Alice in Wonderland Syndrome: The Real Perceptual Disorder That May Have Shaped Lewis Carroll’s Creative World

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land isn’t just a beloved chil­dren’s sto­ry: it’s also a neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal  syn­drome. Or rather the words “Alice in Won­der­land,” as Lewis Car­rol­l’s book is com­mon­ly known, have also become attached to a con­di­tion that, though not harm­ful in itself, caus­es dis­tor­tions in the suf­fer­er’s per­cep­tion of real­i­ty. Oth­er names include dys­metrop­sia or Tod­d’s syn­drome, the lat­ter of which pays trib­ute to the con­sul­tant psy­chi­a­trist John Todd, who defined the dis­or­der in 1955. He described his patients as see­ing some objects as much larg­er than they real­ly were and oth­er objects as much small­er, result­ing in chal­lenges not entire­ly unlike those faced by Alice when put by Car­roll through her grow­ing-and-shrink­ing paces.

Todd also sug­gest­ed that Car­roll had writ­ten from expe­ri­ence, draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the hal­lu­ci­na­tions he expe­ri­enced when afflict­ed with what he called “bil­ious headache.”  The trans­for­ma­tions Alice feels her­self under­go­ing after she drinks from the “DRINK ME” bot­tle and eats the “EAT ME” cake are now known, in the neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal lit­er­a­ture, as macrop­sia and microp­sia.

“I was in the kitchen talk­ing to my wife,” writes nov­el­ist Craig Rus­sell of one of his own bouts of the lat­ter. “I was huge­ly ani­mat­ed and full of ener­gy, hav­ing just put three days’ worth of writ­ing on the page in one morn­ing and was burst­ing with ideas for new books. Then, quite calm­ly, I explained to my wife that half her face had dis­ap­peared. As I looked around me, bits of the world were miss­ing too.”

Though “many have spec­u­lat­ed that Lewis Car­roll took some kind of mind-alter­ing drug and based the Alice books on his hal­lu­ci­na­to­ry expe­ri­ences,” writes Rus­sell, “the truth is that he too suf­fered from the con­di­tion, but in a more severe and pro­tract­ed way,” com­bined with ocu­lar migraine. Rus­sell also notes that the sci-fi vision­ary Philip K. Dick, though “nev­er diag­nosed as suf­fer­ing from migrain­ous aura or tem­po­ral lobe epilep­sy,” left behind a body of work that has has giv­en rise to “a grow­ing belief that the expe­ri­ences he described were attrib­ut­able to the lat­ter, par­tic­u­lar­ly.” Suit­ably, clas­sic Alice in Won­der­land syn­drome “tends to be much more com­mon in child­hood” and dis­ap­pear in matu­ri­ty. One suf­fer­er doc­u­ment­ed in the sci­en­tif­ic lit­er­a­ture is just six years old, younger even than Car­rol­l’s eter­nal lit­tle girl — pre­sum­ably, an eter­nal seer of real­i­ty in her own way.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Beau­ti­ful 1870 Visu­al­iza­tion of the Hal­lu­ci­na­tions That Come Before a Migraine

Behold Lewis Carroll’s Orig­i­nal Hand­writ­ten & Illus­trat­ed Man­u­script for Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land (1864)

Lewis Carroll’s Pho­tographs of Alice Lid­dell, the Inspi­ra­tion for Alice in Won­der­land

Ralph Steadman’s Warped Illus­tra­tions of Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land on the Story’s 150th Anniver­sary

Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land, Illus­trat­ed by Sal­vador Dalí in 1969, Final­ly Gets Reis­sued

Curi­ous Alice — The 1971 Anti-Drug Movie Based on Alice in Won­der­land That Made Drugs Look Like Fun

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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