Mass Hallucination, Hysteria & Miracles

by  —  July 12, 2012

The Apparition by Gustave Moreau

Sound thinking and critical reservations were abruptly cast aside in New Delhi during the early morning hours of September 21st, 1995. Statue idols, it seemed, had taken to drinking milk being fed to them by spoon. By what bizarre urging the first pilgrim to report this phenomenon was compelled to test whether a milk offering would pass the lips of a statue is unclear, but the idea rapidly took hold, devolving into a frenzy. The World Hindu Council hastily declared it a “miracle”, and by noon hopeful herds across North India stampeded to the temples leaving trampled bodies wounded underfoot. Police reinforcements were deployed by necessity to restrain outbreaks among the fevered milk-bearing mobs. Faithful conviction ruled the day.

Some believers may well have been unamused — especially those within the ranks of the afflicted and dying — that the gods had chosen such a valueless display with which to affirm their continued beneficent authority, but it was the science-minded unbelievers who were predictably the least impressed… Nor did it take long to figure out what was really going on. Representatives from India’s Ministry of Science and Technology arrived on-scene to demonstrate that what was being witnessed was simple “capillary action”: The surface tension of the milk created an upward pull upon contact with the surface of the statue before the liquid ran downward in a transparent film, while some was absorbed into the porous stones. To illustrate this, the scientists colored their milk with a dye that remained apparent as it coated the statue. When hysteria regarding milk imbibing statues struck again in 2006, the president of the Indian Rationalist Association, Sanal Edamaruku, was quoted in the press, “Forget deities. I fed a cup of coffee to a statue of Jawaharlal Nehru (India’s first prime minister) right before television cameras,” he said, “Even bricks are drinking milk.”[1]

The 1995 “Milk Miracle” hysteria spread throughout the world within the span of several days and has seen recurrences in the years since, despite the oft-repeated claim that the phenomenon was mysteriously confined within a 24-hour span. Faithful supernaturalists have proved predictably unwilling to abdicate their miracle to non-magical explanations. Nor has the lasting insistence that the Milk Miracle remains a mystery unsolved been confined to willfully credulous Hindus. A widely used college-level World Religions textbook states in its 2011 edition, referencing the 1995 incident: “Scientists suggested explanations such as mass hysteria or capillary action in the stone, but the phenomenon lasted only one day.”[2]

To refer to the statement above as merely misrepresentative may be overly kind. “Scientists suggested explanations” indicates befuddled skeptics groping for generalized answers with which to force the inexplicable into a materialist framework. In fact, scientists did more than “suggest” capillary action, they demonstrated it. And it was never an either/or question between mass hysteria or capillary action — capillary action accounted for the illusion of milk drinking statues, while mass hysteria best described the temple-swarming religious fervor that the misattribution of “miracle” provoked. Both capillary action and mass hysteria were perfectly evident. To state that it could have been either/or further suggests confusion among scientists unable to accept a miracle taking place before their eyes, while also unable to come to a consensus amongst each other as to what might account for what was being witnessed.

More flagrantly misleading still are the countless accounts of the Milk Miracle which claim that scientists dismissed the entire event as a “mass hallucination”. The site milkmiracle.com, maintained by an outspoken Milk Miracle true believer, Philip Mikas, states:

There are many sceptics and scientists who have tried to explain what happened on September 21, 1995 in terms of science. Some have repeatedly said that this so-called “Milk Miracle” was caused by something as simple as capillary action. Some have tried to attribute it to a case of “global scale mass hallucination or hysteria”. To them, I would like to say this – there are many things that we just cannot explain with our present levels of science and technology. Perhaps, we will need to look into our souls and discover the secret spiritual powers that we all have before we can fully explain such phenomena.

Oddly, among a great many of the sites that treat the Milk Miracle as an unexplained or paranormal phenomenon, the phrase “global scale mass hallucination or hysteria” is offered as a summary of the skeptical position, always in quotes, never with attribution.

And so it degenerates… the actual explanation rejected, marginalized, obscured, and ultimately re-written to the point that numerous bloggers now treat the question of the Milk Miracle as one of mass hallucination versus paranormal activity, weighing the merits of — or elaborating the flaws in — an explanation that never was.

