Can’t you hear them? The science and significance of hearing voices

New book examines the multiple meanings of voice hearing

Voice-hearers have been heavily stigmatised in both this world and others, with J.K. Rowling telling us that even in the wizarding world hearing voices isn’t a good sign. A new book on the experience of ‘hearing voices’ by Trinity College Dublin academic and psychologist, Associate Professor Simon McCarthy Jones, uncovers how history has shaped the way we think about voice-hearing, explains new ways to think about voice-hearing, and provides access to the state-of-the-art work being done in this field by a collective of scientists, voice-hearers, and voice-hearing scientists.

By examining the personal stories of many people who hear voices, along with cutting-edge science, the book combines insights from experience with findings from science to offer a balanced view. Here, both biology and trauma have their place, and indeed may often be two sides of the same coin.

Traditional biomedical explanations propose hearing voices is due to a chemical imbalance or that it is “a symptom of brain disease just like blindness”. Its perceived rival is another account, largely developed by voice-hearers themselves, in which voices are meaningful messengers about the hearer’s emotional struggles, often stemming from traumatic events such as abuse. Can’t You Hear Them? The Science and Significance of Hearing Voices examines the competing explanations for the phenomenon of hearing voices and argues that this area has become problematically polarised.

Some of the key research and ideas described in the book include:

  • The variety of voice-hearers. Voices have been and are heard by a range of people; saints such as Joan of Arc and writers such as Virginia Woolf; musicians such as the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson and mountaineers such as Joe Simpson; people with psychiatric diagnoses such as schizophrenia, and around 1% of people in the general population who are untroubled by their voice-hearing experiences.
  • The author argues that just as Hamlet discovered something was rotten in the state of Denmark because a phantom appeared and told him so, some of the phantom voices that people hear today are telling us about problems at the heart of our society.
  • Research suggests childhood trauma, such as child sexual abuse, can be a cause of hearing voices. Studies have found that experiencing multiple childhood traumas is associated with voice-hearing to an extent comparable to the association of smoking with lung cancer.
  • The author puts forward the argument that shame is potentially hallucinogenic.
  • Mechanisms through which voice-hearing may occur are explored, starting with the talking breast pump phenomenon before moving onto the argument that hypervigilance for physical and social threats may lead to voice-hearing.
  • A biomedical understanding remains dominant; having been brought to prominence, somewhat surprisingly by religion, as well as by factors such as psychiatry, the backlash against psychoanalysis and the parent-blaming of the 1960s, and progress in neuroimaging and pharmacology.
  • The book shows both how a biomedical approach can have beneficial effects, but also how it can fail, with tragic results.
  • It shows how voice-hearers not helped by traditional approaches have taken back their experiences, created new meanings for voice-hearing and developed new innovative ways to cope. Here we meet the Hearing Voices Movement, which has been influential in highlighting the role of trauma in voice-hearing, in helping voice-hearers understand potential links between their past and their voices, and in promoting the argument that voice-hearers need liberation not cure.
  • The roles of the brain and genes in voice-hearing are examined, based on cutting-edge research, and it is explored how trauma may shape the brain and genes.
  • Because whether or not voice-hearing people end up in psychiatric services is strongly influenced by how negative (i.e., critical, abuse, and humiliating) their voices are, the author explores “what puts the ice in voices”.
  • This includes a role for culture, with the author arguing that “hearing voices is a cross-cultural phenomenon, but how cross the voices are is cultural”.
  • It is shown how voice-hearing has the potential to be a creative phenomenon, allowing people to access otherwise inaccessible information, such as being given plots and storylines for books as well as answers in exams, and it is considered whether non voice-hearers could access this creative well too.

Can’t You Hear Them?, in a series of short and easily digestible chapters gives a humane, entertaining, impassioned, scientific and moving account of the struggle for the ownership of hearing voices. By taking the reader into both the lives of people who hear voices, as well as the MRI scanner, it offers a unique perspective on this experience.

Simon McCarthy-Jones, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology and Neuropsychology at Trinity College Dublin, said: “There is no single route to voice-hearing and so there can be no single answer to this puzzle. Attempts to insist otherwise have only resulted in tragedy. We need to listen to the insights gained by a range of people who hear voices. This includes the insights from the Hearing Voices Movement about new ways in which voice-hearing can be understood and through which voice-hearers can be supported and empowered. Yet we also need to acknowledge insights from neuroscience and genetics. There will be things that people cannot know about their experiences and that only magnets and centrifuges can reveal. But without the context of a person’s life, centrifuges may only spin lies and magnets repel, not attract, truth. It is only through listening and talking that we can move forward together.”

Drawing on his own interdisciplinary research, and the burgeoning work being done on voice-hearing, the author draws together history, genetics, politics, psychology, neuroimaging, psychiatry, and research into childhood adversity in this fascinating and enlightening book.

Can’t You Hear Them? The Science and Significance of Hearing Voices (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2017), by Simon McCarthy-Jones, pp.272, ISBN: 978-1785922565, is available at all good bookshops, priced ~€19.

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