Hypomania and Sensory Experience

HypomaniaMore than a decade ago, Dr. Suzanne Black, who occasionally writes posts on this blog, got me interested in the sensory experiences associated with hypomania.In our Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the only reference to these is under the heading of “distractibility.” And, indeed, sometimes people who are experiencing intense and profound sensory experiences everywhere they look and listen, may have trouble focusing on a routine task, however describing this as “distractibility” really seems to miss the point.Over the years I found talking about increasingly vivid sensation to be a very useful way of getting people to recall hypomanic episodes. Dr. Black would ask people “have you ever felt as though the colors were brighter, the smells more tantalizing…” and this was a helpful way of broaching the topic of what is so appealing to many people about hypomania.Last month I ran across an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry that is the first scientific article that I have seen on this topic. The author proposed that the intense or hyper – sensory experiences might be particularly common among people with Bipolar Disorder Type II. I’m not sure whether that is true or not, but I do think that the article gives a useful description of experiences that are common for people who experience hypomania and that are not often written about elsewhere, and therefore she may have you wondering whether you’re “going crazy” when you have some of these experiences.

Smells are commonly magnified, especially “smells of nature,” such as grass, rain, dust, flowers, and pollen, but also toiletries, cleaning products, body odors, food, and particularly coffee. Not only is the sense of smell amplified, but it also can persist, with one woman describing the smell of gasoline continuing for 6 hours after exposure.

Tastes are often judged as more acute, more sugary, or “fuller,” especially for spicy, acidic, or tart foods, and they are not always pleasant, e.g., normally liked tastes “feel off,” sugar makes the person feel queasy…

Vision is commonly sharpened, with things appearing brighter or observed vvith greater clarity (especially patterns) or more vividly, and some patients wear sunglasses to diminish the brightness. Vision can become more focused (“l observe only one thing at a time,” “Colors and edges are amplified,” “I see everything with greater resolution and I can’t filter things out – such as a scratch on a table”)…

Hearing can be similarly heightened, with sounds heard more clearly or subthreshold sounds (e.g., cars on a nearby street) heard distinctly while unheard by others in the patient’s presence. Perceptions of sound frequencies may change (“More precise,” “I detect harmonics more acutely,” “I appreciate the sound spectrum more,” “I hear more timbre variation in tones”)….

I would love to hear from readers, and perhaps we can get a discussion going on the forum about these experiences.