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‘Inner Voices’ in The Guardian 

‘Inner Voices’ is an ongoing 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 in The Lancet

Written by Hearing the Voice researchers, this collection of five articles in The Lancet explores the ways in which insights from the humanities and social sciences can deepen and enrich scientific, clinical and public understandings of hearing voices.

Topics covered include the way in which voice-hearing is depicted and understood in the thought-worlds of the medieval era; the representation of heard voices in the work of William Blake, George Elliot and other writers; the role of external and internal voices in the construction of novelists’ fictional worlds; and the rise of the voice-hearer as an identity with a distinct and growing political power.

All five articles are all available to read freely online at the links below:

Charles Fernyhough, ‘Listening to the voices’The Lancet, 28 November 2015

Corinne Saunders, ‘Hearing medieval voices’The Lancet, 28 November 2015

Peter Garratt, ‘Voices and the imaginative ear’The Lancet, 5 December 2015

Patricia Waugh, ‘The novelist as voice-hearer’The Lancet, 5 December 2015

Angela Woods, ‘Voices, identity and meaning-making’The Lancet, 12 December 2015

‘The Silent Companions’

In this free article for The Psychologist, our co-investigator Ben Alderson-Day explores explanations for ‘feelings of presence’.

‘Hearing Voices: Don’t Assume that Means Schizophrenia’

Angela Woods and Ben Alderson-Day reflect on the results of our Lancet Psychiatry phenomenology study and overturn some common myths about hearing voices in this open access article for The Conversation, originally published on 11 March 2015.

For many people hearing voices is synonymous with schizophrenia and severe mental illness. But is this always the case?

We’ve known for a long time that hearing voices, or auditory hallucination, is reported by people with a wide range of psychiatric diagnoses as well as by those who have none. Indeed, 5-13% of adults will hear voices at some point during their lives – in circumstances that may be related to spiritual experiences, bereavement, trauma, sensory deprivation or impairment, as well as mental and emotional distress.

Despite this, many people, including health-care professionals, still regard hearing voices as a “first-rank” symptom of schizophrenia and assume that these voices are experienced as negative, commanding, loud, frequent and coming from outside the head.

This is not surprising when you consider that most of the research into auditory hallucinations is done in a clinical setting with people diagnosed as suffering from psychosis. Most of the scales and measures used in research, and for clinical and diagnostic purposes, start by asking people to report on things like the loudness, frequency and emotional content.

The question arises: is there something we’re missing about this experience, just because we’re not looking for it?

 

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For many people hearing voices is synonymous with schizophrenia and severe mental illness. But is this always the case?

We’ve known for a long time that hearing voices, or auditory hallucination, is reported by people with a wide range of psychiatric diagnoses as well as by those who have none. Indeed, 5-13% of adults will hear voices at some point during their lives – in circumstances that may be related to spiritual experiences, bereavement, trauma, sensory deprivation or impairment, as well as mental and emotional distress.

Despite this, many people, including health-care professionals, still regard hearing voices as a “first-rank” symptom of schizophrenia and assume that these voices are experienced as negative, commanding, loud, frequent and coming from outside the head.

This is not surprising when you consider that most of the research into auditory hallucinations is done in a clinical setting with people diagnosed as suffering from psychosis. Most of the scales and measures used in research, and for clinical and diagnostic purposes, start by asking people to report on things like the loudness, frequency and emotional content.

The question arises: is there something we’re missing about this experience, just because we’re not looking for it?

Questioning our assumptions

Our research team at Durham and Stanford Universities decided to go back to first principles and ask people to describe, in their own words, what it is like to hear voices. We designed an open-ended online questionnaire which was completed by 153 people with a range of diagnoses, including 26 who had never had a psychiatric diagnosis.

The findings, reported in The Lancet Psychiatry, reinforce some of what we already know about auditory hallucinations – people hear lots of different kinds of voices, some with strong characterful qualities, and despite strong associations with negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression, some people also hear positive and supportive voices.

What we didn’t expect to find was how people’s responses to this survey would challenge our own understanding of the very nature and definition of an auditory hallucination.

Is hearing voices always auditory?

Although the terms “true” and “pseudo” hallucination are no longer regarded as clinically useful, the idea persists that voices perceived as loud and as coming from outside the head are somehow a more serious symptom or disturbance. Just under half of the participants in our study said that the voices they heard were indistinguishable from hearing somebody in the room, but a similar number reported thought-like voices or a mixture of the two.

As one participant put it:

I did not hear the voices aurally. They were much more intimate than that, and inescapable. It’s hard to describe how I could ‘hear’ a voice that wasn’t auditory; but the words the voices used and the emotions they contained (hatred and disgust) were completely clear, distinct, and unmistakable, maybe even more so than if I had heard them aurally.
Interestingly, there was no clear link between people’s reported diagnosis and the quality of the voices they heard, which brings into question the idea that loud, external voices are “typical” of schizophrenia. Should some voice-hearing experiences be understood not as “problems” of perception or of auditory processing, but as more closely related to the complex ways in which we think?

Bodily voices

The legacy of Cartesian dualism – where mind and body are separate entities – runs deep in the psychological disciplines. Regardless of whether it is a question of thinking or of perception, hearing voices is approached as a phenomenon of the mind and so we tend not to ask if it is also felt in the body.

When you do ask, the results can be surprising: 101 people, or two-thirds of participants in our study, reported changes in bodily experience when they heard voices. “My body and brain felt like they were on fire when I heard the voices,” wrote one participant “I had constant tingling sensations throughout my extremities and shock-like sensations in my solar plexus.”

Others wrote of heightened sensitivity, intense pressure in the head, warmth, agitation and feeling radically detached from their bodies. Nearly one in five people experienced “multisensory” voices. Voices with effects on the body were more likely to be abusive or violent, and, in some cases, be linked to experiences of trauma. This means there might be a greater role for physically focused therapy in helping people to cope with these experiences.

The consequences of complexity

Spend time talking to people in detail about their voices – the ways in which they are experienced, made sense of, and coped with – and the heterogeneity of auditory hallucinations is unmistakable.

Yet it is still commonly assumed that hearing voices is always a symptom of severe mental illness, and that the voices heard by people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia are loud, commanding, and dangerous. That wasn’t the case for our participants, though it must be recognised that people who are experiencing acute difficulties with managing their voices may be less likely to participate in research.

Our study drew on a wide range of expertise – including in philosophy, psychology, medical humanities and the history of psychiatry, as well as personal experience – to investigate the phenomenon of hearing voices. This shows the value of a range of methods and approaches in illuminating this fascinating aspect of human experience.

A greater understanding of the complexity and variety of that experience is crucial. Our research also has implications for the therapeutic management of distressing voices and for the design of future studies of voice-hearing.

Podcasts & Audio

‘Voices in the Dark: An audio story’

Produced by Mosaic – the Wellcome Trust’s online science magazine – this podcast features interviews with HtV’s Charles FernyhoughAngela Woods and Hilary Powell, as well as Marius RommeJacqui DillonDolly Sen, Adam Plus One and researchers from the avatar therapy group led by Julian Leff.

To accompany the release of the podcast, Hearing the Voice researchers took part in a lively question and answer session about voice-hearing on the social media platform, Reddit which is accessible here.

What does it mean to hear voices?

by Angela Woods & Ben Alderson-Day with Niall Boyce | Angela and Ben discuss the results of our study of what it is like to hear voices with Lancet Psychiatry editor Niall Boyce

Hearing Voices in the UK: The Borders of Sanity (Episode 3)

by The Compass - BBC World Service

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