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.

Response to ‘Aligning Computational Psychiatry to the Hearing Voices Movement’: Akiko Hart

Akiko Hart (HVN England) writes:

A recent paper by Powers, Bien & Corlett (2018) presents computational psychiatry (CP) in relation to hearing voices as a way of bridging the gap between critical and biological psychiatry, and ‘honoring the values and goals of those with lived experience of psychosis’.

I would like to caveat my response by stating that my knowledge and understanding of CP are regrettably limited and incomplete- but that I am immensely grateful for the clear presentation in Powers et al‘s work, which is demonstrably trying to share findings with a wider audience.

I welcome the paper’s clearly stated intention to draw on the Hearing Voices Network’s (HVN) focus on sense-making. One of the great achievements of HVN has been to create spaces which nurture diverse sense-making: moving the experience of voice-hearing out of an exclusively medical domain, and repositioning it from a meaningless symptom of schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder, to an experience full of richness, possibility and meaning. In the Hearing Voices ethos, all sense-making is heard and welcome. Voices can be understood as spiritual guides or demons, or deeply linked to past trauma or adversity, or as a sign of neuro-diversity- and many explanations in between and beyond.

CP, on the other hand, is an interdisciplinary field which models the world and the brain, and embraces a plurality of explanations, including neurobiological, social or cognitive. This feels incredibly helpful when it comes to research on voice-hearing, which often draws on discrete and polarised epistemological claims. In most studies, voice-hearing is understood within a positivist model, whilst in others, the research draws on a social constructionist framework. The result is that studies often end up talking past each other. The language around the experience (auditory verbal hallucinations versus voices, delusions versus beliefs) can mean that researchers and practitioners, as well as people with lived experience, position themselves in different camps and do not read each other’s work. CP’s attempts to use a common language which feels less entrenched are to be welcomed- and might open up the possibility of more dialogue and collaboration.

The approach presented in the paper is also helpful in highlighting how context, such as uncertainty, can change our experiences. There have been other studies linking experiences such as migration or stress to voice-hearing, but CP offers the opportunity to do this on a wider scale. The CP model also opens up the possibility of furthering work on trauma as a causal factor for voices, which will be welcomed by many.

However, whilst the CP model may very well resonate with numerous voice-hearers, I wonder if there may also be limitations inherent to it. Firstly, the specialist tools of CP are only accessible to a small number of qualified researchers, thus moving it away from the experiential knowledge base which is created and held by people with lived experience, a key tenet of HVN. Secondly, whilst I appreciate that a more comprehensive framing of voices-hearing might bring together different research, I’m not convinced that voice-hearing as an experience is best reflected or served through this approach. It is already a tenuous umbrella term in HVN, holding the experiences of hearing, seeing or sensing things that others don’t, but also including dissociation and multiplicity as well as the belief systems used to make sense of the experiences. For me, it seems that the direction of travel should be away from viewing voice-hearing as a discrete entity, and more towards finding a way to reflect its dizzying diversity.

Finally, CP still posits voice-hearing as real to the voice hearer, but not real in itself. Like most studies on hearing voices, voices, visions or presences are understood as representations of the mind or as a perception error. The study uses a Bayesian Predictive Processing (PP) framework, where ‘we perceive what would need to be present around us in order for our sensations to make sense’. One of the claims of the study is that ‘hallucinations may be experienced as voices because our auditory apparatus is tuned to (ie, has strong priors for) the natural statistics of speech.’

This may well be how many voice-hearers understand their experiences. But others do not. Whilst there have been examples of collective voice-hearing, voice-hearing is, for most people, a private experience. It does not follow, however, that voices only exist within and because of the consciousness of the voice hearer. Perception and cognition, the two main conceptual tools of the Bayesian PP framework, only speak to me of some of the voice-hearing experience. I would welcome research into voice-hearing which also positions voices as real and agentic. Could this be a subject of enquiry for CP? It would certainly call for the generosity and openness present in this paper, and no doubt a wider inter-disciplinary approach.

