In all its dazzling complexity, the human brain can produce remarkable experiences indeed. For some, that means hallucinations of tiny people, dashing about before their very eyes.
Hallucinations of diminutive humans can be entertaining or terrifying depending on whom you ask, and accounts of these ‘microptic’ or ‘Lilliputian’ visions are rather scarce in the scientific literature. In fact, few researchers have tried to figure out what’s behind these strange experiences in the first place.
What are Lilliputian hallucinations?
In the early 1900s, French psychiatrist Raoul Leroy took an interest in sightings of human figures comparable to the tiny inhabitants of Lilliput in Jonathan Swift’s famous 1726 novel, Gulliver’s Travels. To him, it was a mystery of the mind, one begging for a scientific explanation.
“Such hallucinations exist outside of any micropsy, whereas the patient has a normal conception of the size of the objects which surround him, the micropsy bearing only on the hallucination,” Leroy wrote in the introduction of one specific case.
“They sometimes occur alone, sometimes accompanied by other psycho-sensory disorders.”
The small handful of cases curated by Leroy was remarkably diverse, though in general, he noted the visions were colorfully dressed, highly mobile, and mostly affable. Occasionally, the sightings were of individual figures, though most patients reported them as appearing in groups, interacting with the material world as if they were truly present, climbing chairs, squeezing under doors, and respecting the pull of gravity.
Not all experiences were so benign. In one study, Leroy reported a 50-year-old woman with chronic alcoholism who claimed to have seen two men “as tall as a finger”, dressed in blue and smoking a pipe, sitting high up on a telegraph wire. While watching, the patient claimed to have heard a voice threatening to kill her, at which point the vision disappeared, and the patient fled.
“In my previous communication to the Medico-Psychic Society, I said that these hallucinations had a rather pleasant character, the patient looking at them with as much surprise as with pleasure,” Leroy remarked.
“Here, as in the case of MM. Bourneville and Bricon [two other cases], the apparition caused a feeling of dread.”
What we might dismiss as mere delusions Leroy interpreted as possible symptoms of mental illnesses, worthy of classifying so that doctors might come up with better ways to diagnose and even treat the condition.
Influenced by Leroy’s work, a few psychologists attempted to explain the phenomenon. Accounts were mostly limited to untestable hypotheses involving the mysterious workings of the midbrain, or some kind of Freudian regression.
In spite of this early interest, Lilliputian hallucinations don’t feature as a criterion for any diseases in the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems. It seems to be an almost random quirk of the brain.
Charles Bonnet syndrome is one notable exception: It’s a rare disease where hallucinations occur as a result of vision loss. While these hallucinations don’t always take the shape of tiny people (they can be light flashes, or geometric shapes, or even just lines), they can also be of the Lilliputian variety.
A 2021 study on a sample of volunteers with active Charles Bonnet syndrome found their experiences of hallucinations actually increased in frequency and obtrusiveness during the COVID-19 pandemic, most likely due to the loneliness of lockdowns. In some cases, the sizes of Lilliputian hallucinations grew into more human-scale proportions.
or is it a hallucination?