People understand and make sense of their voices in various ways. The traditional medical explanation of voice hearing dismisses the experience as a meaningless hallucinationary symptom of life-long, incurable, severe mental illness, caused by a diseased and malfunctioning brain. However, today, a growing movement argues that voices are a “meaningful response to traumatic life events” and a “normal reaction to abnormal events”.
The Hearing Voices Network describes voices as “similar to dreams, symbols of our unconscious minds”. This movement believes that what voices say and do is a meaningful reflection of an individual’s life experiences, understandable in the context of their lives. Other voice hearers may explain their experiences as religious, spiritual, or in terms of supernatural or alien powers. The nature of these explanations may be culturally specific.
How common is it?
Hearing a voice or sounds that other people cannot hear (voice hearing) is an experience 5% to 28% of people have at some point in their lives. Despite its frequency, there is considerable social stigma about this experience. Hearing voices does not mean that someone is unwell, psychotic, crazy or dangerous.
What can cause someone to hear voices?
There is no conclusive explanation of exactly what causes someone to experience voice hearing. Brain imaging has shown that when a voice hearer is hearing their voices, the same area is activated that responds when they actually hearing a voice out loud. A great amount of research has tried to find evidence that it is caused by specific illnesses with definite biological causes, often with a genetic basis, and which can be cured with medication. This search for evidence has been largely unsuccessful.
This failure has led to seeking other explanations for the experience of voice hearing. A lot of research in the field of psychology has pointed towards a causal relationship in terms of a natural response to traumatic events. Voice hearing is often understood as a dissociative experience. This means the individual experiences detachment from their immediate surroundings and physical and emotional experiences, and is generally understood to be a survival mechanism. Many, but not all, voice hearers have reported that they first started to hear voices during a difficult time in their life. We know that when people are placed in sensory deprivation rooms anyone will eventually start to hear voices.
However, it is unlikely that there is a single cause behind the experience. Sometimes drug use is implicated, but the causal route is unclear. An individual may start to use drugs because of their voice hearing, or to try to help them cope with a difficult period in their life which they respond to by hearing voices, rather than the drug causing their voice hearing. It is possible people vary in the degree to which they are vulnerable to experiencing voice hearing in response to an interaction between their life events and their genetic make-up, but this explanation is not universally accepted.
While some voice hearers find medication helpful, others have found that being supported to come to an understanding of their voices in a way which makes sense to them is more helpful. This can lead to more effective coping strategies and change the power dynamic in the relationship they have with their voices.