Article Author: Brett J. Weiss
Common in psychosis, extreme survival conditions, and Ayahuasca experiences, the felt presence entails a basic feeling that someone else is present without clear sensory evidence.
- Fifty-five percent of those who have near-death experiences, a minority of schizophrenia patients, and a high frequency of those who use Ayahuasca experience a felt presence.
- A felt presence can be perceived at a specific location and can have defined sets of psychological characteristics, depending on the condition of one experiencing it.
- Felt presence experiences have been associated with disruptions in brain regions that process body position awareness (proprioception).
Those who experience unusual states of mind during psychosis, extreme sports, severe migraines, or psychedelic states frequently perceive a felt presence hallucination. A felt presence is the feeling that someone else is present without clear sensory evidence. Despite its prevalence in disease conditions and its association with psychedelics, many people don’t know about it, and it remains poorly understood.
Published in a non-peer reviewed preprint review, Barnby and colleagues from institutions like the University of London, Vanderbilt University, and the University of Chicago shed light on the prevalence of the felt experience hallucination in conditions like schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease along with psychedelic-induced states. They also describe how the felt presence hallucination manifests across different disease conditions and psychedelic-induced states, with specific locations and psychological characteristics in some cases. The scientists present experimental data suggesting that the felt presence hallucination stems from a disruption in the brain’s body position awareness processing. The findings presented in this review can lay a framework for the study of the felt presence experience with applications for research on the brain regions involved in body position awareness and counseling for those who have the experience.
Felt Presence Hallucinations Entail Feeling Another’s Presence Without Clear Sensory Evidence
To identify what exactly constitutes a felt presence hallucination, Barnby and colleagues turned to human experience accounts – phenomenology. They found that in different sociocultural contexts, the felt presence can have different meanings. For example, in a religious context, the felt presence can be sought after, comforting, and widely accepted in religious communities. On the other hand, a felt presence in disease contexts can be malevolent and distressing. Those with psychiatric diagnoses who experience psychosis often describe a felt presence as fear-inducing. In another context, those who use the psychedelic Ayahuasca often encounter a powerful, mystical, emotionally salient, and sometimes interactive felt presence. Barnby and colleagues’ phenomenology research points to a wide array of attributes, some comforting and others malevolent and fear-inducing, associated with felt presence hallucinations.
To find how prevalent the felt presence hallucination is across disease states and other conditions, Barnby and colleagues turned to surveys of patients. They found that about 46% of schizophrenia patients surveyed had experienced a felt presence, with some of them describing the presence as a ‘guardian angel’ hallucination. Somewhere between 25% and 73% of Parkinson’s disease patients have had a felt presence hallucination. In the general population, around 3% of people have reported a spontaneous felt presence in the last month. What’s more, about 55% of those who’ve had near-death experiences have reported a felt presence. These data suggest that felt presence hallucinations are relatively common and occur frequently in certain disease populations such as schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.
Felt presence case studies in the last century have focused on epilepsy, migraines, oxygen deprivation from mountain climbing, and Parkinson’s disease. Barnby and colleagues reviewed these case studies to find whether certain brain regions could be tied to felt presence hallucinations. From their review, they found that three brain regions were associated with felt presence hallucinations – the temporoparietal junction, the insula, and the frontoparietal cortex. These brain regions compose a neurological network involved in body location processing, integrating sensory information, distinguishing oneself from others, and self-awareness. Furthermore, by electrically stimulating the temporoparietal junction and disrupting the brain’s integration of body location information, Arzy and colleagues were able to induce a felt presence in a person with no psychiatric history. These findings provide evidence for the underlying neurological mechanism behind the felt presence hallucination.
“Recognising [felt presence] as something prevalent and important to those with psychosis is first step, even if [felt presence] is hard to fully grasp at this stage,” say Barnby and colleagues. “We are now in a position for the first time to begin a fully integrated science of [felt presence] – combining psychiatry, neurology, lived experience, philosophy, anthropology, and formal cognitive theory.”
Felt Presence Hallucination Research Can Improve Our Understanding of Proprioception
From psychosis to Parkinson’s disease, near-death experiences to psychedelic states of mind, the felt presence hallucination may be more pervasive than previously accounted for. As such, Barnby and colleagues’ review illuminates possible underlying neurological mechanisms involved and how the felt presence manifests in different disease and psychedelic states. With more research on this form of hallucination, neuroscientists may unravel how we process our body’s location and distinguish ourselves from other people. Moreover, further research could help those with debilitating neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease by developing therapies to help them preserve their ability to neurologically process their body’s position.
Barnby, J. M., Park, S., Baxter, T., Rosen, C. Brugger, P., & Alderson-Day, B. (2022). The Felt Presence experience: From cognition to the clinic.