Hearing Voices, a Primer

Hearing Voices is a code phrase for someone who perceives (hear, smell, see, taste, touch, ‘sense’) anything beyond what others do. It is not synesthesia, feeling the presence of god, talking to yourself, negative self talk, or a few other things that people mistake. While people diagnosed with schizophrenia may Hear Voices (etc), Hearing Voices does not mean you are schizophrenic, psychotic or a few other medical conditions which have become synonymous with Hearing Voices.

For simplicity, I will use the capitalised Hearing Voices and variants to mean the entire phenomena rather than the specific trait of only hearing voices.

Hearing Voices is quite common. Most people have experienced some odd sensory experiences at least once in their life, with 75% of people surveyed admitting that they have heard, seen or experienced an impossible phenomena that fits in to the Hearing Voices description at least once. Many people get this phenomena when they are at the edge of falling asleep or waking from sleep, or when they are in a very stressful situation. One anecdote I recall talking to a client about was when they were in a horrid situation where their child was in terrible danger after a motor vehicle accident. My client heard the distinct external voice that told them to get up and keep going, that they had to save their child and gave them some fairly good instructions on what to do to do it. My client, an atheist (someone who has no belief in gods or the supernatural) could see how people could mistake that kind of commanding external voice as the voice of god.

While Hearing a Voice at some point in your life is common, most people do not have a frequent Hearing Voice experience. Depending on the study, as little as 3% and as much as 10% of the world’s population experience frequent Hearing Voices regularly. That is as many as 1 in 30 to 1 in 10 people.

For some, the experience of Hearing Voices is nice. The presences they experience are peaceful, empowering and helpful. Warnings that do come are frequently right, and advice given is helpful. One client explained to me that their good voice helps them with fashion advice, but is absolutely awful at mathematics, so no good in an exam.

For some, the presences are a mixed bag of good and bad. A client as telling me that when they smell a particular flower sent (in the absence of those flowers or perfumes being present), then they know to expect that someone close to them has died. While the sensory manifestation isn’t benevolent or malicious, it does herald an upcoming bad time, which they have learned to use as a warning to be prepared.

Girl holding book with friendly dragon on shoulder, fending off shadows whispering in the background.
Fending off the shadows with a friendly dragon

Some just get the awful ones. One client has a number of presences that are not very pleasant. Multiple senses are involved in the entities existences. Some are just vocal, some are vocal and visual, some incorporate smell as well. Most of their entities are non-coherent in sound (noises, animal or demonic utterances), and those who are coherent in words are not very intelligent (like a very limited chatbot you find in “online help” or worse) except that they use lots of swear words and personal insults. The few who can form real sentences and can seem to know what is going on in the real world, when examined are just occasionally lucky.

About 1 in 3 Voice Hearers do not seek support or medication for their experience and go on to live perfectly fine lives, with about the same experience as those who do not. Of the 2 in 3 Voice Hearers that do seek help, around half of those (or 1 in 3 Voice Hearers total) benefit from medication, while the other half (another 1 in 3 Voice Hearers) don’t. Discussing the medications is beyond the scope of this brief write up, so we will tackle that another time.

I have worked with dozens of people who are Voice Hearers, and most of them hear voices, hence why this description is used for all people in the category. In my experience, all of these voices fail the basic reality check. That is, they don’t actually know what is going on around the Voice Hearer. They will claim to knowledge that is separate to the person, but fail to produce any actual evidence of being able to do so when challenged. The entities that claim to know what the situation is will try to give advice to the Voice Hearer about the current situation, but their understanding of what is happening is incredibly childish and naive. Effectively, they are more sophisticated chatbots, and much like the Chat GPT, when they can’t find an easy answer, they make up a plausible answer that is factually wrong. This can lead the Voice Hearer to believe the entities are telling the truth or have some important insite for a long time before realising how ignorant and misleading they are.

We humans have some interesting defaults. These defaults are often correct, but can be very awkward and even harmful when they are wrong. Here are a few defaults we have:

  • We assume our parents are nice
  • We assume that someone who speaks makes sense
  • We assume that being alone is awful
  • We assume that people have a reason why they do things
  • We assume people have our best interests at heart

Due to these built in assumptions, when we get messages from entities or other phenomena, we assume there is a good reason for it, and when that message comes in the forms of words, ideas and feelings, we assume they are accurate, if only we can understand them. To try to understand these messages, we will twist parts of our reality to make it make sense.

This is not a phenomena limited to people who hear voices, plenty of average folk do this. When I was working in hospital aged care, we would have senior folk admitted due to a range of medical issues. A not uncommon reason that has led the person to have these medical issues is dementia, and often the family haven’t realised it. Part of my job was to help the family accept that this was true, generally by demonstrating to the other family members that the patient has no real idea about what is happening and is, much like a chatbot, using the question you just asked to give you the answer you are probably looking for, with no actual comprehension about what the actual answer is. After coaching the family not to answer on behalf of their relative, I would ask a trick question that should be obvious to anyone who can recall a few hours ago. The patient would proceed to get it wrong, making it clear that they have some serious issues.

The person who is distorting reality isn’t the patient with dementia. It is the family member who has come up with lots of stories to explain why their parent is struggling a little perhaps, but doing fine at home and can clearly make sensible decisions – until I have properly demonstrated this is false. Then we re-visit all of those reasons why the family member distorted facts and their narrative to make their family members odd behaviours okay.

