Who hears voices in their heads? Why?
November 6, 2005 7:08 AM   Subscribe

Voices in your head. What mental disorders are associated with this? What other phenomena? Which historical and mythical figures?

I'm working on a novel, and one of my central characters is just coming to terms with the abnormality of a voice in her head. I'm looking for angles and ideas. She's going to talk to a shrink, probably have a sit down with a priest (family is Catholic), and I'm looking for other folks she might talk to and some of the things they might throw at her, along with the sorts of things she might trip across in her own research.

I want to cover everything. Psychiatry, religion, and every other phenomenology y'all can muster. Details are awesome, but jumping-off points and references are welcome and probably more than a panicked writer deserves.
posted by cortex to Religion & Philosophy (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Mental disorders: schizophrenia of the paranoid type.
posted by crapples at 7:11 AM on November 6, 2005

As a former psych. nurse, we were told to only assess/address "command" hallucinations. That is, if the voices were telling them to hurt themselves or others. I'm sure the physicians dealt with the voices more than we did, we just needed to know if we needed to keep a closer eye on them or get them additional meds.
posted by 6:1 at 7:22 AM on November 6, 2005

Drug abuse is commonly blamed for psychotic, voices-in-my-head, type episodes.
posted by soiled cowboy at 7:39 AM on November 6, 2005

Any psychotic disorder has hallucinations, though they aren't always "voices in your head". Paranoid schizophrenia is the textbook example, but there are other things that might cause the voices -- people with severe bipolar disorder, for example, often have hallucinations.

From a religious perspective, if the priest believes they are caused by a supernatural power (I imagine even men of the cloth these days don't actually jump to that conculusion much) the question is whether it's the voice of God or the voice of some sort of demon. The Bible provides plenty of examples of people being "called" most often by dreams but also by voices, ala Joan of Arc, and also provides at least one example I know of of demonic posession, where Jesus drives out the demons by having them possess some pigs.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:41 AM on November 6, 2005

St. Teresa of Avila comes immediately to mind, as does Joan of Arc. I don't know my Catholic history enough to suggest more, but the Catholic Encyclopedia might be a good place to start without having to leave your desk. I also don't know if these ambiguous mystical experiences are more common in church history with women than with men (Paul "seeing the light" on the road to Damascus or Moses and the burning bush seems symbolically more forceful, as a comparison). But then again, I haven't been in Catholic school since 6th grade, so I don't really know what I'm talking about.

Medically, you've got postpartum psychosis and syphilis, if you want to go that route.
posted by bibliowench at 7:44 AM on November 6, 2005

There have been cases of people picking up radio signals as a result of having metal objects in their skulls - either through accident (staple guns, shrapnel) or medical procedure. I don't have the time or energy to research more specific examples, but the radio signals would be perceived by the receiver as voices in the head. Well, voices if they were getting talk radio, otherwise they'd be hearing classic rock or whatever.
posted by nylon at 8:26 AM on November 6, 2005

As far as the why of auditory hallucinations, my professor Dan Reisberg told us that schizophrenics misattribute subvocalization to an external source. In effect, they can't tell they're talking to themselves. I did find an article with some sources in support of this viewpoint. (Huge font, strange colors. Sorry about that.) When I was getting my degree, it was one of the more interesting theories about schizophrenia I can recall learning.
posted by rebirtha at 8:28 AM on November 6, 2005

Related: Bicameralism.
posted by Leon at 8:32 AM on November 6, 2005

One thing: are there any cultures or contexts in which the hearing of voices has been a generally praised or admired trait? I'm thinking vaguely of (pop culture references to) American indian "spirit quests" and smokelodges and such, for example.
posted by cortex at 8:43 AM on November 6, 2005

"I also sometimes hear people's voices, but only once was it distinct enough for me to tell what they were saying. I think it was a woman's voice and she said, speak up."

first person accounts of schizophrenic delusions
posted by cloudscratcher at 8:51 AM on November 6, 2005

I once heard command-ish voices in my head, which were a manisfestation of my panic-anxiety disorder.

Sometimes just before I sleep it sounds like there is a radio going off in my ear, switching channels. I don't know if this counts, but it may be an option.
posted by divabat at 9:23 AM on November 6, 2005

NPR did a story on a company who built a schizophrenia simulator.
posted by horsewithnoname at 11:02 AM on November 6, 2005

divabat: Those are called hypnagogic (half-asleep) hallucinations. Anecdotally I think they seem relatively common, especially when one's overtired.
posted by abcde at 12:11 PM on November 6, 2005

I get sleep paralysis sometimes and hear very distinct voices upon waking up or when I'm lightly asleep. I often get confused and think it was a real conversation with someone when it was basically a dream. Occasionally I see things too, usually people in the room and they talk to me. A friend of mine has it quite severely and often has entire conversations with people that she knows aren't there. There are a lot of websites on sleep paralysis, but it's not linked to anything else as far as I know.
posted by fshgrl at 1:48 PM on November 6, 2005

first person accounts of schizophrenic delusions

The one on that page from "Kim" is both frightening and hilarious at the same time, in the way that only insanity can be.
posted by kindall at 2:04 PM on November 6, 2005

Dreaming every night. Methamphetamine psychosis. Reactions to severe childhood trauma. See Spiritual Emergency by Grof. Look at websites for 'voicehearers' in UK.
posted by madstop1 at 5:04 PM on November 6, 2005

Here's an Esquire piece on what it feels like to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Apparently you can read the whole thing if you do a free 30-day trial with that website.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:55 PM on November 6, 2005

I was trying to track down a reference for the view that Socrates heard voices, and I found this article from The Guardian. It describes the controversy surrounding medicating those who have auditory hallucinations, and in the process provides some historical/social context.
posted by O Blitiri at 7:38 PM on November 6, 2005

Are there any cultures or contexts in which the hearing of voices has been a generally praised or admired trait?

