‘Inner Voices’: Hearing the Voice in the Guardian

Hearing the Voice is delighted to draw our readers’ attention to ‘Inner Voices’ – a series of blog posts and short articles on voice-hearing and related issues published online by the Guardian.

Written by Hearing the Voice researchers, the articles in the series explore the scientific, philosophical and literary aspects of hearing voices.  Topics covered include the latest research into voice-hearing in people who do not have a psychiatric diagnosis, the neural mechanisms underlying ordinary inner speech and experiences of hearing voices, as well as the representation of voices and inner speech in literary works such as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Hilary Mantell’s Beyond Black and Samuel Beckett’s Ohio Impromptu, among other issues.

The series also contains the interim findings of the “Writers’ Inner Voices” project – a qualitative study of literary creativity, designed to explore the complex ways in which writers experience the voices, presence and agency of the characters and people they bring to life.

The ‘Inner Voices’ series is available in full here.

In order of publication, the Hearing the Voice posts are:

Hearing the Voice would like to thank the Edinburgh International Book Festival and the editors of Guardian Books and Guardian Science  for making the series possible, and providing us with such a fantastic opportunity to reach new audiences and engage the public in our research.

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‘Talking to the Voices in Our Heads’ by Sam Wilkinson and Felicity Dreamer

In a recent piece for the Guardian’s Inner Voices series, Dr Sam Wilkinson (Postdoctoral Research Associate in Philosophy, Hearing the Voice) and Dr Felicity Dreamer (Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Language and Mental Health Project) write:

Somebody hears a voice, but nobody is speaking. It seems reasonable to assume that there is something going on in the head of this person that is similar to what is going on in the head of somebody actually hearing someone speak. The challenge is to explain why this is happening in the absence of a speaker.

One popular strategy is to explain it in terms of someone’s ordinary “inner speech” somehow becoming “loud”. This will explain why somebody has an auditory, and specifically verbal, experience in the absence of sound waves hitting their eardrum. However, it does not explain why so many cases of voice hearing are perceived to come from another speaker.

Perhaps we need to think outside the box. Perhaps we should not focus on sounds and how hearing works, but rather on communication and how that works. There are a number of reasons not to focus on audition. One is that some voice-hearers describe an experience of “soundless voices”. For example, one participant in a recent study told us: “It’s hard to describe how I could ‘hear’ a voice that wasn’t auditory; but the words used and the emotions they contained were completely clear, distinct and unmistakeable, maybe even more so than if I had heard them aurally.”

Another is that “voices” are also experienced by congenitally deaf people. Jo Atkinson, a researcher in London, has done very important work correcting the “audio-centrism” of mainstream clinical perspectives on voice-hearing. She has shown that deaf voice-hearers experience vague visual imagery like being addressed in sign-language, or of disembodied lips. At other times they see text. But they do not have auditory experiences at all.

What has been overlooked is an aspect of how we normally perceive speech. The usual conditions of someone speaking, and one’s understanding them, do not only involve the sounds that they make, but also what they intend to communicate. The study of communication is the territory of pragmatics, the branch of linguistics that studies utterances rather than sentences. Utterances are sentences used in context, at a particular moment and place, by a particular person.

It is important to recognise that a voice-hearing experience is the experience of a spoken utterance, not a sentence. So on hearing an utterance, a hearer will automatically interpret its meaning. It is this interpretation process that might be able to explain why there so often is a speaker (eg a person, a demon, or a god) behind the voice. In order to interpret the meaning of an utterance, a hearer must consider the intentions behind its use at that moment. In fact, some theorists in pragmatics argue that you can never get any meaning out of an utterance without attributing some kind of intention. And intentions are never free-floating: they are always the intentions of someone (or something with a mind).

A voice-hearer might hear the utterance “He is a loser”. Without knowing whom the speaker is referring to, the hearer can’t know what is meant by that utterance. And yet it seems that voice-hearers generally know who is being referred to in their voices, and what the voices mean. This suggests that the voice-hearer takes there to be a speaker behind the voice, with an intention to communicate.

Within this approach, where voice-hearing experiences are primarily viewed as communicative rather than auditory, it becomes less surprising that the voice is taken to come from a speaker, since this is a necessary dimension of all communication.

This points us in fruitful therapeutic directions. It indicates that therapies shouldn’t solely focus on getting the voice, the auditory experience, to simply go away, but instead aim to change the voice-hearer’s relationship towards the voice (the speaker). Two recent therapies are in keeping with this. In one, voice-dialoguing, a therapist encourages the voice-hearer to repeat what the voice says so that the therapist can “converse” with it. In another, avatar therapy, the voice-hearer is encouraged to build an avatar – a visual representation of the voice – with which they can interact as though it were a real person. Both have shown promising results.