In a way, an extreme version of this reality distortion is thought disorder, which actually is schizophrenia. However, to be schizophrenia, the person doesn’t have good or any insight into the distortions they make even after they are pointed out. A person who is not schizophrenic, on the evidence of truth, will either stop distorting reality to make the irrational seem rational, or will catch and correct themselves when they start to do it. Schizophrenia is far more complex than this, but it is useful to understand this specific and fundamental difference between voice hearers who are not schizophrenic and those who might be. Discussing this further is beyond the scope of this page.

There are a few theories about why people hear voices which we will discuss another time.

What I’ve been leading to in this write up is what to do with the signal and noise of the voices. It is important to recognise that generally what the Voice Hearer thinks that the voice is directly “saying” is noise. Your brain is trying to find a message in the noise, and mistaking that as sensible, and thus creating a rational to make that message make reasonable sense. But it is just noise, so the rational, reason and logic from that is nonsensical.

The fact that you are perceiving something is important though. There is often a pattern to the intensity, time and situation that the perceptions increase compared to when they decrease.

Imagine that I have a fan that is computer controlled to keep the graphics card in the right temperature range. I set up a microphone near the fan and pipe that through an automated transcriber app, a program converts to text whatever someone speaks. The next app then tries to figure out where the grammar should go, tries to spot which words were mis-transcribed and corrects them, and finally ensures that the sentence structure and vocabulary matches a formal university level essay. Finally, another app might then speak those words out loud, or perhaps try to convert them into a painting. Listening to the end result of this is going to sound oddly compelling, if that first app doesn’t recognise that it is listening to noise instead of speech. If it thinks it is speech, then it is going to enthusiastically try to figure out what the words are, even if the specific word it picks up in each snippet of sound is just random gibberish. Each progressive step assumes the prior step is being honest and accurate in some way to the source.

Effectively that is what hearing voices is. That oddly compelling misreport.

That doesn’t make it totally useless though. When the final stage (the one you have access to) creates more speech (or paintings) compared to average, that will often occur when the computer is working extra hard and needing the fan to increase in revs to keep the system cooler. If the last stage is less productive than average, that could mean a very different thing. If I can work out if the level of output has a connection to something else, then perhaps that level of output is a signal that is useful, while the output itself is just noise translated into random sentences.

It is important to recognise that sometimes this change in output is not at all useful. That could be that by the time it becomes a change that is noticeable it is too late to be helpful in any meaningful way, or the first stage of the error is interpreting random noise.

Voices come in a few categories

  • Helpful / insightful
    • Positive and not generally misleading
    • This is often more like a reflection of a nicer part of you, or someone you know
  • Incoherent;
    • Might be mumbles, murmurs, screams or word salad
    • The Word Salad (random words) can sometimes seem like there is sense in it, but there really isn’t. While we will keep being tempted to figure out the code (due to our biological assumptions), we do need to remember that it is nonsense.
    • These can be very distracting when trying to concentrate on something, which is often when they get louder
  • “Intoxicated”
    • Like drunk autocorrect, wants to help, sometimes does, but often fails with no obvious malice
  • Nasty incoherent
    • Most often this is just insults and swear words
    • This likes to feed back to you your own insecurities, like all of your worries about how others see you is being piped back to you as someone you hear or see
  • Malicious
    • Most often tells you the wrong thing, leads you to the wrong conclusion, commands you to do bad things, effectively it really doesn’t like you
    • Often these voices use the same pattern as someone you knew
    • Sometimes this voice is an over enthusiastic ego self check, again piped back to you as a voice, but doesn’t know when to quit
  • “Frenemy”
    • Pretends to have your best interests at heart, but it is almost always harmful

Knowing which kind you have helps to work out if the “words”(might be feelings or other seeming communication) are useful, or should be ignored. Let us be realistic about what ignoring the voice can and can’t do though. If my housemate is always insulting me, telling me I smell bad and constantly telling me that I have food stuck in my teeth, it is reasonable that I initially believe him. I might take extra showers, put on extra deodorant and keep brushing my teeth. When I figure out that he’s lying, I can ignore anything he says about my odor or teeth, and be highly skeptical about anything else he says. This won’t shut him up, it’ll just mean I don’t take action on what he says, like taking extra showers. Except in the case of voice hearing, you can’t move out when your finances improve.

Often how the voice changes is the real signal. If the voice is making more sound, it will often indicate that you are more stressed/ need to eat or sleep /forgot to take meds /just got into a toxic situation etc. Think of it as a warning or an alarm than an intelligible set of words.

We humans are good at distorting things to try to find a sensible pattern in noise, in the false assumption that the noise contains meaning (signal). Really, the presence of noise is the signal. If the message of the voices is usually helpful, like a friend, then the message (word, feeling etc) might be the signal.

If you Hear Voices, a useful goal is to work out how you can use them to help your life. Even the best and worst ones can have use. When we reframe our Voices to being helpful, we change the relationship we have with them, and also to ourselves. For example “ah, the Clive insulting swearer just kicked in so I need to be mindful of taking on too much – thanks Clive”.

In essence, the phrase “Hearing Voices” is a shorthand for a bunch of different alternate perceptual differences that are considered to be hallucinations. Hearing Voices is not that uncommon. We often try to find a signal in the noise instead of realising that the noise is the signal, usually to do with stress, danger or the need to self care. Many Voices are an early warning signal that got misrouted via the wrong perceptual system, which led to the wrong interpretation.

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