Under the Hood

What Hearing Voices Is Like, As Told By Those With Auditory Hallucinations

hearing voices
It's hoped that better understanding of this experience can lead to better treatment. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Society’s idea of “hearing voices” is a hodgepodge of what’s depicted in horror movies and psychological thrillers. A recent study aimed to strip away the stigma and misconception associated with this experience by flat-out asking the public to describe, in their own words, what it’s like to hear the voice of someone who is not there.

Auditory hallucinations are described as false perceptions of sound and throughout time have been associated with everything from divine communication to severe mental illness. In reality, between five to 13 percent of adults “hear voices” at some point in their lives, iflscience reported. In the study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, a team of researchers from Durham and Stanford Universities asked 153 volunteers with a range of mental diagnoses, including 26 who had never had a psychiatric diagnosis, to describe their personal experiences with auditory hallucinations.

According to the researchers, the responses of the volunteers challenged the very definition of auditory hallucination. The researchers wrote in an essay published on iflscience that science has long speculated that voices perceived to be heard from outside the head are significantly more serious than voices perceived as thought-like. However, the results of the study showed that this was not always the case.

Just under half of respondents described the voices to be akin to hearing somebody speaking in the same room, but 10 percent reported that they heard “thought-like” voices, Hearing The Voice reported. A further 40 percent reported hearing “mixed” voices, that is, voices which had both thought-like and auditory characteristics.

Contrary to common belief, the “volume” at which individuals heard these auditory hallucinations also did not correspond with the severity of their mental health condition. For example, a person with a more extreme form of psychosis did not hear the voices more clearly or loudly than a patient whose condition was not as debilitating.

Mind And Body Experience

The study went on to uncover the interesting link between physical behavior and auditory hallucinations. Two-thirds of the volunteers involved in the study reported experiencing bodily changes when they heard the voices.

“My body and brain felt like they were on fire when I heard the voices,” wrote one participant. “I had constant tingling sensations throughout my extremities and shock-like sensations in my solar plexus.”

Other sensations participants reported included: tense pressure in the head, warmth, agitation, and feeling radically detached from their bodies.

The results, though interesting, have a deeper purpose and are a step forward in our understanding of this phenomenon, Health24 reported.

“A greater understanding of the complexity and variety of that experience is crucial,” the researchers said. “Our research also has implications for the therapeutic management of distressing voices and for the design of future studies of voice-hearing.”

Source: Woods A, Jones N, Alderson-Day B, Callard F, Fernyhough C. Experiences of hearing voices: analysis of a novel phenomenological survey. The Lancet Psychiatry. 2015.

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