Hallucinators find meaning in noises: pareidolic illusions in dementia with Lewy bodies

Neuropsychologia. 2014 Apr;56:245-54. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.01.017. Epub 2014 Jan 31.


By definition, visual illusions and hallucinations differ in whether the perceived objects exist in reality. A recent study challenged this dichotomy, in which pareidolias, a type of complex visual illusion involving ambiguous forms being perceived as meaningful objects, are very common and phenomenologically similar to visual hallucinations in dementia with Lewy bodies (DLB). We hypothesise that a common psychological mechanism exists between pareidolias and visual hallucinations in DLB that confers meaning upon meaningless visual information. Furthermore, we believe that these two types of visual misperceptions have a common underlying neural mechanism, namely, cholinergic insufficiency. The current study investigated pareidolic illusions using meaningless visual noise stimuli (the noise pareidolia test) in 34 patients with DLB, 34 patients with Alzheimer׳s disease and 28 healthy controls. Fifteen patients with DLB were administered the noise pareidolia test twice, before and after donepezil treatment. Three major findings were discovered: (1) DLB patients saw meaningful illusory images (pareidolias) in meaningless visual stimuli, (2) the number of pareidolic responses correlated with the severity of visual hallucinations, and (3) cholinergic enhancement reduced both the number of pareidolias and the severity of visual hallucinations in patients with DLB. These findings suggest that a common underlying psychological and neural mechanism exists between pareidolias and visual hallucinations in DLB.

Keywords: Acetylcholine; Dementia with Lewy bodies; Pareidolias; Visual hallucinations; Visual illusions.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Alzheimer Disease / complications*
  • Alzheimer Disease / psychology*
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Discrimination, Psychological
  • Female
  • Hallucinations / etiology*
  • Humans
  • Illusions / physiology*
  • Lewy Body Disease / complications*
  • Lewy Body Disease / psychology*
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • Signal Detection, Psychological