This article was originally published here in the Guardian’s ‘Notes and Theories’ science blog on 26 August 2014.

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‘Hearing voices allowed Charles Dickens to create extraordinary fictional worlds’ – by Peter Garratt

In a recent piece for the Guardian’s Inner Voices series, Lecturer in English Studies and participating researcher in the Hearing the Voice Project Dr Peter Garratt writes:

Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust (1934) ends with its protagonist, Tony Last, trapped in the Brazilian jungle by his captor, Mr Todd, who compels him to read aloud the complete works of Charles Dickens, in sequence, over and over, without end – or escape. It’s a fantastically dark conceit: the great Victorian novelist as the sadist’s accomplice. It also links Dickens to the possibility that there is something potentially oppressive, even imprisoning, in experiencing the human voice. Voices, it suggests, may tyrannise the mind.

Waugh linked Dickens elsewhere with hearing voices. In The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold (1957), most notably, the middle-aged writer Pinfold suffers an acute mental crisis while at sea, repeatedly hearing the thrum of human voices coming from the ship’s pipes. Or so he assumes: in fact, these voices are persistent, imaginary, and unsolicited – that is, auditory verbal hallucinations, seemingly related to Pinfold’s dependency on alcohol and sedatives (Waugh wrote from first-hand experience). The voices follow Pinfold around wherever he wanders on the ship, causing increasing perturbation. And the ship’s captain has the unmistakably Dickensian name Steerforth (after James Steerforth in David Copperfield, another sadistic master).

Most modern readers may feel instinctively that literary experience has much in common with the act of overhearing. Reading fiction is a process of allowing characters’ voices to sound in the inner ear, and absorbing the imagined noise they make (magically cued by curls of ink on a page). It’s common to think of writers, too, building fictional worlds through voices, as if creativity begins as a subtle internal overhearing. The analogy between imagining and hearing certainly runs deep in our myths of culture. Inspiration, that theory of composition at once ancient, Romantic, and modern, tells us that creativity ignites by admitting some mysterious other voice into the writer’s flow of being. To write means having one’s voice disrupted, taken over, rendered by another. Dickens believed this, too.

Later in his career, Dickens’s vocal impersonations of his own characters gave this truth a theatrical form: the public reading tour. Although wisdom has it that “doing” the different voices of his cherished characters hastened his death, no other Victorian could match him for celebrity, earnings, and sheer vocal artistry. The Victorians craved the author’s multiple voices: between 1853 and his death in 1870, Dickens performed about 470 times. “Amid all the variety of ‘readings’, those of Mr Charles Dickens stand alone,” beamed the Times in 1868. Edgar Johnson, his first post-Freudian biographer, wrote in the 1950s: “It was [always] more than a reading; it was an extraordinary exhibition of acting that seized upon its auditors with a mesmeric possession.”

Hearing voices and inventing character were also indivisible aspects of his creativity. Dickens understood his astonishing writing practice as the summoning of voices. “Every word said by his characters was distinctly heard by him,” one critic stressed in 1872. Dickens himself considered his novels to come from some autonomous source beyond volition, as he wrote to his friend John Forster: “when I sit down to my book, some beneficent power shows it all to me, and tempts me to be interested, and I don’t invent it – really do not – but see it, and write it down”. How literally he meant this is hard to judge. But allowing in unsolicited presences was central to his self-understanding as a writer. Mrs Gamp, the disreputable nurse from Martin Chuzzlewit, intruded repeatedly on Dickens when he was writing that novel, “whispering to him in the most inopportune places – sometimes even in church – that he was compelled to fight her off by force”, as the American writer JM Peebles later put it.

Like mesmerism, which he took up, illusion and hallucination were topics of serious interest to Dickens. An essay of 1857, My Ghosts, published in his own journal Household Words, explored these fragile mental states. And his fiction features unanchored voices, such as in his 1866 Christmas story The Signal-Man, which begins with the sudden intrusion of an unidentified voice bellowing “Halloa!” out of nowhere. Members of the international hearing voices movement today argue that voices represent a part of the person that wants to be heard and acknowledged. Whether modern theories help us to better understand Dickens, or vice versa, seems unclear. But he was an exemplary source of voices, as both a writer and performer, in ways that should ask us to consider how we culturally frame literary creativity, inner speech and audition, and unusual mental experience.

