But what happens when the "correct" explanation is more complex than just blaming the phenomena on paranormal activity?
In comes Charles Bonnet Syndrome (CBS), a disorder that for the most part, is still unknown to much of the paranormal community. However, when you really start to read about this mysterious condition, you can easily see how anyone experiencing it could easily mistake it ghostly, or even demonic, manifestations.
Charles Bonnet Syndrome was first studied in 1760 when the Swiss naturalist, Charles Bonnet, discovered that his 89 year old grandfather, Charles Lullin, was experiencing strange visual hallucinations that only he could see. The elderly man not only knew very well that the people, animals and carriages he was seeing were all in his head, but he didn't show ANY other signs of mental illness or dementia. Bonnet classified these experiences, and over the following decades, more and more information became available concerning this disorder.
What is CBS?
As stated, CBS is a disorder in which the patient is plagued with visual hallucinations. However, it is VERY important to note that these hallucinations have nothing to do with mental illness---they are not psychiatric in nature whatsoever. Rather, these hallucinations are found in people with failing eyesight. Macular degeneration, glaucoma, and cataracts are the most common culprits, but in very rare cases, the visual hallucinations can show up in people with little to no sight loss. The hallucinations are usually only seen during the early stages of an acute loss of vision, and tend occur fairly regularly over a period of 12 to 18 months before disappearing completely. There is no real hard data whether or not men or women are more susceptible, but research does show that people who live alone and/or who have very little social interaction are more susceptible. With the fear of a mental illness stigma, many people simply never report these symptoms to their doctor, which skews the research a tad.
Causes of CBS?
No one is hundred percent sure what causes CBS, but the accepted explanation basically states that when the eyes begin to stop sending signals to the brain, the brain tries to fill in the blanks, so to speak, by creating its own images, or visual hallucinations.
CBS affects each patient differently, and the hallucinations which have been classified have definitely run the gamut. However, there do tend to be some shocking consistencies which strengthen the perception that what is being seen is actually a paranormal manifestation.
Hallucinations can be fairly benign. They can be nothing more than what appears to be bricks or lattice work in the field of vision. However, they can often be a lot more detailed...and scary. Just about anything that can be imagined can be visualized. The hallucinations can include crazy things that never existed in nature, but often are normal, everyday images, such as people and animals.
Hallucinations can be of any size...many times the hallucinations seem to be the "right" size to their environment, but people have also reported people and objects that are shrunken down...or even enlarged. What's really creepy is that many of these hallucinations actually interact with the objects in real life that can still be barely seen by those with failing eyesight. For example, an hallucination of a man might actually sit down on a real-life chair.
What's even CREEPIER is simply the hallucinations of people in general. Disembodied faces of a grotesque appearance can pop up just about anywhere, but more often than not, the patient hallucinates the vision of normal, everyday people...people they have never seen in real life. These "people" will often smile pleasantly at the "observer," but are described as making (and keeping) eye contact for as long as the hallucination lasts, which can last from a few seconds to a few hours. The same images can reoccur over the course of the CBS, which takes the perception of a ghost sighting to the perception of a full-blown haunting.
How is CBS Treated?
There isn't a whole lot people suffering from CBS can do, besides ride it out. There are medications that may decrease disturbing imagery, but they don't always work for everyone. Others have learned through trial and error that changing up their environment is enough to "break" the vision. For example, if the hallucinations come on when they are sitting down, they can stand up and break it. If the light is on, they can turn it off. Again, it doesn't work for everyone, but luckily its rare that the syndrome lasts beyond 18
The website, Damn Interesting, has a wonderful article on Charles Bonnet Syndrome that should be required reading for anyone who researches, studies, or investigates the paranormal, especially those working with clients in the general public. The article goes into a lot more detail and provides examples of the different types of hallucinations, many of which can easily be mistaken for paranormal activity.
And while CBS is a fairly off-beat and little-discussed issue, I hope it inspires all the investigators out there to really encourage their clients to get a full medical check-up, disclosing ALL symptoms to their doctors without worrying about stigmas. Its only when we get full disclosure and look at EVERY possible explanation, can we really get to the truth.