Hearing Voices: What do we need to know? (11 September, Newcastle)

11 September 2019 | 1-5.45PM | The Assembly Rooms | Newcastle upon Tyne

Hearing the Voice (Durham University) warmly invites you to join a public event which asks ‘Hearing Voices: What do we need to know?’.

The half-day symposium will take place at The Assembly Rooms in Newcastle upon Tyne on the 11 September (1-5.45PM) and will celebrate the launch of Understanding Voices ­ – a new website providing clear, comprehensive and balanced information about hearing voices – and explore visions for the future.

Developed over two years through extensive consultation and collaboration with voice-hearers, Understanding Voices reflects the current state of our collective knowledge and understanding of voice-hearing. But what do we not yet understand about voices? Which directions are we and should we be headed in? This event brings voice-hearers, their families and allies together with academics, activists and mental health professionals in order to explore future directions in voice-hearing research, advocacy, policy and clinical practice.

Conversations will be prompted by short presentations from people with diverse experiences and perspectives, both personal and professional:

  • Steph Allan (University of Glasgow) – Doctoral researcher with an interest in digital and participatory research in psychosis.
  • Dawn Edge (University of Manchester) – Researcher working on the interrelationship between mental and physical health and wellbeing.
  • Akiko Hart (Mind in Camden) – London Hearing Voices Project Manager, Committee Member of the English Hearing Voices Network and Chair of the International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis, UK.
  • James Kirkbride (University College London) – Psychiatric epidemiologist interested in social and environmental determinants of psychosis.
  • Colin King – Mental health survivor, practitioner, commissioner, trainer, teacher and researcher.
  • Sarah Parry (Manchester Metropolitan University) – Psychologist working with young people who hear voices.
  • Emmanuelle Peters (Kings College London) – Clinical academic psychologist working on voice-hearing in people with no need for psychiatric care.
  • Jason Poole (University of East London) – Set up and evaluated the UK’s first Hearing Voices Group at the Heathrow Immigrant Removal Centre
  • Elisabeth Svanholmer – Voice-hearer and mental health trainer.
  • Neil Thomas (Swinburne University of Technology) – Researcher specializing in hearing voices, psychosis and the therapeutic use of online, mobile and digital technology.
  • Rachel Waddingham – Voice-hearer, mental health trainer, researcher, and Chair of the Hearing Voices Network England.

There is no cost to attend, and a number of travel bursaries are available for peer support groups for people who hear voices and individuals with personal experience of voice-hearing. Please contact Rebecca Doggwiler for more information.

The symposium will be followed by a wine reception.

We hope you can join us for what promises to be a rich and stimulating event.

If you would like to attend, we kindly ask that you register through Eventbrite.


About Understanding Voices

Understanding Voices (UV) is a new website that will make it easier for people to find information about different approaches to voice-hearing and ways of supporting those who are struggling with the voices they hear. It is being produced by Hearing the Voice (Durham University) in close collaboration with voice-hearers, their families and allies, and mental health professionals.

The website will cover a wide variety of topics, ranging from what it is like to hear voices and what’s happening in the brain, through to the pros and cons of medication, cognitive behavioural therapy and peer support. It will present practical techniques for managing distressing voices, information for families and friends, and also shed light on the links between voice-hearing and inner speech, trauma, creativity and spiritual or religious experience.

The website will launch on 11 September 2019. You can find out more about the project here.

Patient Voices: An invitation to participate in a three-day storytelling workshop (14-16 August)

An invitation to participate in a three-day storytelling workshop, Wednesday 14 to Friday 16 August 2019, Durham University. Facilitated by Pip Hardy and Tony Sumner (Patient Voices) and supported by Hearing the Voice.

Workshop Overview

There are, out there, so many voices waiting patiently to be heard.

For over fifteen years, we at Patient Voices have worked with a huge range of people across the planet – and they have shared their stories with us in the hope that talking about their experiences of yesterday may make tomorrow better for someone else.

From First Nation peoples in Canada, to bushfire responders in Australia.

From Nuns in Yorkshire, to migrant communities in London.

