Hallucinations and Spirits in Nigeria

Keywords: Hallucinations, spirits, hypnopompic, hypnagogic, mental illness, physical illness, Nigeria.


Hallucinations and Spirits in Nigeria. What does it mean to hallucinate? Are hallucinations caused by spirits? What actually causes hallucinations? Are hallucinations only experienced by the mentally ill?

Globally in history, people often perceived hallucinations as valuable. Many believe that they come from the gods, spirits or the dead, especially in ritual practices. To actually be seen as valuable, the hallucinations must be in accordance with the people’s culture. If the hallucinations are in accordance with the people’s culture, it is believed to have come from supernatural powers. But when the hallucination is not in accordance with the culture, people see it as ‘madness’ or mental illness.

Unfortunately in today’s world, even the Christians can mix up hallucinations with spiritual messages. And some church leaders and members who actually hallucinate will see these hallucinations as prophesies. So when a deep rooted Christians hallucinate, he/she hallucinates about God, Jesus, Mary and the Saints, or even Satan. But when the hallucinations are not in accordance to the religious beliefs, it is ascribed to witches, village people. It can also be ascribed to mother in-laws, etc.

What does it mean to hallucinate?

Hallucination is actually perception without external stimuli. It occurs when someone perceives something which is not physically present, through any of the five senses. The five senses include the eyes, for seeing; the nose for smelling; the mouth for tasting; the ears for hearing. It also has the skin for feeling.

This means that there are 5 types of hallucinations. These include visual hallucinations from the eyes, olfactory hallucinations from the nose and gustatory hallucinations from the mouth. Others are the auditory hallucinations from the ears and the tactile hallucinations from the skin.

Visual hallucinations:

Those who hallucinate via the eyes may see things that are cultural specific, if they are very rooted in culture. But if they are more inclined to religion, their visual hallucinations are tipped to religious contents. So for example, the culture inclined person may see masquerades, mermaids, etc. But those not rooted in culture may see things that are common in their everyday environment. And those with religious contents will include Jesus, Mary, etc.

Olfactory hallucinations:

The person can perceive the smell of dead bodies and burning incense. They can also perceive the smell of rotten garbage, or the smell of sweet smelling flowers. But occasionally, the individual may believe that the smell is from his/her body.

Gustatory hallucinations:

Such persons have strange tastes in their mouths, such as metallic taste, salty or fecal taste.  Normal food may taste rotten.

Auditory hallucinations.

The person will hear the voices of people he/she does not see with their ears, when awake. The different voice(s) maybe one, two or many people talking to the individual. The talking may be directed to the person only. This voice or voices speaking may be telling the individual what to do. And the individual is free to do what the voice has said or refuse to do what the voice has said. For example, the voice may tell the individual to go and take what is not his/hers. The voice can tell the individual to go and prophesy to someone. Many a times the different voices may be talking to each other, leaving the individual as a spectator. Sometimes, the voice will be commenting on the actions of the individual. For example, if the individual is brushing his/her teeth, the voice will comment that he/she is brushing the teeth.

Tactile hallucinations:

In tactile hallucination, the individual will have the feelings that the skin was touched. The touch feeling could be from a hand or from other things like water. The person could have crawling sensations on the skin, or the feeling of a burning or itching skin. Sometimes the individual will feel the cares of a kiss or have the feeling of sexual contact. So the person may believe that she is being raped, when in actual sense, no such a thing is occurring.

Are hallucinations caused by spirits?

When people hear the word hallucination, they think of hearing voices of unseen persons or seeing things others don’t see. And of course most Nigerians believe that hallucinations are due to spirits, since spirits are unseen beings. In Nigeria they believe that there is a relationship between hallucinations and spirits. They believe that hallucinations are ways people use to manipulate others. The belief is that the spirit either possesses the individual or it manipulates the individual from external source.

In history, most people, including Nigerians have always ascribed what they do not understand to the supernatural. This helps to relieve tension and fear of the unknown. But unfortunately science has come to debunk all these myths attached to hallucinations.

What actually causes hallucinations?

Biological factors:

Genetic factors can affect the neurotransmitters in the brain, such as dopamine, serotonin, GABA, and glutamate, etc. There levels can be affected to cause hallucinations.

