Meditation can evoke the same experience as hallucinative child fevers.
She drank from a bottle called DRINK ME
And up she grew so tall,
She ate from a plate called TASTE ME
And down she shrank so small
Dear Alice’s fan, this poem by Shel Silverstein is titled ‘Alice’ and now it’s your turn: are you ready to go down the rabbit hole again and be guided in our mind’s wonderland? So, let’s see what the blow up-potion and the shrinking-cake are made of.
When I was a child I could clearly detect when my temperature was rising well above 37 degrees: I started feeling my hands getting as heavy as lead and as swollen as if I was to suddenly transform into Sherman Klump, the Nutty Professor. Then my neck would lengthen as if I was a swan, a flamingo, a giraffe! These were one of the rare moments I would feel tall with my 1.60 m height. You can’t even imagine how difficult it is to keep such a long neck straight: it is so tough to balance the head!
After that my body would shrink as to fit into a nutshell. Finally, the most annoying part, everything around me would get far, far away and then extremely close. After that, back from the beginning: hands, neck, shrink, everything moving. This was the sign to tell my parents I had high fever. Does it sound familiar to you?
After my childhood I have rarely had fever, so these experiences stopped. Until I started meditating. I had the same feelings all over again. And when you are not a child anymore you question whether what you experience is normal, whether you suffer from a terrible disease or you are a weirdo, instead of just accepting your body expressions.
As a consequence I compulsively tried to look for medical symptoms matching my experience. However, it is rather difficult to find keywords that match such a difficult situation. Hallucinations is probably a too generic word, right? But then I found a comparison, I was feeling like Alice in Wonderland! There it was: the Alice in Wonderland syndrome. What I was mainly experiencing was paraschemazia –how could I possibly have figured out this word?-, distortion of my body’s image.
Alice in Wonderland syndrome
The syndrome was first clinically described in 1955 and immediately associated with The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, where such episodes are frequently narrated. Besides my description above, you may also see objects as distorted (metamorphopsia) and the syndrome is frequently associated with migraines or mononucleosis (also known as ‘mono’, or ‘kissing disease’), which may be the cause.
However, my research was not over: there is not much to find in the scientific literature, in particular there is nothing recently published. At last, I was lucky enough to find two contacts: Prof. Dr. Joseph Dooley, from Halifax, and Dr. Grant Liu, from Philadelphia. Both very busy and laconic doctors, which anyway found some time to explain to me that this syndrome is more frequent than we think, although many people are afraid to talk about it and be labelled as lunatics.
In addition, nobody was able to detect whether the origin of the problem was in the brain and how the brain was working while experiencing such episodes. Only Kuo et al. (1998) found an intense activity in the visual cortex during Alice in Wonderland syndrome episodes, but that is not so surprising.
The situation gets more mysterious: while I was investigating on the Alice in Wonderland syndrome I was reading The Wisdom of Yoga by Stephen Cope and came across this passage: “The Friday (meditation) sessions were regularly leading me to pleasant alteration states (…) Sometimes I felt my body becoming as small as a grain of sand, or expanding till becoming like a Macy’s Thanksgiving balloon.” Call it coincidence, call it destiny, the end result is the same: he was describing exactly what I felt! Then suddenly the internet was full of meditators describing that.
In summary: Alice in Wonderland syndrome is not uncommon, but there is no evidence for abnormalities in our mind. The question rises fairly spontaneous: is it a syndrome or rather a normal feature of our brain, after all? In particular, if the mononucleosis’ virus is responsible, this would mean that the major part of us can be affected by the syndrome. In the end, it would be like the annoying cold sores most of us have once a year. Dr. Liu thinks that this cannot be, as he thinks the syndrome is not common enough. But if people do not talk about that, how can we quantify the cases exactly? Thus, I will not be satisfied until I have a thorough explanation, which may or may not ever come.
Now it’s your turn: if you ever felt like Alice in Wonderland, why don’t you describe your own experience?
Copperman SM (1977). “Alice in Wonderland” syndrome as a presenting symptom of infectious mononucleosis in children: a description of three affected young people. Clinical pediatrics, 16 (2), 143-6 PMID: 832438
Kuo YT, Chiu NC, Shen EY, Ho CS, & Wu MC (1998). Cerebral perfusion in children with Alice in Wonderland syndrome. Pediatric neurology, 19 (2), 105-8 PMID: 9744628
Odumade OA, Hogquist KA, & Balfour HH Jr (2011). Progress and problems in understanding and managing primary Epstein-Barr virus infections. Clinical microbiology reviews, 24 (1), 193-209 PMID: 21233512