Whether a storyteller is a service user or a police officer, a chief executive or a chaplain, a nurse or a family member, the common feature that brings them to a Patient Voices workshop is that they have a story that they have been waiting patiently to tell. We would love you to work with us to tell and share your stories of voice-hearing.

Over the three days of the workshop, our facilitators will work with you to reflect on your own experience, create a short script of your story, record your voiceover, help you find pictures and show you how to use video editing software to create a multimedia digital story.

We won’t interview you, we won’t sit you in front of a video camera and we won’t ask you to answer a lot of questions.

We believe that the most powerful way of conveying lived experience is not through surveys and statistics, interviews, forms, talking heads or focus groups, but through your story, told in your words, created by you.

If you choose to share your story publicly, it will be featured on Understanding Voices, a new web site to support people who hear voices.

You can see some examples of Patient Voices digital stories here.

Logistical Information

The workshop will take place over three days, from 9.30am on Wednesday 14 August to late afternoon on Friday 16 August 2019. It will be held in the Caedmon Building at Durham University.

The following expenses will be covered:

  • Return standard class travel to Durham from your place of residence within the UK
  • Bed and breakfast accommodation in a Durham College (or an equivalent contribution to the costs of alternative accommodation if independently organised) for up to four nights
  • Workshop materials
  • Lunch and dinner for three days
  • Reasonable expenses associated with your childcare or caring responsibilities for the period of the workshop

All dietary needs will be accommodated. Unfortunately there is no step-free access to the workshop venue.

Hearing the Voice is committed to ensuring that there are no barriers to accessing this workshop and we welcome discussion of whether there are specific provisions which would enable you to participate.

Who are we looking for?

Hearing the Voice has commissioned Patient Voices to run this storytelling workshop for the benefit of participants and the wider voice-hearing community. We hope that storytellers will be willing to share their digital stories on the Understanding Voices website, which will launch officially on September 11 2019; however, this is not a requirement and certainly not something that participants in the workshop need to decide in advance.

Our project is strongly committed to ensuring that voice-hearing is understood as a part of human experience. We also want to reflect the diversity in the voice-hearing community and among people from across the UK who hear voices, whatever their age, gender and sexual orientation, ethnic or religious background. As a participant in this workshop, you will simply be someone who has a story to tell about the voices you hear or have heard.

How to apply

Please complete the application form here by 5pm Thursday 18 July. Applicants will be notified by Monday 22 July. Your personal information will be stored securely by Hearing the Voice and shared only with the workshop facilitators for the purpose of contacting you to confirm your participation. You can read our privacy notice here.

More information

If you’d like to know more about Patient Voices and what it’s like to participate in a workshop, please contact Pip Hardy at or Tony Sumner.

For clarification of any logistical information, please contact Hearing the Voice Communications Assistant Becca Doggwiler.

Inner Speech, Self-talk and Mental Health (Workshop Review)


On May 22, Hearing the Voice teamed up with Egenis (the Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences) at the University of Exeter, to host an interdisciplinary workshop on Inner Speech, Self-talk and Mental Health.

The workshop sought to address the following questions. What is inner speech? What is self-talk? Why do we talk to ourselves if we already know what we are going to say? And if we don’t know what we are going to say, what does this tell us about the human mind? What sort of access do we have to our own minds? Does the way in which we think and talk about ourselves have implications for our experiences and our wellbeing?

The workshop brought together a psychologist (Charles Fernyhough), an analytic philosopher (Daniel Gregory), a linguist (Felicity Deamer), a sociologist (Courtney Buckler) and a phenomenologist (Louis Sass).

Charles kicked off proceedings with a wonderfully engaging talk (“The Voices in Our Heads”), introducing the state-of-the-art research on inner speech and voice hearing. In time-honoured HTV fashion, he drew on a wide range of disciplines and sources, from medieval history and literature, with the Book of Margery Kemp and Julian of Norwich, to ultra high-tech and innovative symptom-capture fMRI, using DES (Descriptive Experience Sampling). It was a perfect way to start to the workshop. Of the many take-home messages, one that stood out for me was the discovery, through the fMRI and DES hybrid technique, that elicited “inner speech” and spontaneous inner speech (of which only the latter is ecologically valid) are radically different. The consequences of this are huge, since it means we have to bin all of the data purporting to tell us things about inner speech that uses elicited paradigms.