Presenting the scientific attempt at a rational explanation as a snobbish dismissal of mass eyewitness testimony certainly has its advantages to those who wish to maintain that something otherworldly was plainly observed, and arguments against the mass hallucination theory can be found anywhere believers in the improbable attempt to make their case. Thus, throughout the vast blogosphere, lengthy essays can be found heaping derision upon this scientific folly in favor of claims ranging from Sasquatch’s existence, to the reality of extraterrestrial visitations, to Satanic cults conspiring to enslave the Globe… to any number of implausible and bizarre ideas believed by a resolute minority. Almost universally lacking in these tirades against the close-minded “scientific establishment” is any direct citation of an actual argument in favor of the mass hallucination theory, nor is mass hallucination explicitly defined, its meaning presumed intuitively clear.

On the face of it, the idea of any specific event being attributed to “mass hallucination” sounds ridiculous. It suggests a large number of people suddenly, simultaneously, and spontaneously experiencing an intense, shared, detailed, false or grossly distorted shared perception of an event or events contrary to the reality surrounding them. At its most crudely literal, this would have us interpreting the Milk Miracle as an event wherein masses of individuals merely perceived milk disappearing from their spoons, while in actuality it did not; Sasquatch as a sudden unprovoked mental phantom shared amongst unwitting forest explorers; UFOs as but internal synchronized specters projected upon the empty skies.

But is this what “mass hallucination” actually means? And has there ever actually been an anomalous event for which mass hallucination was offered as a scientific explanation? Or — as with the Milk Miracle — is the idea of Mass Hallucination merely a straw man argument meant to paint the skeptical position as both improbable and patronizing?

*****

A search for “mass hallucination” in the American Psychological Association’s PsycINFO — “an expansive abstracting and indexing database with more than 3 million records devoted to peer-reviewed literature in the behavioral sciences and mental health […] covering psychology back to its underpinnings in the 17th Century” — yields a total of zero articles. Of course, this does not bode well as an indication of the concept’s interest among serious researchers.

However, the concept of “collective hallucinations” — first expounded by French polymath Gustave Le Bon in his 1895 classic book on Crowd Psychology, La psychologie des foules (translated into english as The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind) – has a minimal  presence in psychology books related to Mob Mentality and psychological anomalies.

In The Crowd, Le Bon described inflated suggestibility as a general characteristic of human herds. “[…] a crowd [is] perpetually hovering on the borderland of unconsciousness, readily yielding to all suggestions, having all the violence of feeling peculiar to beings who cannot appeal to the influence of reason, deprived of all critical faculty, cannot be otherwise than excessively credulous.”[3] This excessive credulity, according to Le Bon, primes the crowd to accept, as fact ,“[t]he first perversion of the truth effected by one of the individuals of the gathering”, which then becomes “the starting point of the contagious suggestion.”[4] Collective hallucinations then, by Le Bon’s definition, are the outcome of perceptual interpretations colored by suggestions delivered to a crowd in its throes of thoughtless zeal.

The concept is further expanded upon in a book titled Anomalistic Psychology: A Study of Magical Thinking by Leonard Zusne and Warren H. Jones[5]. There, the authors confront the question of — if an event is presumably hallucinated — how do “2 or 200 people manage to coordinate and synchronize their subjective lives?”

“In collective hallucinations, expectation plays the coordinating role. Although the subjective matter of individual hallucinations has virtually no limits, that of collective hallucinations is limited to certain categories. These categories are determined, first, by the kinds of ideas that a group of people may get excited about as a group, for emotional arousal is a prerequisite of collective hallucinations.”

Collective hallucinations, according to Zusne and Jones, are not spontaneous occurrences, and in accompaniment to “emotional arousal”, there is the prerequisite of “spreading imagery”…

“[…] all participants in the hallucination must be informed beforehand, at least concerning the broad outlines of the phenomenon that will constitute the collective hallucination. This may take the form of a publicly announced prophecy, for example, or someone suddenly looking up and saying, ‘Lo, in the sky!’ or words to that effect.”

And while the imagery preceding the event may only contain the “broad outlines of the phenomenon”, it is important to note that, due to the reconstructive nature of memory, the hallucinations themselves need only be broadly similar…

“Once the general type of hallucination is identified, it is easy to harmonize individual differences in accounts. This may take place during the hallucination or in subsequent discussions.”

*****

As examples of collective hallucinations, Zusne and Jones offer several occasions at various locations in Italy where locals reported “moving and bleeding images of saints”.