The original paper by Powers, Bien & Corlett (2018) can be downloaded here.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://www.ecmh.eu/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Akiko-Hart-.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Akiko Hart is a Committee Member of the English Hearing Voices Network. She is also the Chair of ISPS UK, and the Hearing Voices Project Manager at Mind in Camden. As part of her work at Mind in Camden, she helps set up and facilitate Hearing Voices groups and networks in a variety of settings, including the community, in-patient units, children and adolescent mental health services, prisons, secure units and Immigration Removal Centres. She has previously worked as the Director of Mental Health Europe, and has a keen interest in the differences and overlaps in mental health provision in different national and cultural settings. [/author_info] [/author]

Integrated Voices: Brand Development and Design Workshop, Durham, 26 April 2018, 12.30-3.30pm

Have you ever seen a logo and thought ‘I could do better than that’ or ‘I don’t understand what that’s all about’? Have you ever thought ‘I’d love to have a go at that’?

Now’s your chance.

We warmly invite voice-hearers and the families, friends and professionals who support them to join us for our Integrated Voices brand development and design workshop, which will take place at the Alington House Community Association, 4 North Bailey, Durham DH1 3ET on 26 April 2018, 12.30-3.30PM.

Led by Verve Communications, this workshop is a unique opportunity to help us develop an engaging logo and overall brand identity for a new website that will provide clear, balanced and comprehensive information about voice-hearing.

Lunch will be provided. We are able to reimburse reasonable local travel expenses, and all participants will receive a £15 Amazon voucher as a small thank you for their contribution.

Registration is free and can be completed online.

A map to the venue is available here.

About Integrated Voices

Integrated Voices is a new web resource that will make it easier for people to find information about different approaches to voice-hearing and ways of supporting people who are struggling to cope with the voices that they hear. The website is currently being developed by Hearing the Voice in collaboration with members of the voice-hearing community.

Further information about the project and some of the ways in which people with personal experience of hearing voices have been involved in its development can be found here:


New podcast: Professor Tanya Luhrmann on ‘The Voice of God’

This podcast features Watkins University Professor (Stanford University Anthropology Department) and great friend of Hearing the Voice, Professor Tanya Luhrmann, on ‘The Voice of God’. It was recorded on 16 February 2017 at Durham’s Palace Green Library as part of the linked programme of events associated with Hearing Voices: suffering, inspiration and the everyday.

Abstract: God is in some ways the ultimate uncertainty, since God has no material trace which gives certain evidence of presence. The great achievement of the cognitive science of religion has been to demonstrate that evolved, “natural” qualities of our minds readily generate intuitions about supernatural agency. Yet it is also true that Christians also report that faith is hard: that it takes effort, and that this effort arises from the uncertainty of God’s presence. This talk makes the case that people find evidence of God’s presence in mental events; that different practices of attending to mental events shape mental experience; that different cultures and different theologies emphasize mind and mental process in distinctive ways, and that this has consequences for the way people experience God. I compare the experience of hearing God speak among charismatic Christians in Accra, Chennai and the Bay Area in the United States, and find that God’s voice is recognized differently and experienced differently in these theologically similar but culturally different settings.

Podcast produced by Andrea Rangecroft for Hearing the Voice.

‘It’s important to listen to imaginary voices – just ask Virginia Woolf’ by Pat Waugh.

Pat Waugh is part of the Hearing the Voice research team and is a Professor in English Literature at Durham University. Pat writes: 

Centuries ago, hearing voices in one’s head was thought to be a sign of communication with God – and if not that, then with the devil. In more recent years, it is associated with madness. But the concept of imaginary voices is also one that is profoundly literary. Fiction can be “experimental” in the scientific, as well as artistic, sense: a vehicle for investigating the role of voice in ordinary thinking as well as in creativity. Authors, too, can experience inner voices as “auditory verbal hallucinations.”

I was recently involved in curating the world’s first exhibition of voice hearing, currently showing at Durham University. Hearing Voices: suffering, inspiration, and the everyday explores how hearing voices that have no source is a common feature of our lives as well as an aspect of visionary experience, creative or psychotic states. This might include a bereaved person comforted by the voice of the departed; a mountain climber who intuits a felt presence; a child talking to imaginary friends; an athlete whose attentional focus tunes in to self-talk; the inner voice of a coach or trainer.

