Hearing Voices (aka auditory hallucinations)

What is it like to hear voices?

It is difficult to explain what it is like to hear "voices", particularly if you have never heard voices yourself. However, the experience of hearing voices is not as alien an experience as it is generally thought to be. Firstly, it may be the same as hearing a voice in the normal way through your ears, the difference being that the "voice" has no physical cause - but like normal voices, there is variety and every experience has its differences. You may think you have never experienced this, but are you sure? You may have had the experience of hearing someone call your name only to find that there is no one there. Indeed, research shows that especially for people recently bereaved, it is not an uncommon experience to hear the voice of the recently deceased person.

As well as hearing voices through the ears, people also hear voices as if they are thoughts entering the mind from somewhere outside themselves. This is not the same as a suddenly inspired idea, which people usually recognise as coming from themselves, rather the thoughts are not their own and would seem to come from outside their own consciousness, like telepathy. A good example of this is the experience of recalling a rhyme or tune, which you find yourself repeating unconsciously under your breath and which keeps going through your head again and again. You can even find yourself humming it. You never took a decision to start thinking of it and it's difficult to stop thinking about it. The difference between the tune and "voice thought" which appears as words in your mind is that it may go on to speak coherently to you and even engage you in conversation. You, yourself are not responsible for it and you have no idea what this "voice" is going to say next.

There are many different ways to hear voices. Voices can be experienced in the head, from outside the head or even in the body. It may be one voice or many voices. The voice may talk to you or about you. There are other ways to hear voices, some of them make the phrase "hearing voices" a poor description and perhaps one day we will have to come up with a better one - because it is never the same for everyone. Some people for instance, experience non verbal thoughts, images and visions, tastes, smells and touch. All with no physical cause and all sensations they didn't call into being themselves. Voices can be like dreams, we all dream and experience words, images and even sensations. When we are bored we can drift off and have a short dream. When we dream all sorts of strange things can happen to us, but we still believe they're really happening to us. Hearing voices can be like that - a waking dream - but something that is experienced as real. For voice hearers, the voices might be present all day and have the effect of preventing them from doing things in their daily life. Voices might also punish the voice hearer if they don't do what the voice wants them to do. For example; leaving a party on their say so; not being able to talk about the voices; becoming silent and as a result isolated from other people.

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Are voices a symptom of illness or a variety of human experience?

Hearing voices can be a very disturbing experience, both for the person who hears voices and family and friends. Until recently voices were regarded as a symptom of a mental illness and not talked about because they are regarded as a socially stigmatising experience. Hearing voices are still considered by clinical psychiatry as an auditory hallucination and as a symptom of conditions such as schizophrenic disorders, manic depression and psychosis. The usual treatment - major tranquillisers - are administered in order to reduce the delusions and hallucinations. However, not everyone responds to this type of treatment. Psychiatrists, nurses and other professionals have been taught that there is not a lot an individual can do for themselves to cope with the voices. Indeed, in the past professionals were taught not to engage voice hearers about the content of their voice experience as this was thought to be "buying in" to the patients delusions and not helpful. Most often professionals sought to distract the voice hearer from their voices.

Research has shown that there are many people who hear voices, some of whom cope with their voices well without psychiatric intervention, it has also been found that there are many people who hear voices who can cope with their voices and regard them as a positive part of their lives. Neither is it the case that voices have always been regarded as a negative experience. Throughout history and even today there are people who hear voices who find their voices inspirational and comforting. These are facts, that on the face of it are hard to square with the extremely negative way that the experience is regarded by psychiatry. The researchers, practitioners and involved voice hearers believe it is mistaken to regard voice hearing as part of a psychopathic disease syndrome. Rather, they consider it to be more akin to a variation in human experience - if you like, a faculty or differentiation - something like homosexuality, that it is definitely not open to cure.

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Finding meaning in voices

This view may sound radical, but is based on sound research involving questionnaires and interviews conducted with many voice hearers, both within and outside of psychiatry. What was found, was most surprising, voice hearers cope with their voices (or conversely don't), not because of the content of the voice experience (which can be either abusive and devaluing or guiding and inspiring - or both) but because of the nature of the relationship with the voices. Bottom line, this means that if you believe the voices to be in control you can't cope - if you believe you are stronger then the voices are, you can.

As a result of these findings it is no longer a sustainable position to think of voices as part of a disease syndrome, such as schizophrenia. Instead hearing voices can be regarded as a meaningful, real (although sometimes painful, fearful and overwhelming) event, that speak to the person in a metaphorical way about their lives, emotions and environment. For instance, people experiencing distress as a consequence of abusive or commanding voices can often recognise their voices as those of their actual abusers and the voices have the effect of attacking their sense of self esteem and worth.

Having discovered these kinds of relationships psychiatrists and psychologists in the UK and the Netherlands are developing techniques to assist voice hearers focus on their experience and get to know their voices better. The new approach requires the voice hearer to make space for the voices, to listen but not to necessarily follow, to engage, but in their own time and space - essentially to learn how to control them in their own terms, according to their own beliefs and explanatory framework. This acceptance of the voices is crucial to growth and resolution, voice hearers who have learnt these techniques can now say "I hear voices, they are part of me and I am glad they are"

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Practical information for people who hear voices:

Voice hearers can find themselves experiencing an overwhelming world and their power of reason may be virtually extinguished making it impossible to go about their lives. Open discussion with others offers a means of helping you to accept your voices.

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Practical information for family, friends and mental health workers:

To assist voice hearers it is important for mental health professionals to examine in detail which frames of reference and coping strategies seem to be the most useful to the voice hearer. By doing so voice hearers can be supported more effectively in their attempts to deal with their experiences.

The steps in this process are as follows:

Self determination and self knowledge are the keywords.

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Additional Resources

Please follow this link for More information on hearing voices including news, events, organisations, websites and publications.

The information on this page is taken from a variety of sources including the websites and publications listed in this section of the website, as well as comments from visitors to this website. It was last updated on 20 May 2004.

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