Hearing voices: not as uncommon as you may think

Contrary to popular belief, not only schizophrenics experience auditory hallucinations a.K.a. hear voices. Many people who are not even mentally ill often report hearing claps, whistles, buzzing voices, or even music in their head. Around 70 % of schizophrenics hear voices that interrupt their thought patterns on a consistent basis and 15% of people with mood disorders experience auditory hallucinations. However, hearing noises or voices isn’t necessarily a sign of mental illness.

According to Scientific American Mind magazine, hearing auditory hallucinations may not be as uncommon as the public thinks. In 1983 a study showed that 70% of a 375 college-student survey admitted to hearing voices at leas once in their lives. Many students thought that they heard dead relatives, divine beings, and even their own thoughts in vocal form. Auditory hallucinations during waking or directly before sleep were recorded by 40% of the study participants.

A 1991 National Institute of Mental Health study reported 5% of 15,000 Americans who had experienced auditory hallucinations, heard them for a complete year. Only 1/3 of the 5% that had experienced the hallucinations met the criteria for a psychiatric diagnosis. Thomas Bock, a psychotherapist and director of the outpatient psychosis service at the University Medical Center of Hamburg-Eppendorf, Germany, at least 3% to 5% of the entire population in western Europe and the United States hear voices. In comparison to those findings, the disease schizophrenia only affects every 1 in 100 people.

How do these hallucinations happen?

Psychotherapist Thomas Bock explains that they arise from “too much internal stimulation” or “too little external stimulation.” Bock thinks that auditory hallucinations maybe a cause of people holding too much thought and emotion on the inside. Many people that hear voices have suffered a degree of trauma as a child or adult such as: rape, abuse, isolation, or a severe accident.

The unresolved conflicts resulting from traumas trigger signals which Bock thinks signifies that they need to listen more to their inner voice. Though there are many speculations as to what causes one to hear voices, some researchers agree that the hallucinations are due to a failure in a feedback circuit within the brain.

This feedback circuit normally tells you when “you” are talking or thinking — not someone else. The hypothesis that “self-talk” or “internal dialogue” gets misaligned with normal internal feedback applies to schizophrenics as well.

How can you tell if a person is hearing voices or has schizophrenia?

Well, researchers also studied and compared those who had no psychiatric symptoms to those already diagnosed with schizophrenia. Participants in the study listened to distorted voices of themselves — they were told to press a button if they thought they were listening to themselves or another person.

People already diagnosed with schizophrenia had much greater difficulty identifying their own voices. Also, non-schizophrenics did not report negative commentary in their hallucinations — schizophrenics heard negative and degrading voices. Both groups of people reported commentary on the vocalization of their thoughts, yet non-mentally ill participants heard encouraging statements like: “You can do it” or “it really wasn’t your fault.” Non-mentally ill patients also felt more in control of their voices, while schizophrenics reported little or no control.

What brain-imaging has shown

Brain-imaging studies have also shown the physiological aspects that happen in verbal hallucinations. During schizophrenic hallucinations, a huge increase of brain activity was shown in Broca’s area, an area involved in producing speech, not hearing it. They also found large amounts of activity in the brain’s primary auditory cortex — an area that normally processes sounds from the outside environment. Schizophrenics brain’s responded to their auditory hallucinations the same way as a regular brain responds to chatting with others.

Several causes of auditory hallucinations:

  • Mental illness — People with various forms of mental illness can hear voices. It is most common to hear voices in schizophrenia, but in bipolar disorder and severe forms of depression, some people hear voices.
  • Social isolation — A common trait of people who experience auditory hallucinations is social isolation. Social isolation causes the brain to receive too little simulation from the outside world. Withdrawn social activity can fuel hallucinations for non-schizophrenics, which in-turn will fuel social rejection.
  • Poor stimulation for extended periods — Several hikers and sailors that have survived poor stimulation for long periods of time have reported auditory hallucinations.
  • Sensory deprivation victims — Some victims of sensory deprivation victims often report hearing voices. Sleep deprivation when taken to extremes, can commonly cause auditory hallucinations.
  • People with hearing loss — Musical hallucinations in people who have forms of hearing loss are actually quite common. Scientists think that the brain records auditory information that it has stored over one’s lifetime. When the external output (hearing) is eliminated, the deposited signals can live on in the form of hearing music — when it’s not playing…
  • Spiritual phenomena — Many very spiritual or religious people claim to have heard voices in meditations, rituals, or during enlightening experiences. Very spiritual people claim to have been talking with others in another dimension, talking to “spirit guides,” deceased relatives, or another “higher being.”

How researchers are trying to quiet the voices

Currently, for those who do suffer from hearing voices, anti-psychotic medications work best for eliminating symptoms. Trans-magnetic-stimulation (TMS) has also been used by scientists as a method of decreasing the amount of brain activity in specific regions by using magnetic fields. The targeted areas of TMS have been those involved in speech-processing.

In 2005, researchers were able to suppress acoustic hallucinations in 50 patients for a total time period of 3 + months! Studies have also shown that the sooner one talks to someone about hearing the voices, the sooner the voices disappear. They have also shown that how a person views their voices is almost always a direct reflection of what the person actually hears.

Researchers and therapists are also helping victims learn how to “reframe the voices” and become more conscious of their illness. Therapists help to make sufferers masters of their own mind — by providing victims with valuable coping techniques. One interesting coping technique that has been used on several patients is that of allowing voices to “come out for conversation” during a set period of time.

By allowing them to come out for a set period, they tend not to usually bother the victims for the rest of the day. Another interesting phenomenon that scientists have found is that the vocal hallucinations that a victim experiences are usually a mirror reflection of their social life with real people.

It’s not always necessary to eliminate hearing voices from your life. Researchers think that whether or not a person should attempt to eliminate voices should result from whether the voices are positive or negative. When voices get negative, swear at the victim, talk trash, or degrade the person hearing them, it is definitely recommended to get help.

On the other hand, if a person hears positive voices, is socially active, and is not isolated, chances are good that the person can comfortably lead a fulfilling life. However, friends and family should still not rule out mental illness if one does hear “positive voices.” Some people manage to convince themselves that “negative voices” actually are well-meaning.

What should you learn from this article?

You should realize that hearing voices is actually fairly common nowadays. If you are hearing voices, don’t be afraid to share them with others — it may quiet them a little bit. The type, or mood of the voice, can usually distinguish a schizophrenic from a non-schizophrenic. For a nice video clip on what it feels like to experience schizophrenia: check this out — it’s a “virtual simulation.”


Article sources: Scientific American Mind December 2006 / January 2007 Issue, Article: Hearing Voices by Bettina Thraenhardt — a psychologist and science journalist.