Go Home Alice, You’re Tripping
Why ‘Alice in Wonderland Syndrome’ is more complex than you think
You may have heard of a curious psychological condition known as ‘Alice in Wonderland Syndrome’ (AIWS). Like the literary character who inspired its name, it can involve staggering distortions in our perception of size. Some people get the sense that they’re growing into the size of the room — others, that they’re shrinking to vanishingly small scales.
But the full scope of AIWS is, if you can image, even stranger than this: distortions in perceived size are only the tip of the psychological iceberg. And a more comprehensive look at this syndrome might even lead you to recognize some of its symptoms in your own experience — as, one study showed, up to 30% of us can.
In the 1930s, a British psychiatrist named John Todd started noticing something odd. Some of his migraine and epilepsy patients were frequently reporting transient changes in their perceptions. Two of the most striking symptoms observed were changes in perceived body sizes, with patients reporting becoming much larger or much smaller, along with changes in the size of specific body parts, like hands and feet.
Since the eponymous heroine of Alice in Wonderland has a similarly bizarre experience, Todd decided to name the syndrome after her. With that, AIWS was first introduced in his 1955 paper, ‘The Syndrome of Alice in Wonderland’, in which he gave several case reports about the aberrant perceptual symptoms of his migrainous and epileptic patients.
However, the possible changes in visual perceptions are much more encompassing than changes in size. They can also involve color, texture, and even motion. And understanding the true extent of AIWS will allow us to better recognize how it may manifest in ourselves and others, in addition to giving us a greater appreciation of the diversity of human experience.
Before we dive into a comprehensive list of AIWS symptoms, it will help us to first understand what exactly distortions are. And specifically, we should be careful about…