Visual hallucinations: When what you see isn’t there |

Visual hallucinations: When what you see isn’t there

It was 1972 when I first saw lightening in the middle of my office. I thought someone had slipped a hallucinogen into my coffee. (Secretly dosing someone’s food and drink with street drugs was a form of humor back then.)

I held on to my chair until the images passed, but the zigzag edges appeared again months later, cutting up the center of my field of vision so I couldn’t read or even watch TV. So what was happening?

That’s a misleading name – ocular migraine – as there is no associated headache. (These visual happenings are also known as eye migraines or ophthalmic migraines.) The symptoms? Some people experience a small blind spot in the center of vision, either alone or perhaps with bright lights or the shimmering zigzag lines that I “saw”. Whatever the particular visual experience, it interrupts normal activities and if you don’t know why you are having eyesight interruptus, it is frightening.

Evidently not. Even if you’re driving I-80 at 75 miles an hour, you can see well enough to pull over until vision becomes normal again. Medical texts say eye migraines can last up to 20 to 30 minutes, with no known aftereffect. Nobody knows the cause, but my experience is that excessive stress brings them on. Others may have different triggers.

There are no specific treatments. Some docs prescribe the same meds used for regular migraine headaches. (You need to talk to your health care professional about the options.) And some people just ride it out, not wanting to get on meds for a condition that is so fleeting.

I find getting into a hot shower and letting the water pour on all sides of my head is a simple solution that works. But I may not be typical and not everyone is at home with a shower handy when their vision goes catawampus.

When an older visually-impaired person begins to see lions, tigers and bears or almost any other apparition, it doesn’t necessarily mean they are demented. It may mean they have Charles Bonnet syndrome. That’s where the brain seems to make up for the lack of visual input by inventing its own movies.

You can imagine that seeing things is pretty startling to anyone who can’t see much at all. Luckily, people who have this syndrome are usually aware that what they are seeing is not real.

The British Medical Journal calls this syndrome “not uncommon”. So why haven’t most people heard of it? My guess is that nobody wants to tell others about their visual hallucinations for fear of being thought crazy.

Older people with deteriorating vision will not be able to read this, so you might do your visually-challenged elders a favor by telling them about Charles Bonnet syndrome. That way they’ll be prepared if a fish shows up in the living room.

Mel Walsh is a gerontologist, author and columnist. Her book, “Hot Granny,” is available at The Book Seller in Grass Valley. Visit Mel at

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