Also, in 1981, in Yugoslavia, in a village called Medjugorje, a small group of children reported meeting and speaking with the mythical “Virgin” Mary, whereupon some estimated 11 million pilgrims travelled to the childrens’ village. These pilgrims stared into the sky, toward the sun, looking for Mary’s divine form at an appointed time and place. Interestingly, despite their priming, none of them seemed to manage an actual vision of Mary herself. However, they did report anomalous visions, “such as […] crosses in the sky, double suns”, and some reported “being able to stare at the setting sun without eye damage.”[6]

Similar to the Medjugorje incident, the famous Fatima apparition of 1917 was a mob reaction to reports made by 3 Portuguese children who claimed to have been visited by the ghost of Mary. Here again, reports were less-than-impressive as far as presumably synchronous specific subjective events are concerned. The children, it is claimed, saw the Virgin, while some of the crowd reported seeing the sun “dancing” in the sky, radiant colors, or the sun approaching the Earth… Others still saw nothing at all.

Of course, the sun did not make any aberrant movements that day, as witnessing astronomical observatories could attest. The same sun, visible to much of the world, appeared to be following its daily routine everywhere but where expectations for a miracle found faithful pilgrims looking to the sky in anticipation of something extraordinary.

In both Medjugorje and Fatima, observers were staring into the sunlit sky. Joe Nickell (author and Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry [CSI]) explains, “several eyewitnesses of the October 13, 1917, gathering at Fatima specifically stated they were looking ‘fixedly at the sun’ or ‘tried to look straight at it’ or otherwise made clear they were gazing directly at the actual sun […]. If this is so, the ‘dancing sun’ and other solar phenomena may have been due to optical effects resulting from temporary retinal distortion caused by staring at such an intense light or to the effect of darting the eyes to and fro to avoid fixed gazing (thus combining image, afterimage, and movement).”[7]

If UV-beaten eyes are responsible for reports of Fatima’s dancing sun, Zusne and Jones are unclear as to whether their definition of mass hallucination is meant to describe such illusions for which an organic cause is apparent. In either case, however, the prerequisite conditions of emotional arousal, spreading imagery, as well as the subsequent harmonizing of the narrative from various disparate reports, were clearly extremely influential factors in Medjugorje and Fatima.

*****

 In 2001, Christian apologist Gary Habermas published a paper titled Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: the Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories[8]. Though Habermas explains that he surveyed “over 1,000 critical publications on the resurrection”, he offers no hard numbers with which to qualify his claim of any recent “revival of hallucination theories”. In vague terms, he reports, “more scholars apparently support various naturalistic hypotheses [to account for the biblical claim of Christ’s resurrection] than has been the case in many decades. […] Of those who now prefer hallucination explanations, however, only a few scholars have pursued this approach in detail, while several other scholars simply mention the possibility of, or preference for, the hallucination thesis.”

A preference for “the hallucination thesis” opposed to what, one wonders? Opposed to other “naturalistic hypotheses” (such as the quite obvious explanation that the New Testament is a poor fictional work from the start) mass hallucination weighs in rather weakly; opposed to accepting the resurrection myth at its face value, however, mass hallucination can clearly be assigned a much higher probabilistic value by mere virtue of being a naturalistic hypothesis. Missing this point completely, Habermas asks, “[…] why must a naturalistic, subjective explanation be assumed?”

Though the question is presented rhetorically, there is sound rationale for assuming naturalistic explanations. To begin, while there is ample cross-cultural research demonstrating the human tendency to embrace superstition and to exert self-deceiving confirmation biases, there is no such research at all that satisfactorily demonstrates any supernatural phenomena. For that matter, supernatural forces are, by definition, not observable — they cannot be recorded, transcribed, traced, or measured by scientific procedure. As we can never isolate a mechanistic cause of a supernatural event, we are left with simply no other option than exhaust all naturalistic options first.

Further, history provides hard lessons in the unreliability of even large consensus accounts. The archaic minds of Christian philosophers, from Augustine to Thomas Aquinas, took seriously claims of demonic assaults upon humanity by mere virtue of the claims’ ubiquity, Aquinas even insisting that reports of demonic voices could not have been imaginary as they were reported to be heard to all within earshot.[9] From this logic, prosecutions and brutal purgings of “witches” were deemed sound and fair due to their multiple corroborating witness accounts.