This article was originally published here in the Guardian’s Books blog on 22 August 2014.

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‘Hilary Mantel and Virginia Woolf on the sounds in writers’ minds’ – by Pat Waugh

In a recent piece for the Guardian’s Inner Voices series, Professor of English Studies and Co-investigator on Hearing the Voice, Pat Waugh, writes:

In the last note she scribbled to her sister, Vanessa, in March, 1941, Virginia Woolf wrote: “I feel I have gone too far this time to come back again. It is just as it was the first time, I am always hearing voices, and I know I shant get over it now … I have fought against it, but I can’t any longer, Virginia.”

The next day, she plunged into the River Ouse, her pockets weighted with stones. At 59, Woolf could no longer summon the inner resources to contend with the voices, turned unruly, clamorous and calamitous, that arrived unsolicited, but as if by appointment, each time she finished a novel. In the measured cadence of composition, her racing thoughts, “heard as voices … danced up and down, like a company of gnats, each separate, but all marvellously controlled in an invisible elastic net” (To the Lighthouse).

Mrs Dalloway (1925) is the only one of Woolf’s novels that explores how inner voices might engulf the self so that the mind tips into pathological breakdown. She described it as her most autobiographical and yet her most social novel – “I want to explore the social system,” she said, “set sanity and insanity side by side”. In writing it, she produced a postwar satirical anatomy that ventriloquised brilliantly the voices of a class-ridden, militaristic and patriarchal culture – the “violators of the soul” – voices so deeply internalised that only the sensitive and the marginal might hear them gather into a furious roar.

Many writers, like Woolf, hear voices and see images so intensely they take on the presence of the real. Many have incorporated such intense “hearsights” (Hilary Mantel‘s term), with similarly tragic or melancholic or traumatic intensity, and used them as vehicles for addressing experiences such as shellshock, sexual abuse, slavery, torture and human violation, as well as madness and the sources of creativity in inner experience (think of the echolalic voices of Heart of Darkness, The Waste Land or Beloved). But we forget how often writers have used the resources of comedy, too, in order to examine the nature and meanings of their voices. As Mantel suggests in the tile of her novel, Beyond Black (2005) : it needn’t all be black. From Charles Dickens, Samuel Beckett, Evelyn Waugh and Muriel Spark to Salman Rushdie, Jonathan Coe and Don DeLillo, the comic novel is a rich source for depictions of and reflections on the experience of hearing voices.

In her essay Ink in the Blood, on the relation between illness, voices and writing, Hilary Mantel acknowledges affinities with Woolf in terms that indicate her greater affinity with the corporeal and the modes of the grotesque and the comic. But where Woolf is the modernist writer of melancholia, Mantel is the contemporary who, in Beyond Black, takes the comic novel to places it has never been. A black comedy-cum-ghost story state-of-the-nation-satirical-fantastical novel proposing ways in which we might expand our notions of selfhood and the real, it is her most audacious book. Alison, a woman battling with the demons of an abusive childhood, comes to recognise that her attunement to pain and suffering, her ability to externalise her inner voices and her hyper-vigilant awareness of the mental lives of others, is a kind of a gift as well as an affliction. With all the panache of her own creator, she reinvents herself as a colourful neo-Victorian medium, one who effects a performance of herself in order to minister to the haunted, the demented, the bereaved, the spiritually rudderless, as well as the good citizens of a contemporary spiritual wasteland.

Where Woolf reinvents the social novel by merging her own contradictory inner voices into the melancholic rhythms and echoes of war-torn and traumatised London circa 1919, Mantel dares, equally riskily, to blend the techniques of the conventional trauma novel (amnesia, broken narrative, haunting, flashbacks, suicide, abuse and abandonment) with those of classic black comedy (surreal juxtaposition, gallows humour, satire, the grotesque and the reduction of the human to a machine).

Why do some writers favour the confessional or the tragic, others the irreverently comic? The history of trauma has swung periodically from the spiritual to the material, the psychogenic to the physiological. But approaching the fiction of madness as an attempt to understand the relation between the inner voices that bring into being the work of fiction, and those that threaten to destroy the very integrity of the self, makes us aware of the unfathomable complexity of what it feels like to be a self or to lose that feeling: the self not as an endocrine system but an experience straddled across body, mind, environment, language and time. For writers like Woolf and Mantel, afflicted in body and mind, haunted by voices, but gifted with kinds of visionary genius, the profession of novelist, the performance of a necessary negative capability, might be the only way of feeling that one is indeed a self.

