What is it like to hear voices?
There is no such thing as ‘normal’ human experience. The way we think, imagine and remember, the way we take in the world through our senses, the way we relate to other people and to our environment – all these things vary from person to person.
It’s no surprise, then, that there are many different kinds of voice-hearing experience.
Public perception is that voices are always loud and aggressive, and command people to do dangerous things. This is a myth. While some people certainly experience voices which are disruptive and distressing, other voices can be positive, comforting or supportive, and some can be neutral, and not intensely emotionally charged at all.
For some people, hearing voices can be difficult to distinguish from everyday conversation. But not all voices are like this. Voice-hearing is not always an experience of sound but can be more like experiencing thoughts which are not your own – so people have referred to silent voices and loud thoughts.
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 unmistakeable …
My body and brain felt like they were on fire when I heard the voices; I had constant tingling sensations throughout my extremities and shock-like sensations in my solar plexus.
Sometimes voices occur alongside other kinds of experience – like being anxious, having intrusive thoughts, beliefs that others don’t share, or finding it difficult to concentrate. As we explain elsewhere, voices can be associated with many psychiatric diagnoses. There are also many people who hear voices and live comfortably with their experiences without ever needing or receiving psychiatric help.
People all over the world hear voices, and these experiences can be spoken about and understood very differently depending on different cultural contexts. Do these diverse experiences share anything in common? Voice-hearers and researchers might agree on two key points:
(i) that the voice is not under my control;
(ii) that the voice is not just random sound but has something to communicate
Woods et al (2015). Experience of hearing voices: Analysis of a novel phenomenological survey. The Lancet Psychiatry.
Read the paper here.