Daniel’s talk (“Inner speech and the imagery it is made of”) followed beautifully on from this, taking things in a very philosophical direction. The central question was: “Is inner speech actual speech, or imagined speech?” Charles and I have argued for a while that inner speech is (at least in the most important senses) a form of actual speech. Daniel argued against this, with the following argument. Speech requires linguistic tokens, but there are no linguistic tokens in inner speech, since there is no concrete vehicle for that token. Daniel ended by rehearsing a few alternatives to the view that inner speech is actual speech, approvingly citing Martinez-Manrique and Vicente’s “activity view”.

Felicity’s talk (“Self-talk, self-blindness and the nature of communication”) moved from inner speech to self-talk more generally. It presented a resolution to a dilemma that is presented by the very existence of self-talk. To simplify, if self-talk exists then either, (i) we know what we are going to say and self-talk serves no communicative purpose, and must serve some other purpose, or (ii) we don’t know what we are going to say, and self-talk does serve a communicative purpose, namely, it is an instance of us communicating with ourselves. Adopting (i) was the strategy taken by Bart Geurts, who claims that the purpose of self-talk is to entrain commitments, and is not communicative. While accepting that self-talk can usefully play this role, Felicity criticised the view that it is self-talk’s fundamental role (and it’s raison d’être). Adopting the view that we are self-blind, at least to a significant degree, means that we can adopt (ii): self-talk does play a communicative role. How we are to cash out this communicative role, Felicity argues, could be Gricean (where we recognise, through self-talk, our own communicative intentions and thereby gain self-knowledge), or Non-Gricean. The version of the Non-Gricean view that Felicity rehearses is one that bypasses communicative intention altogether, and involves direct expression. In short, communication is about organisms showing their states of mind. Some instances of self-talk seem Gricean (“What did I come upstairs for?”), while others seem more directly expressive (“I’m such an idiot!”).

After lunch, we moved more squarely onto the topic of mental health. Courtney presented her talk (“Epistemic uncertainty and depressed selfhood: A digital ethnography of Twitter content”), which examined Twitter content and depression, with a particular focus on a conception of depression as specifically “a chemical imbalance”. Her main interest was in how the way in which people thought of depression in this way (regardless of whether this is a scientifically defensible position or not) impacts on their views of themselves and on how they are treated by others. Using very poignant examples from Twitter, Courtney differentiates six qualitatively different responses to thinking of depression in this way. These are, 1. Objectified brain, 2. Risky selfhood, 3. Rejection of moral deficiency, 4. Rejection of negligence, 5. Sense-making, and 6. Mixed Blessing. One fascinating aspect of this exploration was how this “chemicalization” of depression interacts with (broadly speaking) ethical judgments. The picture here, however, is extremely complicated. At times it alleviates fault of morality or character (“I’m not weak, it’s just my brain”), while at other times it can be used as an insult (“You must have a chemical imbalance to say stuff like that!”).

The workshop ended, very fittingly, with Louis Sass talking about “Introspection, Phenomenology and Psychopathology.” Louis gave a very thorough and nuanced explanation of what phenomenology is, how it contrasts very sharply with introspection, and the role that it can play in our understanding of psychopathology. He also contrasted phenomenology, in the school of Husserl, and also Merleau-Ponty, with the recent micro-phenomenology of Claire Petitmengin and colleagues. One of Louis’s points that resonated with me was the idea that profound insights from phenomenologists like Husserl give us an enhanced awareness and understanding of possible experiences. This is tremendously useful in helping us understand psychopathology. But it is two-way traffic: the psychopathology itself can then feed back into our phenomenological framework, and enhance our appreciation of possible experiences.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’off’]https://hearingthevoice.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/SW.png[/author_image] [author_info]About the author:

Dr Sam Wilkinson is a lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Exeter. He works on hallucinations, delusions, psychosis, trauma, and the nature of illness and wellbeing. Sam is also interested in perception, action and emotion as viewed from predictive processing and embodied perspectives, and especially in the way that the mind harnesses social and cultural context to enhance and shape cognition.[/author_info] [/author]


Retrospective: Voices immanent and transcendent (Part 3 of 3)

Over the last few weeks, the blog has reproduced a series of articles by Chris Cook (HtV co-investigator). Originally published in 2017 by the Church Times, this three-part series explores the relationship between voices and spirituality.