Habermas goes on to contest Zusne and Jones’s description of collective hallucination as it might be applied to the myth of Christ’s resurrection, though he concedes that Zusne and Jones themselves wrote of collective hallucinations “without any application to Jesus’ resurrection”. Further, none of the only three authors from this “revival” of hallucination theories Habermas explores — as examples of those who share a “hallucination theory preference” — invoke Zusne and Jones’s collective hallucination definition to support their positions. Nor are these authors unclear as to what they themselves mean when referring to the resurrection as a hallucination.[10] Of the three authors Habermas disputes, only German theologian Gerd Luedemann advances an explanation directly born of an established collective hallucination theory. Invoking Le Bon, Luedemann describes the appearance of the resurrected Christ to “more than 500 brethren” as “mass ecstasy” stimulated by the “preaching and the recollections” by Peter and the twelve disciples who saw Jesus die on the cross. This proselytizing devotion, according to Luedemann, “led to religious intoxication and an enthusiasm which was experienced as the presence of Jesus[…]”

Summarizing this without offering a direct counterpoint, Habermas goes on to protest against hypotheses published by two more theologians, Jack A. Kent and Michael Goulder. Kent, in his book The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth, proposes that Jesus’s cult individually “experienced grief-related hallucinations or illusions following the traumatic death of their leader”.[11] Kent details the Gospel accounts of “the Easter morning events” and notes that they are “inconsistent, contradictory, and inconclusive”, though he argues that “Mary Magdalene and the disciples did see what they believed were ‘appearances’ of Jesus but those ‘appearances’ were grief-related hallucinations or illusions.”

Likewise, Goulder, in his essay The Baseless Fabric of a Vision[12], describes Peter’s vision of the resurrected Christ as a personal vision — a conversion vision — which he likens to violent conversions reported throughout history wherein the convert typically describes visions accompanying an intense feeling of revelation. As an example, Goulder cites Manson Family murderer Susan Atkins’ prison conversion, which she described in visual terms, with Christ personally appearing to her offering consolation and forgiveness.

The appearances of Christ to the apostles or the 500 brethren, however, are seen as a collective delusion by Goulder, which he likens to today’s Bigfoot phenomenon. With both Bigfoot and Jesus expectation and popular enthusiasm precipitated sightings. “If you sighted Bigfoot, you were the centre of attention; people spoke about you; the press sought you out. If you sighted Jesus, you confirmed the Church’s hopes, and your own.”

Despite these descriptions of purely personal hallucinations acting to precipitate group delusions of resurrection, Habermas — after breezily under-summarizing each author’s actual position — disingenuously states: “One of the central issues in this entire discussion concerns whether a group of people can witness the same hallucination.” In fact, this appears only to be the central point that Habermas was predetermined to argue, while his survey of “over 1,000 critical publications” seems to have yielded little to indicate that this was ever at issue.

*****

From the few academic descriptions available, authored by Le Bon and Zusne and Jones, we see that collective hallucinations are not intended to describe spontaneous herd occurrences of perfectly matched phantasmagoria. Nor is it irrelevant to emphasize the difference in terminology: collective hallucination, as opposed to the often-invoked mass hallucination which, while subtle, further reinforces the suspicion that those arguing against mass hallucination theory (in favor of their cherished chosen implausibility) are in fact inveighing against an imaginary opposition.

While “collective hallucinations” find a negligible presence in psychological literature, “mass hallucination theory” is disproportionately invoked as the primary — if not only — explanation offered to counter extraordinary claims for which there are (presumably) multiple corroborating witnesses. So long as this position is maintained, arguments for paranormal events are presented as less incredible than the alleged scientific alternative: that a mass of people all at once spontaneously shared a detailed mental vision, much like a group of people watching a film, and collectively mistook this shared vision for an external physical reality.

When “mass hallucination” is said to be the scientific counterpoint to any claim, it is worth asking, By which scientists? Where? What other explanations have been proposed? and, of course, “Mass hallucination” meaning what, exactly? Upon inspection, we find that the idea of mass hallucination as the fall-back end-all “scientific” position toward the inexplicable is, in itself, nothing more than a desperately crafted mass delusion… a bullshit argument — attributed to rational arguments against bullshit — that is meant to make said rational arguments look like bullshit.



