What are voices and who hears them?
Hearing voices is often thought of as a symptom of a serious mental illness. But research on the experiences of the general population shows that lots of people hear voices and the majority of them are not mentally unwell. It is a common human experience.
Hearing a voice when no-one is present with you, or which other people with you cannot hear, is considered to be a hallucination. This does not make it abnormal – it’s just a word for a perception you may have that is not shared by those around you. You may also see things that others can’t see. You may experience touch, smell or taste sensations which you cannot account for in usual everyday ways. Some people may not realise that many other people do not have such experiences.
People have many different experiences of hearing voices. Here are some examples:
• It’s quite common to hear your name called when there is no-one with you. You may look round to see where the voice came from, and wonder why you heard it, but if nothing else happens you will probably just shrug it off as ‘just one of those things’.
• You may hear or see things as you are falling asleep.
• You may experience the voices as being in your head or you may feel that they are coming from outside and heard through your ears like other sounds.
• You may believe that you are hearing other people’s thoughts.
• The voices may be louder or more frequent if you are feeling stressed.
• You may experience unkind and threatening voices that tell you to do dangerous or unacceptable things or try to control you.
• You may hear a kind supportive voice.
• Sometimes there may be more than one voice and they may talk or argue with each other.
Why do people hear voices?
It is still very common for people to assume that if you hear voices you must have schizophrenia. If you hear unpleasant and disturbing voices and see a doctor about them you are quite likely to be given a diagnosis of psychosis. Sometimes these are the reasons but there are many other explanations for voices too.
• Voices as you fall asleep or wake up – these are called hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations and are to do with your brain being partly in a dreaming state. The voice is likely to call your name or say something very brief, or you may hear other brief sounds such as a telephone ringing. You may also see strange things or misinterpret things you can see, such as seeing a coat on a hook as a person standing in the doorway. These experiences usually stop as soon as you are fully awake.
• Lack of sleep
• Hunger – you may hear voices if you are very hungry, or if you have anorexia nervosa and are starving yourself.
• Physical illness – if you have a high temperature and have become delirious, you may hear voices and see or say strange things.
• Drugs – you may hear or see things as a result of taking certain street drugs, or as a side effect of some prescribed drugs. You may also have these experiences when you are coming off drugs.
• Bereavement – if you have recently lost someone very close, you may hear them talking to you. You may also feel that they are with you even though you cannot see them. This experience is very common and can be comforting, especially in the early days of bereavement.
• Abuse or bullying – if you have experienced abuse you may hear the voice of the person who abused you, undermining you and ordering you to harm yourself or to do things you know to be wrong. This is especially so if you experienced the abuse in childhood at an age when you had not learned the coping skills you needed to protect yourself, or you were never given any chance to learn such skills.
• Other traumatic experiences – you may hear voices as a result of other traumas, such as accidents or major natural disasters. You may be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Hearing several different voices may be associated with traumatic experiences and may also be associated with a dissociative disorder: it may be a way of coping with trauma by separating yourself from it. (See post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorders.)
• Spiritual experiences – some people experience a voice as part of a spiritual experience. You may experience your voice as that of an angel, a mystic or sage. This may be a very special experience for you and you may feel that it helps you to make sense of your life. Or you may feel that you are possessed by an evil spirit and that is the voice you can hear.
• Mental health problems – you may hear voices if you have a diagnosis of psychosis, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or if you are severely depressed. (See psychotic experiences, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.)