This article was originally published here in the Guardian’s Books blog on 21 August 2014.

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‘Talking to ourselves: the science of the little voice in your head’ – by Peter Moseley

In a recent piece for the Guardian’s Inner Voices series, Psychology PhD student Peter Moseley writes: 

Most of us will be familiar with the experience of silently talking to ourselves in our head. Perhaps you’re at the supermarket and realise that you’ve forgotten to pick up something you needed. “Milk!” you might say to yourself. Or maybe you’ve got an important meeting with your boss later in the day, and you’re simulating – silently in your head – how you think the conversation might go, possibly hearing both your own voice and your boss’s voice responding.

This is the phenomenon that psychologists call “inner speech”, and they’ve been trying to study it pretty much since the dawn of psychology as a scientific discipline. In the 1930s, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that inner speech developed through the internalisation of “external”, out-loud speech. If this is true, does inner speech use the same mechanisms in the brain as when we speak out loud?

We have known for about a century that inner speech is accompanied by tiny muscular movements in the larynx, detectable by a technique known as electromyography. In the 1990s, neuroscientists used functional neuroimaging to demonstrate that areas such as the left inferior frontal gyrus (Broca’s area), which are active when we speak out loud, are also active during inner speech. Furthermore, disrupting the activity of this region using brain stimulation techniques can interrupt both “outer” and inner speech.

So the evidence that inner speech and speaking out loud share similar brain mechanisms seems pretty convincing. One worry, though, is whether the inner speech we get people to do in experiments is the same as our everyday experience of inner speech. As you might imagine, it’s quite hard to study inner speech in a controlled, scientific manner, because it is an inherently private act.

Typically, studies have required participants to repeat sentences to themselves in their heads, or, sometimes, count the syllables in words presented on a computer screen. These lack both the spontaneity of typical inner experiences and the conversational quality (think of the conversation with your boss) and motivational purposes (“Milk!”) of inner speech. Although the experience is undoubtedly different for everyone (not everyone reports having “conversations” in their head, for example), what does seem clear is that inner speech is a complex and multifaceted phenomenon.

Why does it matter whether we have an accurate understanding of what’s going on in our brains when we use inner speech?

One reason is that understanding typical inner experience may be the key to understanding more unusual inner experiences. For example, psychologists have argued that hearing voices (“auditory verbal hallucinations”) might simply be a form of inner speech that has not been recognised as self-produced (although there are also important competing theories). Neuroscientists have found some evidence in favour of this theory. When they scanned the brains of people who reported hearing voices, they discovered that many of the same areas of the brain are active during both auditory hallucinations and inner speech. Broca’s area, for example, is often active in people when they’re hearing voices.

But if we really want to know what the difference between what happens in the brain during inner speech and voice hearing – and how inner speech might become hearing voices – then first we need to understand what our internal talk is usually like. A recent study by researchers in Finland attempted to address flaws in previous brain-imaging studies of inner speech. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), they studied the difference between activity in the brain when participants experienced an auditory verbal hallucination, and when they deliberately imagined hearing the same voice. In this way, they controlled for aspects of the experience such as the sound and the content of the voice.

They found the main difference between the two conditions was the level of activation in a cortical region known as the supplementary motor area (SMA), which contributes to the control of movement. When participants heard voices, there was significantly less activation in the SMA, which fits with previous hypotheses suggesting that recognising actions as one’s own might rely on signals from motor cortical areas reaching sensory areas of the brain.

Of course, none of this is to say that understanding what happens in the brain is the only, or the most important, aspect of research into hearing voices. We also need to understand what the experience is like, how we can help people who are distressed by it, and when there’s a need for psychiatric care. But to do any of this, we first need to know what typical inner speech is like, and the underlying neuroscience is part of that understanding.

This article was originally published here in the Guardian’s ‘Notes and Theories’ science blog on Thursday 21 August 2014.


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Researching Voice-Hearing Without Diagnosis: A Call for Participants

Ben Alderson-Day writes: If you have been following the project recently you may have seen some of our posts on Inner Voices for the Guardian, including Pete Moseley on the neuroscience of inner speech, Pat Waugh on the voices of Hilary Mantel and Virginia Woolf, and Marco Bernini’s take on inner speech and Samuel Beckett.

Last week I wrote a post on voice-hearing in people who don’t have psychosis or any other particular mental health problem (If you missed it, it’s still up here). At the end of that post we asked for people to get in touch if they have had experiences of voice-hearing, but haven’t needed psychiatric care.

