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What Is Perception Distortion?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Perception distortion is an abnormality in sensory or psychological perception. This can be the result of psychological disorders, damage to the brain or nervous system, medications, or other potential interruptions to the cognitive processes involved in perception. Research on this subject is a complex topic aimed at understanding what happens when perception goes wrong and how it can be addressed. Sensory perception research involves neurologists, cognitive psychologists, and people in related fields, while self-perception is a subject of interest for psychologists and mental health professionals.

A number of factors are involved in perception, making it very different between individuals. Two people may experience the same event or witness the same scene and provide very different descriptions. Understanding how perception works on an individual level is important for research into larger distortions. For example, if two people witness a crime and one person says the perpetrator had a red shirt while the other claims to have seen a blue shirt, this isn’t distortion. It’s a trick of memory that changes recollections of the scene.

Sensory perception may distort in a number of ways. People can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel phenomena that are not there. A common cause of perception distortion in these cases is a reaction to medication. Some psychoactive medications, for example, can cause hallucinations. Patients can also experience problems because of neurological disorders that lead to mixed or false signals reaching the brain.

Self-perception, the identification of the self, can be distorted by psychological disorders. A common example can be seen in people with eating disorders, who see a fat body in the mirror even as they lose large amounts of weight with tactics like overexercising or not eating enough. Perception distortion can also play a role in the cognitive processes behind some mental health conditions; people may experience a decreased sense of self worth, for example, as part of depression or anxiety disorders.

When a patient suffers from perception distortion, a care provider can explore the topic to learn more about its origins. If the problem is medical in nature, it may be correctable with measures like changing the dose of medication or controlling a neurological disorder more effectively. For psychological conditions, the patient may need therapy, and in some cases could benefit from medications to correct chemical imbalances that can contribute to perception distortion. Some people may participate in research to provide more information about how the brain works and what happens when perception is distorted.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By cloudel — On Jan 29, 2013

@DylanB – Your friend needs professional help. She most likely will need both medication and therapy, and depending on how malnourished she is, she might even need to stay in a hospital for awhile to recover.

Nothing you can say will fix her distorted perception. It's a disease of the mind.

I know it's frustrating. I went through this with my sister-in-law, but nothing I said or did helped. She didn't start to see things clearly until I found her passed out from starvation and took her to a hospital.

By DylanB — On Jan 29, 2013

Is there a way to bring someone's distorted perception back into focus? My friend has an eating disorder, and she can't see how freakishly thin she has become.

I've been telling her for a long time that she needs to start eating, but she won't listen. She looks in the mirror and sees fat that isn't there. Is there anything I can do?

By Kristee — On Jan 28, 2013

I know that depression can distort your views of how other people see you, in addition to your perception of yourself. When I went through depression, I thought that no one wanted to be around me anymore.

In reality, I put a wall around myself that many people tried to penetrate but couldn't. They weren't avoiding me. I was avoiding them.

Therapy helped me clear up my distorted perception of my life. I got a new outlook, and I slowly began to climb out of the hole I was in.

By healthy4life — On Jan 28, 2013

It's scary to think that medication can disrupt signals going to your brain. I have hallucinated on nighttime cold medicine before, and it freaked me out so badly that I quit taking it.

I saw someone in the room who wasn't there. Then, he simply dissipated into the air. I was awake at the time, so it was truly terrifying!

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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