We’ll open today’s show with an amazing fact: According to the UK’s Mental Health Foundation, between 5% and 28% of the population hear voices that others do not. In fact, it’s the most common type of hallucination – called an auditory hallucination – in people suffering from psychotic disorders. But you might not have a mental problem if you do hear a voice that is inside or outside of your own head; it might be a one-off or non-frequent thing due to many circumstances that we will talk about today.
There are all kinds of levels of hearing voices, from just hearing a faint whisper, to the much worse situation of someone telling you to do something that is harmful to yourself or others. We’ll try to get a handle on what all this means, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Why do some people hear voices?
First of all, most of you watching this may have heard a voice that wasn’t really there at some point in your life, and that is nothing out of the ordinary. It happens a lot with children, but doesn’t usually persist into adulthood. If it does happen a lot, or it does persist into adulthood, this could mean that person is suffering from a mental illness. For these unlucky individuals, some find ways of living with it, while for others it can be very debilitating.
According to one article we found on the subject, the first thing you should do if you hear voices is not necessarily jump to the conclusion that you are suffering from schizophrenia. The Journal of Psychosis and Related Disorders tells us that auditory verbal hallucinations can “occur in individuals from the general population who have no identifiable psychiatric or neurological diagnoses.” As for reported prevalence, it varies a lot because many studies give different answers. As we said already, it occurs more in children, but studies found that it can happen more to people, depending on which country they live in. Apparently, Nepal scored high in hearing voices in one cross-national study. This is why the UK’s Mental Health Foundation reports such a wide scale of 5% to 28%.
There is also progression to take into account. Did you hear something after a particularly stressful few days with hardly any sleep, or is hearing a voice something that happens to you a lot? As for stress, research tells us that indeed hearing voices can often occur during emotional dysphoria (also known as being an emotional mess), trauma, the bereavement of a loved one, or a more physiological problem relating to sensory impairment. It could also simply happen when you are in the stage just before sleep…this is a transition stage called “Hypnagogia” which is sometimes accompanied by “hypnagogic hallucinations.”
Yes, it could be a result of a psychiatric disorder, but according to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, it might also be a consequence of a neurological condition such as temporal lobe epilepsy. You might not be crazy, you might have just developed a problem in your brain. This is important, and you should know the difference between what we might call a malady of the mind and a physical problem with the brain’s function.
So what is it like to hear voices, for those of us that have never experienced it before?
Luckily, a study by Durham and Stanford Universities asked that question. Here’s what they got back. Some people said they hear very clear voices, like someone standing next to them. But others, in fact around half of the participants, said the voices seemed almost like a mixture of thoughts and audio.
Try to imagine right now you hear your friend ask very clearly, “Hey dude, what are you doing?” You would be very, very startled. But then imagine you are in deep thought, feeling a bit tired, and think you hear someone’s voice but you almost know it isn’t real. You might compare this to a time you thought you smelled something, or even when you were sure you could taste a Double Whopper with cheese, but you hadn’t been near a burger King. This is the kind of scale we are dealing with, with the latter being common and the former perhaps being far more frightening. People with a diagnosis of schizophrenia will often hear these loud, sometimes commanding voices.
If you are hearing malicious voices, and you hear them often, perhaps it’s time to tell someone about it. A famous Yale study explains that for many patients with severe mental illness, “Voices are particularly disabling, often producing great fear in patients, disruption of behavior, and, at times, lack of control, leading to behaviors such as suicide and assault.” Ok, you’ve got it, you can grade your auditory hallucination from 1-10.
But why do we hear voices in the first place?
As we said, it could be due to a neurological condition, or it could be a result of a mental illness, or merely all those other things we stated such as sleep deprivation and trauma. You might ask now, if so many people hear voices when they develop schizophrenia (the Yale study tells us 70 percent of schizophrenics hear voices), why do people develop schizophrenia in the first place?
Again, it’s not easy to answer, but the experts tell us the factors could range from genetics, i.e., it just runs in the family, to psychological and environmental factors, such as divorce, job loss, or drug abuse. The condition could also be because of something more physical. The thing is, it’s not always obvious to see it in the brain itself. Some researchers do believe, however, that by stimulating the part of the brain responsible for language, you can affect these voices people hear. We can’t go too much into this, but we are sure you now have a good idea as to why people have auditory hallucinations.
But it goes deeper than this.
In terms of human evolution, why the hell would we be capable of hearing voices? We are now getting into evolutionary psychology. Has the brain just backfired on us? become our enemy? is there no reason why we hear voices other than it’s a nasty pathology that has no right to exist?
Well, in his groundbreaking and fascinating 2005 novel “Human Traces,” author Sebastian Faulks puts forward a hypothesis, one of a few in fact. His two characters are at the forefront of understanding mental illness in the 19th century. One of his characters dwells on this question as to the existence of hearing voices in modern men. He believes that it could be due to the fact that before we became self-aware, fully-conscious beings, and before we had language and an advanced memory, we had noises which communicated with us.
Each noise had a meaning, but unlike language, it only signified something. So, if you were thirsty, you might hear water flowing in your head. You might hear another noise that lets you know where the water sources might be. You carried all kinds of sounds in your head, and at times you needed to hear those sounds so you knew what to do or where to go.
These ancient humans heard voices in a way, because they had to. It might have saved their lives when they heard the roar of a lion in their head when they approached a place where they had seen lions before. They just didn’t have the mental capacity to remember and be acutely self-aware of what might happen. That noise may also have been the noise another one of your species made, something, again, that you would hear when you needed to hear it.
He also posits the theory that all religions started with people that heard voices, particularly the voice of God, and that losing this ability was a terrible thing. Regardless, we had to hear voices to survive in the past, when we had no language. In fact, Faulks writes, “It’s almost as if they (schizophrenics) pay the price for the rest of us to be human.”
Not too much scientific literature supports this, and we think Faulks may have gotten his theory from American psychologist Julian Jaynes. He argued that ancient human, when feeling stress, for some reason would experience neural activity in the left hemisphere of the brain, and this could lead to a hallucinatory voice. That voice, or noise, could save your life or find you food when a stress signal said it’s time to get a move on or time for some chow. These noises in the head developed to become consciousness and language over time, although the hallucinations are residual in some modern humans, according to the theory.
So, do you ever hear vocies? If so, what do they sound like and what are they saying? Let us know in the comments! Also, be sure to check out our other video called What Happens When You Die?! Thanks for watching, and, as always, don’t forget to like, share, and subscribe. See you next time!