Hearing Voices Doesn’t Mean You Have Mental Health Problems

Just because you hear voices does not mean you have mental health problems, according to academics embarking on a study at a Welsh university. Psychologists at Bangor University are planning to delve into the psyches of people who hear voices, but are not mentally ill.

They say contrary to popular belief, hearing voices is a phenomenon common to all cultures around the world and is a positive experience for most people. Estimates suggest that at least 4% of the UK population have experienced hearing voices or “clairaudience”.

But little is known or understood about the phenomenon as those who do hear voices often do not tell others and it is thought the actual number is higher than 4%.

PhD student Katy Thornton, from the university’s School of Psychology, hopes to study people across Wales who are untroubled by the experience of hearing voices. She said, “Contrary to popular belief, the fact that a person hears voices does not automatically mean that they have mental health problems.

“The majority of people who hear voices have benign or positive experiences. Hearing voices is different for each person. Some find it a spiritual experience; others may feel their voice is another part of themselves. Some people get help and support from their voices while other people’s voices might just talk about quite mundane matters. Each person experiences it differently – it might be a disembodied voice or it might be their own thoughts with somebody else speaking them.”

Miss Thornton, 25, said she became fascinated by people who hear voices after working at a Leeds Psychiatric Hospital for six months in 2002.
“It’s something I’ve always been interested in, especially after working in the psychiatric hospital with people who hear voices.” Miss Thornton will spend the next six months cataloguing the experiences of those who hear voices.

Historically, hearing voices was considered an important, meaningful and in some cases divine experience. Many important religious figures have heard voices, as have influential thinkers such as Socrates, Carl Jung and Gandhi. Today, hearing voices is still seen as a gift in most non-western cultures, says Miss Thornton.

Psychology lecturer Dr David Linden, who will supervise Miss Thornton’s research, says the experiences of people who are relaxed about clairaudience is an under-researched area. He said, “In clinical practice we would normally encounter patients who hear voices and are distressed by them. However, we don’t know what it’s like to hear voices and not be troubled by them and we’ve not paid the phenomenon enough attention.”

Those taking part will be interviewed and asked to complete questionnaires about themselves and their experience. They will also be invited to have a brain scan, a non-invasive, risk-free process, which enables the scientist to detect activity as thought processes take place.

Miss Thornton says she is not going into the work with any preconceived notions. She added, “I’m interested in the individual’s experience of hearing voices. People will have the opportunity to discuss their experiences and how they understand them in their own words. I’m not making any prior psychiatric or spiritual assumptions about these phenomena.”