Speak, Lord, thy servant heareth: the child Samuel hears the voice of God (Chronicle/Alamy).

RECENT advances in the scientific understanding of voices heard in the absence of a speaker (“auditory verbal hallucinations” — AVH — to use the technical terminology) have been significant. We now know that most voice-hearers hear more than one voice, and fewer than half of them hear these voices out loud (thus making them simply VH rather than AVH).

More importantly, voices are not “just” voices: they are perceived to have personality and agency. Fewer than one fifth, one recent study states, are understood to represent supernatural agents. The content of what the voice says often has bio­graphical or psychological signific­ance for the hearer. A history of sexual or emotional abuse greatly increases the likelihood of hearing voices, and what the voices say is often related to this in one way or another.

NEURO-IMAGING studies show that regions of the brain associated with the production and procession of speech are implicated in the pro­­duction of AVHs.

It seems likely that at least some AVHs are mis­attributed “inner speech”: that is, arising from the person’s own thoughts, but experi­enced for some reason as alien, and with perception-like qualities. Others may arise from memories, or “im­­agined” voices, or from mis­­inter­preta­­tion of sounds in the external environment (so that they are strictly illusions, rather than hallu­cinations).

It would seem likely that there is a “top-down” effect at work in many experiences of voice-hearing, where higher mental processes, in an environment where sensory information is ambiguous, wrongly “predict” a voice, even when one is not present. Culture, including religion, also plays an important part in shaping expecta­tions.

WITH this growing body of know­ledge about the science of AVHs, it is tempting for some to conclude — as in so many areas of scientific progress — that we now know (almost) all there is to know about how the world works, and that there is nothing left for theo­logy or faith to explain. Such a view tends to emphasise religion as being con­cerned only with the transcend­ent realm, and science as occupying and explaining the immanent frame of reference.

As the gap in (immanent) know­ledge becomes smaller and smaller, the (transcendent) God of the gaps is extruded altogether. But Christian theology has traditionally been concerned with understanding the Divine as both immanent and transcendent. Indeed, the doctrines of creation and incarnation require us to grapple with the paradox. God is not absent from his creation. Divine immanence is as important a truth as Divine transcendence.

Our knowledge, then, of the science of voice-hearing does not require us to abandon faith in the God who communicates with human­kind. Most of this communication, in any case, occurs in ways other than through the hearing of the Divine voice in any literal (perception-like) sense.

When God does appear to put a thought into our minds, however, or when (rarely) a Christian does literally hear God answer his or her prayers in an audible voice, it is not necessary to explain everything away on the basis of psychology or neuroscience. A thought can — at the same time — be our “own” thought, but also divinely inspired, just as scripture is both the work of human authors, but also divinely inspired.

THE human brain is a highly complex system. John Polkinghorne has suggested that God may act within complex systems in such a way as to convey information without exchange of physical energy. Taking a simpler and somewhat different model, Fraser Watts has suggested the analogy of a radio receiver: that human minds can be, in some way, “attuned” to God.

Thomas Merton, influenced by his reading of Simone Weil, re­­flected on the importance of prayer as giving attention to God. It is notable that Tanya Luhrmann’s work (referred to in the second of these three articles) also focuses on the importance of attention (as an aspect of absorption), in her theory of voices arising as “sensory over­rides” during intense prayer.

When we attend to God carefully, sometimes it may seem that we
hear him speak to us. To dismiss such voices completely would be as rash as accepting them without question. They arise within human minds which are prone to error, but which are also very good — at least, sometimes — at tuning in to God.

Reposted with kind permission from the Church Times. The original publication can be found here.

Retrospective: Learning to discern (Part 2 of 3)

This week, the blog will reproduce a series of articles by Chris Cook (HtV co-investigator). Originally published in 2017 by the Church Times, this three-part series explores the relationship between voices and spirituality.