The word you're looking for: shaman. Jung (and Joseph Campbell, taking off from Jung) wrote extensively on how shamans' cultures looked upon their behavior (which would be considered pathological in the modern west ) as a blessing.
Since your character is Catholic, it might be fun to go beyond the obvious vision-having saints mentioned above and find something more obscure. Get a saint's dictionary or a good dictionary of symbols heavy on saint's lives, look up a few names or objects with resonance to your story, bingo.
posted by ellanea at 8:08 PM on November 6, 2005

Great stuff, folks. Keep it coming!
posted by cortex at 9:46 PM on November 6, 2005

This is one of my favorite topics, although I find it as baffling as when I started studying it.

Well. In the DSM, you'll find this under four broad categories, most of which are psychotic disorders. Psychosis' broad hallmark is impairment of reality testing; folks who are hearing voices tend to be difficult to converse with on the topic of whether they recognize that the voices are artifacts of their illness. In illness, the voices are generally disturbing (affect-laden), impossible to ignore, and tend to have taboo content: suicide and homicide are frequently found, often as commands. This distinguishes them from 'illusions' which are affect-neutral and easily distinguished as unreal by the patient.

Schizophrenia. Not only the paranoids, but all types of schizophrenics can hear these voices. Paranoid schizophrenics often hear things which lead them to believe that unrelated events, such as TV broadcasts or conversations, are in fact about them personally (delusions of reference.)
Schizophrenics are not simply whispering to themselves and misattributing the source; that idea is nuts. The source is internal to their minds but it is not something trivial like not being able to tell when they're whispering.

Schizoaffective disorder and depression with psychotic features are hard to untangle; they may have a worse prognosis. Psychosis in the setting of severe depression is really a pretty unpleasant thing; these people suffer greatly.

Grief reaction: this is an exception, according to the DSM. Apparently when you lose someone close to you, it can be "normal" to hear their voice or even see them in your room late at night for up to six months.

There are culture-bound psychotic syndromes, such as the Malay 'amok', and possibly the Viking berserker rage. You can read about all of the above in the latest edition of Kaplan and Sadock.

A rather interesting study in France claimed that 10-15% of healthy normals had heard voices at some point during their lives. Julian Jaynes thinks that these people are throwbacks to a 'preconscious' state in which two independent thought centers in the brain (possibly associated with the two hemispheres) communicated by hallucinating voices at each other. This strikes me as one of the more interesting unfalsifiable hypotheses I've come across.

Hope this helps.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:13 PM on November 6, 2005

Julian Jaynes also says that hallucinated voices are often triggered by the sound of falling water. Apparently oracles tended to set up shop next to waterfalls.

(I don't know enough about mythology or about the brain to endorse or dispute the assertion. I'm just reporting what I remember reading.)
posted by tangerine at 11:38 PM on November 6, 2005

For me, the interesting thing is that 100 years or so ago, the only explanation for voices in your head was god or the devil. Since the invention of radio, TV, etc., the list has got someone longer. The CIA are beaming instructions into your head! You're hearing a radio program nobody else can hear! You're in a reality TV program but the camera crew just won't come out from their hiding place and admit it! I think someone in your novel should make that point.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 1:04 AM on November 7, 2005

If you are aware that the voices in your head are "in your head" as opposed to actually there, then it's a pseudohallucination rather than a hallucination. I've got these as a symptom of severe depression. (I'm not sure whether it classifies as psychotic or not - my psychiatrist wont tell me)
posted by talitha_kumi at 1:54 AM on November 7, 2005

Julian Jaynes also says that hallucinated voices are often triggered by the sound of falling water.

Well, one of the writers for "Surface" has been reading Julian Jaynes, I guess...
posted by kindall at 8:15 PM on November 11, 2005

I experienced an episode associated with my diagnosis of Schizoaffective disorder in early 2001. I am also a practice Catholic. The are still some priests who believe schizophrenia is a result of of demonic possession. This is a very damaging belief that widens the already wide gap better the church and psychiatry. I hope that this gap can be healed because I think the church and psychiatry have alot to offer each other.

My voices were very degrading and hurtful to me--thank God they're gone! It was not a pleasant thing to perceive that everyone--even my own family was out to get me. One thing that you might want to consider is the narcissism associated with the whole psychotic state. I mean, I thought I was a the center of everything....
posted by jcardinale at 1:55 PM on December 6, 2005

Got about thirty thousand words into the novel. It has been on Indefinite Hiatus since late November. The voices were just starting to get interesting, too.
posted by cortex at 8:50 AM on June 28, 2006

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