[1] 2006. Agence France-Presse (AFP). Miracle or Mechanics. Taipei Times (Aug. 31). Available at http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/lang/archives/2006/08/31/2003325667

[2] Fisher, Mary Pat. 2011. Living Religions Eighth Edition, Prentice Hall (pp. 90)

[3] Le Bon, Gustave. 1982. The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind — 2nd ed. Larlin Corporation (pg. 21)

[4] ibid. (pg. 23)

[5] Zusne, Leonard; Jones, Warren H. 1989. Anomalistic Psychology: a study of magical thinking — 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

[6] ibid.

[7] Nickell, Joe. 2009. The Real Secrets of Fatima. Skeptical Inquirer volume 33.6 November/December. Available at http://www.csicop.org/si/show/real_secrets_of_fatima/

[8] Habermas, Gary. 2001. Explaining Away Jesus’ Resurrection: the Recent Revival of Hallucination Theories. Faculty Publications and Presentations (Liberty University). Available at http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1106&context=lts_fac_pubs

[9] Aquinas, Thomas. 1782. Contra Gentiles, lib. III, cap. cvi (Opera, vol. XVII, Venice, pp. 314-15) [cited in Cohn, Norman. 1973. Europe’s Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom — revised edition, University of Chicago Press (pp. 251)]

[10] Nor are any of these authors, to be perfectly clear, scientists. Habermas is careful to refer to them as scholars, but they are all theologians.

[11] Kent, Jack A. 1999. The Psychological Origins of the Resurrection Myth. Open Gate Press (pp. 21)

[12] D’Costa, Gavin ed. 1996. Resurrection Reconsidered. Oneworld Publications (pp. 48 – 61)

Marked as: Belief SystemsBuncoReality FramesScience  —  3 comments   (RSS)

3 Comments so far
  1. jeanettebartha July 15, 2012 7:41 am

    Wonderful article.

    You leave me wondering if “global scale mass hallucination or hysteria” can also be attributed to thoughts as we see in the collective agreement to believe in the existence of multiple personalities/alter selves?

    In the examples you highlight, could not the “destination” be the office of a psychotherapist? Surely that is where those who thought, or believed, in multiple selves flocked.

  2. Altus July 17, 2012 10:27 am

    “…if an event is presumably hallucinated — how do “2 or 200 people manage to coordinate and synchronize their subjective lives?”

    You know I really never thought of this. Excellent critical debunking of the notion of “mass hallucination.”

    I have thought for some time that belief systems are only as successful as the host culture they are being introduced into is receptive. You didn’t have Pentecostalism catching fire in Germany but it took off like wildfire in rural Latin American where mythical beliefs flourished. It’s like heath, a virus is often only as strong as its host is weak. What I didn’t think of was how small the spark need be—someone with a vision, a few “experts” on the subject. When the culture is receptive, you don’t need and as you point out, two or more people getting their delusions from some shared supernatural event, which seems, given the nature of the brain to be impossible, just some people who are inclined to believe the myth, through shared information/bias, perhaps followed by a second wave willing to suspend their disbelief and before you know, the masses have come to believe.

  3. doug August 7, 2012 1:34 pm

    My apologies for such a delayed reply to the comments above.

    Jeanette — I do see parallels to Zusne and Jones’s description of collective hallucination and persisting notions of Multiple Personality Disorder, particularly in the “therapeutic” technique of “recovered memory” treatment. Recovered Memory Therapies have proven to be a sometimes subtle (sometimes not as much) “harmonizing of accounts” between the therapist, bent upon surfacing a presumably repressed trauma, and the client who, once subscribing to the therapist’s account, feels compelled to make it fit. Confirmation bias is flagrantly encouraged in this process, and bad dreams, negative thoughts, virtually any flaw imaginable is seen as evidence of repression.
    While the Fatima observer might mold the memory of retinal distortion into a distinct image of a dancing sun, so the recovered memory therapy client molds broken images of childhood — which have been “therapeutically” contextualized for her as a root of fear, phobia, neurosis, and depression — into images of abuse. Specialists in Dissociative Identity Disorder stir up a panic and then yell “Lo! In the sky!” for a living.
    As Altus points out, all it takes is somebody with a vision (or delusion, or demetia) and a few “experts” in the right environment. Of course, the time was ripe at the beginning of the Multiple Personality/Satanic Panic fraud, with a perfect storm of conservative religious interests intersecting with those of some feminists and finding common ground in amplified fears of religious cults and a growing daycare culture.

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