We’ve had a great response so far, with lots of people getting in contact – but we would still like to hear from more. In particular, we would like to hear from people who are based in the UK and might be interested in taking part in some research in the future.

It’s really important that researchers get to hear from people who have had voice-hearing experiences but either haven’t been distressed by them, or haven’t needed to seek professional help. Why? Because firstly, it allows us to get a better idea of how common (and how normal) these experiences might actually be. And secondly, it could eventually help us to help others who are in distress, by looking at how voice-hearing works when it isn’t necessarily a problem. If that sounds like your experience, please get in touch.

If you have had an experience of voice-hearing without need for psychiatric care, contact us at Hearing the Voice.

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‘Samuel Beckett’s articulation of unceasing inner speech’ by Marco Bernini

In a recent piece for the Guardian’s Inner Voices series, our Postdoctoral Research Fellow in English Studies Dr Marco Bernini writes:

In a letter to Alan Schneider in 1957, Samuel Beckett wrote that: “My work is a matter of fundamental sounds (no joke intended), made as fully as possible, and I accept responsibility for nothing else. If people want to have headaches among the overtones, let them. And provide their own aspirin.”

This laconic statement has nourished a vast array of critical readings focusing on the sounds of words and the presence of music in Beckett’s fictional worlds. However, undoubtedly the most ubiquitous sound in Beckett’s work is that of the mysterious voices buzzing, murmuring or whispering within the heads of his characters. To borrow from the narrating figure in The Unnamable (1953), the narrative core of Beckett’s dark universes seems to be “all a matter of voices; no other metaphor is appropriate”. The question is: to what extent are voices in Beckett’s fiction just metaphorical presences?

The qualities of Beckett’s voices (alien, autonomous, without a recognisable source, and having aggressive or commanding contents) resonate with and sometimes even match the phenomenology of auditory verbal hallucinations (hearing voices in the absence of external stimuli).

From psychologist Louis Sass and philospher Gilles Deleuze, who first spoke of a “schizoid voice” in Beckett’s work, to investigators on the recent Beckett and Brain Science project, critics have highlighted correspondences between the distorted perceptions of Beckett’s characters and a wide gamut of psychiatric disorders. Nonetheless, this pathological framework of interpretation can be, if not reversed, at least complemented by non-pathological approaches which draw on contemporary cognitive research.

In fact, recent research in cognitive science and other fields has shown that hearing voices is more common than we think, including among people with no psychiatric diagnosis. The restless sound of our inner speech is a key experience of this commonality.

As the Dutch neurobiologist Bernard J Baars reminds us, “we are a gabby species” and “the urge to talk to ourselves is remarkably compelling”. Can Beckett’s voices be interpreted as the fictional rendering of our inner monologues – of the dialogues we constantly entertain within ourselves? Inner speech is hard to stop or to escape from, exactly as the sound described in Molloy (1951): “[it] is not a sound like other sounds, that you listen to, when you choose, and can sometimes silence, by going away or stopping your ears, no, but is a sound which rustles in your head, without you knowing how, or why. It’s with your head you hear it, not your ears, you can’t stop it, but it stops itself, when it chooses.”

Psychologists and cognitive scientists are, like Molloy, still struggling to understand the role and modalities of inner speech. What is certain is that for most of us it is, as the narrator of The Unnamable says, a “sound that will never stop”. A better understanding of inner speech can therefore help revisit the pathological framework through which Beckett’s voices have been largely interpreted. At the same time, Beckett’s fictional rendering and exploration of the pervasiveness of inner voices can expand the field of research by pointing, for instance, at new relationships between the internal dialogue we entertain with ourselves in inner speech and the imaginary creation/reception of literary characters; or even at the tight entanglement of inner speech and the narrative construction of our sense of selfhood.

Take, for example, works like Ohio Impromptu (1981). This late piece for theatre features an identical reader and listener. The reader tells the listener the story of the listener’s life. If we look at this work through the lens of the new research on inner speech, it appears as a masterful rendition of the simultaneous narrative and receptive activities that go on in our inner life. This inner relation in which we voice ourselves to ourselves relies extensively on our capacity to use our inner voice to allow multiple imaginative perspectives to emerge, as we do when wesilently voice characters when reading literature.

If inner speech is the raw material for hallucinatory phenomena, it is also at the centre of our imaginary engine – supporting our simple need for, as the homonymous text by Beckett portrays, an intimate Company (1980) in the inaccessible dark of our subjectivity.

This article was originally published here in the Guardian’s Books blog on 19 August 2014.

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