“O, what a world of unseen visions and heard silences, this insubstantial country of the mind!”
J. Jaynes, 1976.
There, almost 20 years ago in an inner-city apartment, I sat talking with a friend. We had been smoking late into the night, the acrid smell of self-induced euphoria filled the small space of her living room. As she spoke a multitude of frogs croaking outside began to compete with her voice. Their volume rose to such an extent that nothing else could be heard. Her lack of wonder at this event struck me as odd. “Listen to that outside, there must be hundreds of them!” I shouted. She could hear nothing whilst for me the intensity had become deafening. She sat with me until the sound abated. This was my first auditory hallucination.
Auditory hallucinations are false perceptions of sound; they have no source point in the external world but are discerned as real by the person affected. Auditory hallucinations are not experienced as sounds coming from inside the mind, rather they are heard as if they are entering the body through the ears or through the surface of the body. Auditory hallucinations can range in loudness, they can be be perceived as voices with great linguistic complexity, or they can include animal sounds, music, tapping or scratching.
How often have you mistakenly heard your name being called? How often have you heard a knock on the door when in fact there was nothing but silence?
The voice “within” has been a central part of many religions. In Classical Antiquity those who heard voices were viewed as being in direct contact with the gods. The Oracle of Delphi, established in the 8th century BC, was renowned for its Pythia, women who heard the voice of Apollo. Leaders consulted the Pythia for advice during periods of war and plague, the oracles commanded a position of prestige and authority in society.
In Judeo-Christian records God spoke to Adam on the 6th day, informing him of the rules of conduct inside the Garden of Eden. God also spoke to Moses from a burning bush instructing him to guide the Hebrews from Egypt. Later in the bible Moses is described as listening directly to the voice of God as he dictated the 10 Commandments to him.
In the Jewish bible God is reported to have spoken to several people, challenging them on their actions, conversing with them and answering certain questions much like a benevolent paternal figure.
According to the Islamic religion Mohammed heard the voice of the Angel Gabriel as he meditated and walked through the desert – he searched for the source of the voice but saw nothing, prompting him to consider taking his own life. Over the ensuing years the Angel Gabriel returned to Mohammed, dictating the contents of the Koran to him.
Thus the world’s major religions have common origins: an individual hears a voice that lacks any physical source yet which commands authority, from this experience a new set of morals and religious guidelines is imposed upon local societies. Could this still be possible in our contemporary world? Probably not. Nowadays anyone proclaiming communication with divine voices in the western world would most likely be diagnosed with schizophrenia, though there are still accounts of cult leaders asserting their ability to hear the voices of gods and angels. Does our lack of faith in the words they relay from their “voices” say more about our secular age than it does about our understanding of mental illness?
Philosophers and Leaders:
Several philosophers and state leaders are documented to have heard voices. One of the more notable was Socrates the Greek philosopher who, at the trial leading to his execution, said his life was directed by his “daemon”. Common to many who experience auditory hallucinations Socrates regarded his daemon as a voice of wisdom, one which he did not experience as part of his recognised thought process. At the time of the trial Socrates spoke of his daemon:
You may have heard me speak of an oracle or sign which comes to me, which my accuser Melitus ridicules and sets out in the indictment. This sign I have had ever since I was a child. The sign is a voice which comes to me and always forbids me to do something which I am going to do, but never commands me to do anything, and this is what stands in the way of being a politician.
Perhaps the most famous of all leaders to hear voices was Joan of Arc. A national French hero and a saint in the Catholic church, Joan of Arc maintained that she was aided by the voices of saints in her fight to free France from the domination of England in the 100 year war. Joan credited the voices for advising her on the strategy which would eventually help France win the Siege of Orléans and have Charles crowned King.
The roots of western philosophy and the modern political terrain can therefore be regarded in no small part as stemming from the actions of those who listened to disembodied voices, voices which secular society would describe as auditory hallucinations.
What do we know about auditory hallucinations?
During the Dark Ages people suffering auditory hallucinations were often thought to be communing with the devil. Subsequently there are accounts of some unfortunate individuals who were subjected to trepanning or trial as a witch.
Later in the 16th century the first Insane Asylums were opened in order to remove the afflicted from the streets. Often chained to walls it was believed that clean air, food, and water would help restore the patients to good health. The reality of the asylums was quite different. Depending on the institution patients might be doused in cold water and starved. There are some stories of patients being spun on a wheel with the belief that the reduced flow of blood to the brain would relax their muscles. In more recent times patients hearing voices were subjected to lobotomies and shock therapy.
It is now known that 75 percent of people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations, though 10-40 percent of people without a psychiatric illness have also reported experiencing auditory hallucinations.
The most common type of auditory hallucinations in psychiatric illness consists of voices, sometimes of a gender opposite to the patient and even with accents and intonations different from the patient’s linguistic background. Voices often comment on the individual’s behaviour, referring to the patient in the third person. Often the voices have a negative and malevolent content, speaking to the patient in an abusive manner. However research has shown that many people who hear voices regard them as a positive aspect of their lives and that they can be inspirational and comforting.
Interestingly people without mental illness report a higher proportion of positive voices as well as a greater ability to control them. Auditory hallucinations in mentally healthy individuals is often caused by neuro-infections; cerebral tumours; intoxication or withdrawal from drugs.
The existence of auditory hallucinations demonstrates the fragility of the human psyche, that our position as healthy individuals is tenuous and often beyond our control. Auditory hallucinations illustrate the power of sound to unsettle, to disturb and to inspire, even when it is manifested from deep within the mind.