Hearing voices in your head when there’s no one around … that’s a sign of madness, right?
In the popular imagination voice-hearing is often viewed with fear and suspicion, frequently reified as a chaotic, corrupted symptom of illness. But that is changing, with a growing acceptance of voice-hearing as a profoundly human experience that can no longer be reduced to a mere symptom of psychiatric disorder.
The work of Intervoice: The International Hearing Voices Network, and the enthusiastic response to Eleanor Longden’s 2013 TED talk, which recounts her own journey to recovery from a demoralising psychiatric diagnosis, indicate the growing possibilities for people living with the experience to raise their voices with a sense of power and pride.
This movement towards a better public understanding of voice-hearing has been mirrored by an increased interest in the scientific issues it raises. In recent years, academics from such diverse disciplines as psychology, philosophy, medical humanities, cognitive neuroscience, anthropology, theology and cultural studies have begun to reclaim it as a rich, diverse and complex human experience – one that offers abundant possibilities for scientific inquiry.
Take, for example, the idea that voices often relate to trauma or adversity, particularly those suffered in childhood. This view, which has found expression in the personal stories of many voice-hearers, has been supported by a growing body of scientific evidence. But why should traumatic experiences early in life lead many years later to the experience of hearing a voice, or what psychiatrists call an auditory verbal hallucination?
Recent investigations suggest that voice-hearing may provide fresh insights into traumatic memory, and how real-life conflicts become embodied in voices via dissociation (a defensive psychological response to trauma in which thoughts, emotions and memories become disconnected from one another).
In turn, the experience that many voice-hearers describe – that of a disembodied “other” dynamically interacting with and intruding upon one’s sense of self – invites exploration into how representations of selfhood are generated and maintained.
Another approach that has proved fruitful is the idea that voice-hearing relates to one very ordinary aspect of people’s experience: their inner speech. Most of us report talking to ourselves silently in our heads as we go about our business, and it has been proposed that voices result when a person generates a bit of inner speech but, for whatever reason, doesn’t recognise it as their own.
This view has received support from numerous studies with voice-hearing psychiatric patients, including findings that similar networks in the brain are activated when people hear voices as when they produce inner speech.
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