Dickens’ Dream, RW Buss. Charles Dickens Museum London

Dickens’ Dream, RW Buss. Charles Dickens Museum London

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The most famous literary voice hearer was Virginia Woolf. Photographed by Man Ray for Vogue’s roll call of influential people in 1924, appearing on the cover of Time in 1937, and subjected to further iconisation in the Burton/Taylor film of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in 1966, Woolf remains perennially fascinating as a compelling amalgam of female aristocratic beauty, doomed talent, Bohemian and suicide.

Virginia Woolf, c.1927. Wikimedia Commons

But surely no one’s really afraid of this safely contained popular image of creative “madness”? Woolf’s private agonies of soul lay behind the glamorous iconic image: between the ages of 13 (when her mother died), and 33 (when her first novel was published), she suffered a series of major psychotic breakdowns, involving, most famously, birds singing in ancient Greek. But she learned to manage the public image, accepting the hereditary-genius stereotype as the daughter of the irascible and often brilliant Leslie Stephen and using the infamous rest cure for “neurasthenia” as an opportunity to withdraw into creative mind-wandering.

She also learned to manage the voices and had no further complete breakdown until the end of her life. Populists, feminists, literary critics, gay activists, have since claimed her as their own. But her archive can be seen as a serious resource for research into the experience of hearing voices. In a 1919 essay, Woolf exhorted her reader to scientifically “examine an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.” She saw no contradiction in describing the mind as a visionary “luminous halo” in the very next sentence. Her voices were at once mystical experiences and objects of her own scientific investigation.

Research shows how abuse in early life often mediates distressing voice-hearing experiences in later years. Woolf intuited the connection for herself from 1920 when she first spoke out, to the Memoir Club, of the incestuous sexual abuse suffered as a child. She saw plainly the connection between the terrible events of her early life – traumatic deaths, sexual abuse, patriarchal coercion and familial neglect – and the voices of the dead that spoke to her, especially her mother’s (she simply “rages” against her father), as well as the more bizarre birds singing in Greek. She saw too how developing “shock-receiving” abilities allowed her to become a writer and how that protected her from psychotic breakdown.

Channelling voices

In letters, diaries and memoirs, she discusses how entering the “queer” place of composition allowed her to step into memories that felt more real than the present; how this required shifting her mental state voluntarily into one of controlled dissociation. This is the same splitting of consciousness that involves splitting off some mental processes so self-awareness operates in two or more spheres each closed off from the other. This consciousness “dissociation” manifests in extreme form in multiple personality disorders.

Her fiction, directly or indirectly, explores this shift in mental states. In On Being Ill, Woolf describes the uncanny slipping away in illness of the structures of the familiar world, of time, space, secure embodiment and emotional centredness. This is what psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (1913) had described as the prodromal phase of psychosis: a phase unavailable, he claimed, for understanding or anchoring to the present.

Woolf thinks not. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf’s most autobiographical novel, Lily Briscoe enters her own “queer zone” after the death of her friend and host Mrs Ramsay. Although poised to leap riskily into the “waters of annihilation” as she embarks upon her painting, she summons all her will as she takes up her brush, calling up past scenes in her mind while holding a “vice-like” grip on the perceptual present.

As the painting emerges, the “residue” of her years now achieving formal and emotional balance, she sees how, through the project of creative reshaping of memory of the past, one might no longer be condemned to a solitary sense of shame. Woolf laid to rest the voice of her mother in writing the novel. She seems to have stumbled too upon the basic processes of contemporary trauma therapy.

Woolf’s imaginary voices spurred her on to invent ever new possibilities of fictional voice. In Mrs Dalloway, she invents a manner of writing that is the modern equivalent of the Greek chorus, reinventing the crowd as a multitude inside and outside the head. Ethical insights follow: in creativity and distress, she recognised we are many and not one.

Woolf, the feminist, knew that our liberal plural ideal of persons must acknowledge the vast diversity of the human race. But if we flee from the idea of the diversity within, by calling it madness, how are we ever to celebrate the differences we encounter in the world outside ourselves? Novels allow us to listen in and to learn political, ethical as well as cognitive lessons about what goes on as our mind continues the endless dialogue with itself that is living.

Pat Waugh’s article originally appeared in The Conversation, on 24 January 2017. You can hear more about Pat’s research in this podcast of her recent public lecture, ‘Experimenting with Voices: Virginia Woolf’s fiction as a risky kind of life writing.’