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Can voices in your head be good?

Sept. 13, 2006
Courtesy University of Manchester
and World Science staff

Psy­chol­o­gists have launched a study to learn why some peo­ple who hear voices in their head con­sid­er it a pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, while oth­ers find it dis­tress­ing.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­ches­ter, U.K.—to be an­nounced, apt­ly enough, on World Hear­ing Voices Day, Sept. 14—comes af­ter Dutch re­search­ers in the 1980s found that many healthy peo­ple in Hol­land reg­u­lar­ly hear voices.

Ja­cob's Lad­der by Wil­liam Blake (1757-1827), a Brit­ish art­ist who re­put­ed­ly heard voices and had vi­sions.


Al­though that has tra­di­tion­ally been viewed as a sign of men­tal ill­ness, the Dutch find­ings sug­gest it’s sur­pris­ing­ly wide­spread, af­fect­ing about 4 per­cent of the po­p­u­la­tion.

“Many mem­bers of the ge­n­er­al pop­u­la­tion hear voi­ces but have ne­v­er felt the need to ac­cess men­tal health ser­vi­ces,” said the Uni­ver­si­ty of Man­ches­ter’s Ay­lish Camp­bell. “Some ex­perts even claim that more peo­ple hear voices and don’t seek psy­chi­at­ric help, than those who do.

“In fact, many of those af­fect­ed de­s­cribe their voi­ces as be­ing a pos­i­tive in­flu­ence in their lives, com­fort­ing or in­spir­ing them as they go about their dai­ly bu­si­ness.”

The vo­l­ume and fre­quen­cy of the voi­ces is no dif­fer­ent among those who view them ne­g­a­tive­ly com­pared to po­s­i­tive­ly, he added. His re­search team ar­gues that fac­tors such as life ex­pe­ri­ences and be­liefs may ex­plain these dif­fer­ences. For ex­am­ple, child­hood trau­ma or ne­g­a­tive be­liefs about one’s self could have an ef­fect.

“If a per­son is strug­gling to over­come a trau­ma or views them­selves as worth­less or vul­ner­a­ble, or oth­er peo­ple as ag­gres­sive, they may be more like­ly to in­ter­pret their voices as harm­ful, hos­tile or pow­er­ful,” said Aylish.

“Con­versely, a per­son who has had more pos­i­tive life ex­pe­ri­ences and formed more healthy be­liefs about them­selves and oth­er peo­ple might de­vel­op a more pos­i­tive view of their voices.

“Peo­ple be­ing treated for hear­ing voices are usu­al­ly giv­en med­i­ca­tion in an at­tempt to elim­i­nate the prob­lem,” he added. Ex­plain­ing why some peo­ple view them po­si­tive­ly might “con­trib­ute to the de­vel­opment of psy­cho­log­i­cal ther­a­pies to help peo­ple bet­ter un­der­stand and cope with their voic­es.”


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Psychologists have launched a study to find out why some people who hear voices in their head consider it a positive experience while others find it distressing. The investigation by the University of Manchester, U.K.—announced, aptly enough, on World Hearing Voices Day, Sept. 14—comes after Dutch researchers found that many healthy people there regularly hear voices. Although that has traditionally been viewed as a symptom of mental illness, the Dutch findings suggest it’s surprisingly widespread, affecting about 4% of the population. “Many members of the general population hear voices but have never felt the need to access mental health services,” said the University of Manchester’s Aylish Campbell. “Some experts even claim that more people hear voices and don’t seek psychiatric help than those who do. “In fact, many of those affected describe their voices as being a positive influence in their lives, comforting or inspiring them as they go about their daily business.” The volume and frequency of the voices is no different among those who view them negatively and positively, he added. His research team believes external factors such as a person’s life experiences and beliefs may be the key to these differences. For example, the presence of childhood trauma or negative beliefs about themselves could have an effect. “If a person is struggling to overcome a trauma or views themselves as worthless or vulnerable, or other people as aggressive, they may be more likely to interpret their voices as harmful, hostile or powerful,” said Aylish. “Conversely, a person who has had more positive life experiences and formed more healthy beliefs about themselves and other people might develop a more positive view of their voices. “People being treated for hearing voices are usually given medication in an attempt to eliminate the problem. By investigating the factors influencing how voices are experienced we hope to contribute to the development of psychological therapies to help people better understand and cope with their voices.”