Hearing voices

A substantial proportion of the population is prey to auditory hallucinations. Among those concerned, there are many who hear voices. At the University of Liège, Professor Frank Larøi has studied this problem in depth. Member of the International Consortium on Hallucinations Research and Related Symptoms created in 2011, he has contributed to four review papers in the past few months(1)(2)(3)(4) concerning hallucinations. At the same time, he is closely monitoring the evolution of a support group for voice hearers, founded jointly by ULg and the not-for-profit association Psy'Cause.

Voix teteWhen the football player Zinédine Zidane announced in 2005 that he had decided to join the French team again a year after having retired, he was the victim of sarcasm. Was this because he was considered incapable of maintaining his level on the field at the age of 33? No, because he confided in the magazine France Football that he had woken up at three in the morning to the sound of an unknown voice telling him the decision he needed to make.

Socrates also heard voices. And Freud reported in his diary that, as a young man travelling in a foreign town, he sometimes mistakenly thought that someone was saying his name. Beethoven, Sartre and Churchill, to name but a few, were also voice hearers. In 2011, the authors of a study on the issue reported that, according to sources, the percentage of voice hearers among the population was between 3 and 55 %. ʺThe disparity between these figures can be explained by the variability of the criteria used in the different studiesʺ, points out Frank Larøi, lecturer and research leader at ULg’s Cognitive and Behavioural Clinical Psychology Unit. ʺIf the subjects are asked: "Have you ever had the feeling of hearing the voice of someone who isn’t physically there?", the prevalence rate will be extremely high. On the other hand, if you ask about last week, only approximately 2 % of the general population will report an experience of this sort. According to all the available data, we can reasonably consider that 5 to 15 % of people regularly hear voices.ʺ

A ghost or an FBI agent?

Whether or not they have a psychiatric past, voice hearers are characterised by the high frequency of their hallucinations. This differentiates them from people who have had random hallucinatory experiences. But as the work of the psychiatrist Iris Sommer from the University of Utrecht tends to show, the hallucinations of non-clinical subjects are different from those of psychotic patients in terms of their content. It is generally benevolent or neutral, and the nature of the alleged voices is more spiritual rather than concrete (the ghost of a grandmother, for instance, rather than a neighbour, an FBI agent or the devil).

ʺThe more abstract nature of this type of hallucination makes it easier to control and prevents the subject from becoming delusionalʺ, Frank Larøi explains. ʺA key element differentiating voice hearers suffering from a psychiatric disorder and those who don’t is that the emotional experience of the former in relation to hallucinatory experiences is far more negative, and they are far less able to control their hallucinations. This would suggest that it is the individual’s emotional and cognitive resources that determine the clinical or non-clinical status of their hallucinations.ʺ

According to the work of Iris Sommer, it would also appear that non-clinical voice hearers generally had their first auditory verbal hallucinations at the beginning of adolescence, while psychiatric patients had their initial experience later, around 18 or 19 years old, the age when a person is often diagnosed with psychosis. Although no formal proof has yet been provided, it would however seem that although these individuals have no psychiatric past, the majority of non-clinical voice hearers have been the victim of one or more traumatic experiences during their childhood.

(1) Flavie Waters, Daniel Collerton, Dominique H. ffytche, Renaud Jardri, Delphine Pins, Robert Dudley, Jan Dirk Blom, Urs Peter Mosimann, Frank Eperjesi, Stephen Ford and Frank Larøi, Visual hallucinations in the psychosis spectrum and comparative information from neurodegenerative disorders and eye disease, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 40 suppl. no 4, S233-245, 2014.
(2) Frank Larøi, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, Vaughen Bell, William A. Christian Jr, Smita Deshpande, Charles Fernyhough, Janis Jenkins and Agela Woods, Culture and Hallucinations: Overview and Future Directions, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 40 suppl. n° 4, S213-S220, 2014.
(3) Louise C. Johns, Kristiina Kompus, Melissa Connell, Clara Humpston, Tania M. Lincoln, Eleanor Longden, Antonio Preti, Ben Alderson-Day, Johanna C. Badcock, Matteo Cella, Charles Fernyhough, Simon McCarthy-Jones, Emmanuelle Peters, Andrea Raballo, James Scott, Sara Siddi, Iris E. Sommer and Frank Larøi, Auditory Verbal Hallucinations in Persons With and Without a Need for Care, Schizophrenia Bulletin, vol. 40 suppl., n° 4, S255-S264, 2014.
(4) Angela Woods, Nev Jones, Marco Bernini, Felicity Callard, Ben Alderson-Day, Johanna C. Badcock, Vaughan Bell, Chris C. H. Cook, Thomas Csordas, Clara Humpston, Joel Krueger, Frank Larøi, Simon McCarthy-Jones, Peter Moseley, Hilary Powell, Andrea Raballo, David Smailes and Charles Fernyhough, Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Phenomenology of Auditory Verbal Hallucinations, Schizophrenia Bulletin, 40 suppl. n° 4, S246-S254, 2014.

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