Traumas and tumors in the brain can compress brain areas and thus lead to hallucinations.

In auditory hallucinations, the areas of the brain involved are speech, understanding speech, hearing, memories and emotions. They have problems. Actually, in auditory hallucinations the voice the person hears is his/her own intrusive thoughts or sub-vocal speech. Such people hear their own sub-vocal voice because their frontal lobe is not working effectively. Everyone has sub-vocal voice, but in healthy people, the frontal lobe inhibits it from being heard as an external voice.

Problems at the areas of the brain responsible for vision can cause visual hallucinations. These areas are actually damaged and for this, they fire excessively, producing the visual hallucinations. Even tumors along the visual pathways can cause visual hallucinations.

For other types of hallucinations, the areas of the brain responsible for their actions are all malfunctioning.

Childhood traumas:

These include physical abuse and neglect, bullying, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and other interpersonal traumas. Those who have been sexually abuse may have tactile hallucinations around their private parts, i.e. vaginal area.

Are hallucinations only experience by the mentally ill?

Anyone can hallucinate, be it those with mental illness, physical illness or those without any form of illness. No one is immune to having hallucinations.

Those who are suffering from mental illness can hallucinate. These include those that have schizophrenia, depression bipolar disorders and post traumatic stress disorder. Others are post partum depression and borderline personality disorder.  People that suffer from seizures, dementias, etc. can hallucinate.

Hallucinations in mental illness:

Those suffering from schizophrenia have visual and auditory hallucinations more often than the other types of hallucinations. The individuals suffering from depression have auditory hallucinations that are in line with their depression. So the voices criticize the individual telling the individual that he/she is bad or worthless. Sometimes the auditory hallucinations will make the person feel guilty about past actions. Even those with bipolar disorder also have auditory hallucinations.

Post partum depression is depression that occurs after the woman has delivered a baby. These hallucinations are centered on the woman’s feelings about her newborn baby and her role as a mother. So the mother can hear the voice of her baby crying when the baby isn’t actually crying. She can hear a voice telling her to kill her baby or telling her that she is incompetent as a mother.

War veterans with post traumatic stress disorders, may hear the voices of people in war areas crying for help. But in actual fact these war veterans are sitting in the comfort of their homes.

Those suffering from borderline personality disorders may have all types of hallucinations. Even those with schizoid personality disorder can hallucinate.

Substance abuse:

 Even those abusing substances can have all types of hallucinations, either during intoxications or during withdrawal. For example, those who use cocaine may have tactile hallucinations of a crawling insect on or under the skin.

Neurological conditions:

Those suffering from seizures can have hallucinations as part of the aura, or between seizures. And they can have any of the five types of hallucinations.

In Alzheimer’s dementia, the hallucination can be of any type, but mainly visual. In Parkinson’s disease, the main type is tactile hallucinations. This presents as insects chewing on the skin of the person. Even those suffering from migraine headaches have visual hallucinations when they see flashes of light.

Physical diseases:

The individuals suffering from physical diseases such as head trauma, ear diseases and hearing loss can hallucinate. Even those with eye diseases can hallucinate.

Those suffering from hearing loss can have auditory hallucinations when they can hear music being played. Or hear the voices of people singing.

Some suffering from blindness can have visual hallucinations where they can see clear and detailed visuals. They can see faces, animals, etc.

Healthy people:

Those who are termed health can also hallucinate. These include the young and the old. And they can have hypnopompic and hypnagogic hallucinations. Hypnagogic hallucinations happen when the person is falling asleep it could be visual or auditory. And the hypnopompic, which is visual, occurs as the person is waking up.

Healthy people who are bereaved or suffering from social isolation can hallucinate. Even excessive fatigue and religious rituals can predispose one to hallucinate.


In this topic of Hallucinations and Spirits in Nigeria, it is now understood that hallucinations are not caused by spirits. Rather they are caused by things one can see and quantify. They are actually the persons own intruding thoughts and sub-vocal speech.

Thus this should go a long way to reduce or stop the stigmatization of people who hallucinate. And also reduce stigma associated with mental illness.

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