Auditory hallucinations, i.e., hearing sounds or voices without external input, are often scary, both for the ones with the hallucinations and the people around them. Though these kind of hallucinations were treated with awe and dread in ancient times, more recent cases have typically been viewed as symptoms of mental illness and treated by medical doctors. Along with Joan of Arc, Socrates, and Pythagoras, other famous examples include Galileo who reportedly heard the voice of his dead daughter while grieving over her death and Robert Schumann who suffered from increasingly complex musical hallucinations (including angelic and demonic choirs).
An estimated five percent or less of the general population has reported hearing voices though rarely on a regular basis. While most commonly seen in cases of severe mental illness, they can also occur in people of all ages and all walks of life. Though mental health professionals continue to grapple with the complex issues surrounding auditory hallucinations, new research suggests that people can learn to live with them and even thrive. In a recent TED talk by psychosis patient Eleanor Longhorn, she described her history of coping with psychiatric treatment and suggests that learning to listen to the voices in her head helped her survive and move on with her life.
A new article published in Schizophrenia Bulletin presents the results of an innovative study suggesting that auditory hallucinations may be far more common than we realize and, in many cases, can be experienced by people who view them in positive ways that don't require psychiatric treatment. Conducted by Alfred Russell Powers III and Philip R. Corlett of the Yale School of Medicine, the study compared voice hearers with a diagnosable disorder such as schizophrenia with self-proclaimed psychics who often reported hearing voices as well.
In an interview with Medscape Medical News, Dr. Powers said that the voices reported by psychics are often reported as clairaudient experiences which are regarded as positive and even protective. As Dr. Powers pointed out, "Some of my patients are pretty traumatized by auditory hallucinations, and we are pretty limited in the options we can offer them for treatment if they fail that first line. One of the reasons for that is that we don't really understand how hallucinations arise in the brain...For that purpose, it would be really useful to have a population that doesn't have medications, that functions quite well and does not have the full spectrum of psychotic disorders but does, nonetheless, have auditory hallucinations."
His co-author, Dr. Corlett, added that "There's been indications that one could use cognitive-behavioral therapy in particular to teach people hearing voices not to completely ignore them or push them down but to learn to live with them and to work around them. We think that perhaps the people in our psychic group might have learned to do that on their own, and may be more capable than patients with schizophrenia to do that on their own....By comparing the psychics to the schizophrenia group, we think we may be able to learn more about how they do it. Ultimately, we'd like to try to teach patients how to do that or come up with new interventions that we can use to help patients come to that conclusion as well."