Workshop message: Hearing voices is more normal than you might think

By Jenny Westberg, Portland Mental Health Examiner

When Ron Coleman and Paul Baker blew into town last week to present a workshop titled,“Working with Voices,” they definitely stirred up some dust. Among the clinicians in the audience, there were a few raised eyebrows, but also many delighted smiles, as the two U.K. mental health workers described an innovative, recovery-oriented approach to working with clients who hear voices (auditory hallucinations).

According to Coleman and Baker, hearing voices is far more common than most people realize; and it is not, by itself, a problem. Hearing voices, they assert, is part of the normal range of human experience.

One out of ten – or more

“Hearing voices” and “normal” do not usually appear in the same sentence, unless they are separated by “IS NOT.” A pop-culture example appears on CafePress.com, a site offering T-shirts, stickers, magnets and other gifts emblazoned with various messages. Here’s the section for “Voices” items:

Coleman and Baker, however, say voice-hearing is surprisingly common, and not limited to serious mental illness. The INTERVOICE website, which Baker coordinates, lists three studies showing that more than 1 out of 10 people hear voices. More recent work includes a 2006 article in the American Journal of Psychiatry, in which the authors note: “Auditory hallucinations have been estimated to occur in 10%–15% of those without neuropsychiatric illness.” And in March 2010,  Flavie Waters, PhD, put the number even higher: “10% to 40% of people without a psychiatric illness” experience voices.

Prominent individuals who talked or wrote about hearing voices include Anthony Hopkins, Charles Dickens, Socrates, Winston Churchill, even Sigmund Freud.  And there’s no such thing as a “typical” voice-hearer. Here are two voice-hearers who probably couldn’t be more different:

  • Gandhi: “I saw no form… But what I did hear was like a Voice from afar and yet quite near. It was as unmistakable as some human voice definitely speaking to me, and irresistible” (Harijan, 8-7-1933)
  • George W. Bush: “God would tell me, ‘George go and fight these terrorists in Afghanistan’. And I did. And then God would tell me ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq’. And I did.” (The Guardian, Oct. 7, 2005)

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2 thoughts on “Workshop message: Hearing voices is more normal than you might think”

  1. interesting but if i were to believe that hearing voices is really pretty normal i would be in trouble. I, a voice-hearer, have spent years of therapy and taken lots of medicine to cope with my illness.

    jack b

  2. Many people who have not been labeled with a mental illness get depressed, or feel anxiety, and would not be considered to have become mentally ill. I think the point of the workshop is that Hearing Voices is just like many other phenomena of the mind – it can be a part of normal experience, and it can also in some people get out of control and require help of some kind. We are all individuals, and unique.

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