Monday, February 17, 2014

All in the Mind - Hearing Voices

The podcast episode of All In the Mind titled “Hearing Voices – The Invisible Intruders,” presented by Lynne Malcolm, discusses the phenomena of hearing voices when no one is around speaking. Often categorized as an auditory hallucination, this phenomena raises questions of where these voices come from, why they are heard, and whether or not they can be considered “real.”

There is a great deal of stigma both cultural and historical associated with hearing of voices, both positive and negative. In the Western world, the hearing of voices that seem to come from outside of one’s head is linked to prophets and religious icons, and was generally seen as the mark of a holy figure, full of knowledge and power. Still today, others link the hearing of voices with a positive, spiritual experience, relating to God or some higher power. But more often than not, like the experiences with the voices themselves, the association is negative. There are countless stories of people feeling compelled to either harm themselves or others because voices told them to do so, to the point where it’s become a stereotype of “crazy” characters in popular media. The immediate association with someone who hears voices is that of someone violent, shut-in, delusional and often, beyond hope. But of course, there’s a lot more to it.

In addition to presenting recent scientific studies made on the topic of hearing voices, the podcast provides interviews with several people who claim to hear voices and who have struggled with it. While some describe pleasant experiences with voices, most often they are malicious. One woman describes the voices as coming from outside and into her own head, telling her things about what is happening around her, such as warning her that someone is about to attack or telling her to jump off of a bridge. Conversely, for another man, the voices are like echoes of people he has known returning to haunt him, like a priest who sexually abused him in childhood or a former lover who committed suicide. Some scientists believe that these phenomena of voices are not unlike phantom limb syndrome, in which the brain—deprived of sensory input due to a loss of tissue—will imagine or recall that sensory input from memory, giving the feeling that the limb still exists. These voices may exist in a similar manner, a brain falsely recalling memories of sounds when no one is around to cause them.

The cause of this is unclear. Because the human brain is a complex organ that we have very little understanding of still, there is a variety of potential sources: childhood trauma, chemical imbalance, all of which are too vague to really offer any specific diagnostics, much less actual solutions.

However, those interviewed in the podcast attest to the positive results of sharing their hearing experiences. The international Hearing Voices Network is a strong advocate of the idea that acceptance of the voices as real experiences—instead of unreal phenomena meant only to be ignored—gives those who suffer from such experiences a sense of power and greater ability to cope with their voices. Some even come to find their voices more enjoyable—one man discusses “the teacher,” a voice he consults when he has difficult decisions to make, claiming it is not all that different from the sort of dialogue people have with themselves in their own heads. People share coping mechanisms and find others who share in a phenomena that most other people would struggle to relate to, and may even be frightened by. The power of sharing the experience of hearing and categorizing it as a real experience helps normalize the experience, helping people to feel less alone more in control of themselves.

The podcast itself is nicely put together, providing a range of interview subjects from acclaimed scientists in the field to everyday people who experience the phenomena, and is punctuated by poetry written by and about someone who hears voices. I think it could have been made more powerful if it had included a section where a series of unrelated, often degrading voices, begin to talk over the podcast, to give the listener a sense of what that experience is like. This could even be done multiple times, before the podcast reaches the point where it discusses the Hearing Voices Network and its positive techniques. Still, the episode was well put together, interesting, with a positive outlook and a lot left to wonder about the nature of what is real and what isn’t.

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