughts like that.

I'm going to go against the grain here and say not normal. Are these thoughts causing problems for your everyday life? If not, don't worry about it.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:06 PM on January 19, 2009

Every, every, every single time I leave my apartment (I live on the third floor of a walk-up), I look down the stairs as I'm about to take that first step to walk down them, and imagine myself tripping and falling, breaking both legs, whacking my head/face on the wall at the bottom of the stairs, and ending up unconscious as a crumpled heap of broken bones and blood on the floor below.

Sometimes, as I'm about to drive through intersections, I'll "see" an out-of-control 18-wheeler careening into the side of my car, causing it to explode.

If I'm cooking, say...pasta, and standing there stirring it, I sort of visualize myself knocking the pot off the stove and splashing myself in the face with boiling water.

I figure if it is insanity, at least it makes me grip the railing tighter, drive cautiously, and make sure the handles on my pots aren't hanging off the edge of the stove.

To answer your questions: No I don't think it's weird. Yes, I experience something like you do. I have no idea what it is or means (if I had to guess for me, it's a tendency to worry paired with brain static). I wouldn't worry about it.
posted by AlisonM at 10:24 PM on January 19, 2009

OH! And once I actually did fall down a flight of stairs. As I approached them (they were in a hotel, it was a small 5-step flight of stairs), I sort of unconsciously thought (yes I know that makes no sense), "I hope I don't fall down these stairs! But I'm totally going to." As I fell, I thought, "I hope no one sees me!" And then I got up and walked away, almost as if it were a non-event. I mean, I was expecting it and everything.
posted by AlisonM at 10:27 PM on January 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

yup. I get that. I don't watch horror movies at all, because they make it worse. On the other hand, and this is the odd part, I work on a lot of horror films, and am weirdly good at making digital gore and gross stuff; I guess I sort of turn it to my advantage.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 12:56 AM on January 20, 2009

Civil_Disobedient: I used to think when I was a little kid that if I could imagine something gruesome I got automatic immunity from it. Thus I would spend many nights going over all sorts of fantastical ways to shake off the mortal coil.

Oh good grief, me too. Now it's confined to involuntary images just as I'm dropping off to sleep - not pleasant but I can handle it. Thanks for posting this OP.
posted by ceri richard at 2:25 AM on January 20, 2009

Normal insanity. Not be confused with abnormal sanity, like that weirdo up thread. You're fine.

I had a very weird thing similar for years. The thought would pop in to my head for no reason at all, that I wanted to go to Egypt. WTF? No reason why I would be interested in that place (no obsession over their antiquities, although they are cool). But it would pop into my head, almost to the point I wanted to say it (ha, often while alone).

The other gorey/violent notions happen to me. Look, I can jump off here, and end it all! What if I sliced my neck open with this knife? Wouldn't it be amusing to kick that kid into next year? This thing looks valuable. Should I see what happens if I smash it?

That last thing is the one that gets to me, oddly enough. It is not about the thing being smashed at all. It is about destroying someone else's precious thing. It is not a wish to do it. It is the thought that such a thing is possible. It is something that is extremely the opposite of my sentimental nature. I think I am fascinated by the phenomenon of sentimentality itself.
posted by Goofyy at 8:17 AM on January 20, 2009

I get these all the time, especially images of car wrecks. I'd just say it makes me be more cautious when driving.
posted by Lynsey at 10:42 AM on January 20, 2009

Me too. I find they come more often when I'm depressed.

My brain is especially fond of flashing an image of The Car I Didn't See crashing into me when I'm crossing the road. I always look both ways, but I get that flash a lot.

Also the falling-down-the-stairs, and jumping off the subway platform (or pushing someone), swerving into oncoming traffic, jumping over banisters (or leaning on them as they break), and getting knives in the eye. Oh god, the eye thing. My eyesight is really bad, so I think my brain is really fixated on what else could go wrong with them. Sand in the eye! Cat scratches! Knives! Gravel!

Sometimes I think my brain just likes the tiny adrenaline rush of fear, and keeps triggering it for kicks.
posted by heatherann at 12:37 PM on January 20, 2009

This happens to me when I am really hungover.
posted by chugg at 1:06 PM on January 20, 2009

Sure... I always thought a lot of it was rooted in growing up Catholic and reading about the lives of the saints. At a very young age. A lot of really horrific and gruesome stuff. (St. Bartholemew, St. Agatha come to mind.)
posted by citron at 4:44 PM on January 20, 2009

this is such a cool thread. the ones i've had are usually insanely detailed images (think ren & stimpy painted detail scenes) of having my finger or thumb accidentally cut with clinical precision.
posted by Señor Pantalones at 12:40 AM on January 21, 2009

This used to disturb me a great deal when I was younger, and I can distinctly remember it starting when I was six or seven- images of people being sliced apart that I can't recall having ever seen in a movie or anything of that sort. Flying is the only activity that it really complicates these days.

Much more annoying now is the tendency to hear Robert Stack narrating my gruesome death whenever I have to do anything remotely risky like walking home from the bus stop at 1am.
posted by notquitemaryann at 12:44 PM on January 21, 2009

You described them as "images" and "hallucinations." Do you mean thoughts? If so, this topic came up at dinner the other night. A friend was telling me that these are called "intrusive thoughts," and she said something like 90% of the population has them. For example, driving over a bridge and thinking about just jerking the wheel and driving over, or holding a child and thinking about just throwing her down. Not things you would ever do, but they pop in your head nonetheless.

These thoughts are particularly debilitating for the OCD patients she works with. Therapy includes tasks such as cooking: if the patient is concerned about cutting someone with a knife, she will note that the patient is holding a knife, and suggest that the patient cut up the vegetables closer to her, and she points out that the patient is able to restrain from cutting her, no problem. Very interesting.
posted by teragram at 4:03 PM on January 22, 2009

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