Around 12% of children and adolescents hear voices that others don't
5–15% of adults have occasional or fleeting experience of hearing voices
Up to 1% of people have frequent voice-hearing experiences and no need for psychiatric care
Over 50% of people have unusual perceptual experiences after multiple days of sleep or sensory deprivation
Voices are part of human experience. Have you ever heard someone calling your name only to find there is nobody there? Or heard whispers as you drift off to sleep?
There are many different situations in which voice-hearing can occur. Children often experience voices in the form of imaginary friends. Hearing or seeing a dead loved one or spouse is a common reaction to bereavement, and can be a source of consolation and support for people who are grieving. Voices can also be triggered by extreme physical conditions, prolonged periods of isolation and sensory deprivation.
Current research points strongly towards a ‘continuum’ model of voice-hearing. In this, voices exist on the end of a spectrum that includes day-dreaming and intrusive thoughts. We all have the capacity for hearing voices, it’s just that some of us are more likely than others to hear more intense voices, or to hear them more often.
Why, then, does voice-hearing sometimes become a problem?
One thing people often struggle with is not being able to control when the voices speak – it’s often a surprise and it can go on for a long time. For others, it is not so much when the voices speak or how much, but what they say. That is, they find the content of the voices distressing – perhaps because it is derogatory, offensive, or expresses views, thoughts or intentions that are very different from the person’s own.
Research indicates that, for some people, voice-hearing is a response to traumatic life events, particularly during childhood. Examples include bullying, neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Major life changes such as the end of a relationship, losing your job, becoming homeless, or starting a new school or college have also been linked to the onset of hearing voices.
Other things that can make distressing voices more likely to occur include:
- Lack of sleep or extreme hunger
- Drugs and alcohol
- Danger and feeling under threat
- Stress and pressure
If you are struggling with your voices and finding them hard to manage, our module on coping strategies contains a range of suggestions which might help you deal with your experiences.
Did you know?
A 1993 study of 50 recently bereaved people in Sweden found that 30% of participants were hearing the voice of their deceased spouse one month after death; 6% were still hearing them 12 months later. Higher rates have been found in Japan, a culture in which religious rituals traditionally emphasize ties with the departed.
Chochin (paper lanterns) hung during the Japanese Obon festival, to guide the spirits of returning ancestors.