Dark night of the soul: Salvador Dali’s Christ of St John of the Cross

EXPERIENCES of hearing God’s voice are very diverse. For some people, it happens once in a lifetime; for others, it is a daily occurrence. Some hear God “out loud”; others describe it as being as though “God put a thought into my mind.” Yet others have no particular experience of “hearing a voice”, but, rather, encounter God in scripture, nature, and other people.

Research by Tanya Luhrmann, in the United States and elsewhere, and by Simon Dein and Roland Littlewood, in the UK, has shown that Christians hear God when pray­ing more commonly than might have been supposed.

In a study by Dein and Littlewood in a Pentecostal church in north-east London, 25 out of 40 Christians who completed questionnaires indicated that they heard God’s voice in answer to their prayers. The voice was clearly distinguished from their own thoughts, and usually focused on immediate and practical issues. Fifteen respondents had heard the voice speaking aloud, although this was usually a once in a lifetime experience.

As Luhrmann indicates in her book When God Talks Back, spir­itual practices commonly encountered in both Evangelical and Catholic circles can lead to a state of absorption in prayer within which there is an intense inner focus. If, as is often the case, this is associated with an expectation that God will speak, then, sometimes, sensory overrides occur.

Sensory overrides are experiences in which perception overrides the actual sensory stimuli that the brain is processing. When this occurs in prayer, then God — who is not material — is experienced in a sensory way.

Luhrmann leaves open the question of the theological interpretation of such experiences, but she notes that, within the churches that she studied, there is an awareness of the need for discernment. It should not automatically be assumed that the voice is from God. For example, is it the kind of thing that God might reasonably be expected to say? If the voice contradicted scripture, it should not be believed. And the question should always be asked: might this simply have been my own thought?

Not everyone is equally able to enter the state of absorption which seems to facilitate sensory overrides. It seems likely that different prayer practices are more likely to generate sensory overrides than others. Few people can have spent as much time in prayer as Thomas Merton, and yet there is no indication that he ever heard a voice in his prayers.

Moreover, Christian spirituality has traditionally been wary of placing too much weight on such experiences. St John of the Cross, for example, warned that they leave people open to deception, pride, and a diminishment of faith.

GOD’s voice is not heard only during states of intense prayer, and is sometimes completely unexpected. Mother Teresa first experienced the voice that called her to her work with the poor when she was on a train journey to Darjeeling.

Mary Neal, an orthopaedic surgeon, in her book To Heaven and Back, describes her multi-sensory, near-death experience during a kayak accident. Susan Atkins, serving a life sentence in prison for her part in the Manson murders, writes in her autobiography of hearing the voice of Jesus in her prison cell. Hugh Montefiore, later Bishop of Kingston, heard Jesus speak to him when sitting alone, a dejected teenager, in his study at school.

We now know that voices are heard by many ordinary people, religious or not. Voices have been traditionally associated with serious mental illness, however, and the hallucinations and delusions experi­enced by people with psychosis frequently include spiritual and religious content. Typically, this is not the positive kind of experience reported by Luhrmann, or by Dein and Littlewood.

While the voices heard may be understood to have a divine origin, they may also be experienced as demonic, and may be deeply distressing.

Negative voices of this kind are associated with significant stigma. Research suggests that Christians have variable experiences of support from their church communities. Potentially, at least, churches can provide positive networks of support which are deeply valued by those undergoing experiences of this kind. Prayer can also provide an important coping resource.

BECAUSE voices span such a wide spectrum — from heavenly to hellish — there has been much debate about how to distinguish between the good and the bad. One approach, which I do not favour, is to offer a guide to differential diagnosis: to distinguish the signs of voices that are associated with mental illness from those that are “true” spiritual experiences.

There are problems with this model, not least that it seems to imply that God does not talk to people who are mentally ill, only to those who are well. This is really just a mirror image of the approach that dismisses all religious or spiritual experience as an indication of mental illness. Surely, the reality is much more complicated than this, and why should God not have more to say to those who are undergoing deep emotional turmoil?

THE approach taken by St John of the Cross would seem to have much to commend it. Voices, whether appearing to be from God or else­where, should not be accepted uncritically, and should not be sensationalised. Criteria for discernment are needed. Sometimes, however, it would seem that God really does talk back.

Reposted with kind permission from the Church Times. The original publication can be found here.