Hallucinated voices and the community inside us

I’ve long been fascinated by the experience of ‘hearing voices’ and long been baffled by the typical scientific approach to the experience.

As a result, I’ve just had a paper published in PLOS Biology that focus on one of the most striking but ignored aspects of hallucinated voices.

Here’s how I describe the central paradox in the paper:

Auditory verbal hallucinations, the experience of “hearing voices”, present us with an interesting paradox: the experiences are generated from within a single individual but are typically experienced as a social phenomenon—that is, a form of communication from another speaker.

Current theories attempt to explain auditory verbal hallucinations as alterations to individualistic information processing—namely, misattributions of internal thoughts as external phenomena due to biases in cognitive monitoring.

The fact that voices stem from an internal source is, of course, clear, but the typical experience of “hearing voices” is not that thoughts seem to be “spoken aloud” but that hallucinated voices have a social identity with clear interpersonal relevance. In other words, voices are as much hallucinated social identities as they are hallucinated words or sounds.

The article discusses the psychology and neuroscience of social processing in the experience of hearing voices and suggests how we can begin to consider this as a central component of the experience in terms of scientific research.

It’s an academic article but should hopefully be fairly accessible to most people with an interest in the science of hallucinations.


Link to article ‘A Community of One’ on social cognition and hearing voices.

5 thoughts on “Hallucinated voices and the community inside us”

  1. The writers observation are valid, I’d like to add: the voices stem from a persons sometimes conflicting need to be taken seriously and the need for anonymity in their social group, to qualify for group protection. those two aspects can be in conflict because there’s no real world format for discussion. in fact schools, churches, and legal-governmental institutions all exist to resolve that basic conflict, but they’re all top-down and structured for ascension by support. it’s a definition of alienation.

  2. As perhaps a footnote to this great train of thought – Operators and Things gives a generous account of schizophrenia and auditory verbal hallucination in vivid and gripping detail. It’s a memoir. But reading it is an experience.

    On other matters of focus, the research on imaginary friends or supernatural beliefs seem like good areas to find relevance or distinction. I have a friend who consistently describes god as “a voice saying…”. But more specifically, I’m thinking of some research done by Pascal Boyer on moral religions. He gives a dual-processing account of religious beliefs and how this applies to social behaviors (and supernatural justice).

    He writes “that religious beliefs are apparently diverse but thematically similar…” As mentioned, how much farther could that thematic similarity go toward categorizing the types of social relationships/interactions within auditory verbal hallucinations? This seems, a bit, like parallel research, including the handy little visual on page four: http://artsci.wustl.edu/~pboyer/PBoyerHomeSite/articles/BaumardBoyer2013CurrentDirections.pdf

    I also felt some association in his work here: “Very different epistemic constraints apply to these two kinds of beliefs. Intuitive beliefs stably guide behavior in a fast and automatic way, tailored by natural selections to maximize fitness (Tooby & Cosmides, 1995). This implies, if not altogether true beliefs, at least a strong grasp on those aspects of environments that affect fitness. By contrast, reflective beliefs are highly unstable even within an individual, and they may or may not affect behavior. The main force that drives their occurrence is relevance, not truth. They are all the more stable, frequent, and culturally recurrent if they either fit our intuitions or else contradict them in an attention-grabbing manner (Boyer, 1998)”.

    So far as, I even wonder where there would be germane, analogous neuroanatomical activation between someone engaged in a devotional act/consultation (prayer) and someone conversing with a hallucinatory persona.

  3. “indicating that voices are not likely to be just “misidentified thoughts” but specifically “misidentified voice images””

    Or, proof that the brain is capable of autonomously creating a coherent expressive structure with its available data that is capable of interacting with the individual’s “self”-expression.

    That there is a tendency for the person to misattribute the cause and mechanics of ones voices does not mean that we can disregard the fact that the brain, through this, shows its capacity for coherent expression/manipulation outside of conscious control. It is an interactive, responsive organ using the tools at its disposal, with at times great skill.

    “it implies that an ability to internalise models of other people and generate associated imagery of their voices is a normal developmental process.”

    Not only does the brain prove its capacity to internalize models of other people, it also proves its capacity to create, outside of conscious control, near perfect replicas of their modes of expression, and behaviour. Which it then again uses to prove its capacity for lucid conversation with the individual hearing/conversing with these voices.

    Focusing on this as a purely clinical condition, instead of as a signifier of the capacity of the brain for interaction/agency/manipulation outside of the control of the individual, will always strike me as limiting our understanding of what this organism is, and can be.
    (Note : i am not by the above statement implying that there is any form of proof for cohesiveness in the independent interactive capacity of the brain. Said interactive capacity might operate in any of multiple ways. What must be noted is that it, through these voices, at least prove a limited capacity for cohesiveness in its responses to expressions from the individual.)

    Source : Been there, done that. That is, i had multiple years of the stuff, and quite enjoyed it at times. (And was torn horrendously apart by it at other times…)

  4. there’s no information a person can claim to originate because we’re made from the influences of the world. but we’re social beings that make physical realities (like houses & cars). so it seems natural that we create fantasy social models the same way we imagine a new kitchen. by indulging those models and giving them free reign (the same as “how would it be to put a pantry where the dishwasher is?”) they take on a personality that might be offensive or defensive if you deal w/ unpleasant people. Then in imagining or replaying some event, you interpolate the new solution and he turns out to have horns and big teeth because the unpleasant person he was created to deal with is also imaginary, and still an uncontrollable threat (etc. etc.). It’s actually a kind of odd solution to mix physical and social constructs, but it’s what people do best. augh, it’s 2:30 am, tell me if this makes sense.

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