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Perception, Neurology, and Fiction

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice, (she was so surprised that she quite forgot how to speak good English,) “now I’m opening out like the largest telescope that ever was! Goodbye, feet!” (for when she looked down at her feet, they seemed almost out of sight, they were getting so far off,) “oh, my poor little feet, I wonder who will put on your shoes and stockings for you now, dears? I’m sure I can’t! I shall be a great deal too far off to bother myself about you: you must manage the best way you can—but I must be kind to them,” thought Alice, “or perhaps they won’t walk the way I want to go! Let me see: I’ll give them a new pair of boots every Christmas.”
~ Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Over the past century and a half or so since the original publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a number of scientists, doctors, and literature lovers have speculated as to what the real-world sources of the fantastic elements of Lewis Carroll’s story were.  One interesting suggestion is that Carroll suffered from the altered perception of body size that is sometimes associated with migraines, and this was the inspiration for Alice’s potion-induced shrinking and growing when she first tumbles down the rabbit hole.

While it turns out that the speculation about Carroll is probably incorrect (pdf), the complexity of the human brain leaves it vulnerable to neurological disorders and illusions that alter the perception of the world such that it doesn’t accurately reflect reality. While that can be distressing and debilitating to the person who is afflicted, such alterations can be an excellent inspiration for speculative fiction. What sets SF apart from non-genre fiction is that it often depicts what we would normally consider a delusion as an accurate reflection of reality.

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