While silently reading a book, text message, or this article to yourself, a voice may emerge from the back of your mind to narrate the sentences. Hearing voices in your head may sound eerily similar to a hallucination, but according to a new study published in the journal Psychosis, the phenomenon is common among readers.  

Clinical psychologist Ruvanee Valhauer, who is also a professor at New York University’s Department of Psychology, explored the wide variety of inner reading voices by reviewing Yahoo! Answers, the largest English language Q&A website in the world. Valhauer collected 136 relevant answers to 24 questions that were asked on the forum between 2006 and 2014 about their own experiences with inner reading voices.  

In total, 82.5 percent of those who answered said they heard an inner voice while they read in silence to themselves. Of those who said they heard the inner voice, 13 percent explained that it only happened sometimes, like when they were reading something that greatly interested them. Last, 10.6 percent of contributors reported they never heard an inner voice while they read. The remaining few answers were too unclear for Valhauer to place into a definitive category.

Nearly all of those who had an inner reading voice said it was audible, meaning it had a depth, accent, or certain volume to it. While some said it was a reverberation of their own voices narrating a line in a book or piece of conversation in a text message, others said the voice took on a life of its own. Some said they could not control what the voice sounded like, which they found distracting and even scary at times.

Descriptions of Inner Voices:

  • “I hear a sort of young, quiet, male voice though I am female.”
  • “I hear the voice of like what I think the character would have.”
  • “My grandpa. Honest to God he used to read to me a lot so sometimes I hear his voice.”
  • “It’s sort of tons of voices combined into one perfect, undistracting voice.”
  • “I usually hear a friend’s voice that reminds me of the character of the story I am reading.”

Valhauer conducted the study in order to investigate a relatively unexplored area of the subconscious. She believes the evidence may be used to understand auditory hallucinations in those with mental illness. According to the Mental Health Foundation, hearing voices is a type of hallucination in people with psychotic disorders like schizophrenia. It is estimated that between five and 28 percent of the general population hear voices others cannot hear — the range is so wide because many do not report the voices in fear they’ll be labeled or diagnosed as a victim of mental illness.

Valhauer concludes that there’s no clear link between auditory hallucinations and inner narrators during reading, but that further research may lay the groundwork for understanding the side of the phenomenon that falls into mental illness.

Source: Vilhauer RP. Inner reading voices: an overlooked form of inner speech. Psychosis . 2016.