Mental Health Association of Portland

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

Posted by CoffeeX3 on November 25th, 2010

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, 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 Responses to “Workshop message: Hearing voices is more normal than you might think”

  1. jack babcock Says:

    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. David A. Green Says:

    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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