Hearing voices is often regarded as a sign of mental illness. But maybe voices are just part of a spectrum.
Professor T. M. Luhrmann says the idea of a continuum of voices is gaining recognition:
“This is the new axiom of the psychotic continuum theory: that voices are not the problem. The problem is the way people react to their voices.” says the professor of Anthropology at Stanford University (Harper’s magazine, June, 2018).
Luhrmann has been studying voices for decades and found people with intense experiences who aren’t psychotic.
One of them is Sarah, who was only four when a “spirit guide” appeared to her. When she told her mother of what she was seeing and hearing, her mother warned: “Cut it out. This is what they put people in psychiatric hospitals for.”
Sarah grew up otherwise normal, went to college and became a nurse. She began to see souls as they left the bodies of dying patients. They often gave her messages to give to people they’d left behind. While she could hear them, she realized that no one else did.
At sixty-two, Sarah is married and still working. One of her voices, “Tom,” is friendly. Other voices, “the council,” not so much but Tom helps mediate between the two.
“But Sarah is not psychotic,” says Luhrmann, “To use the language of psychiatric nosology [classification of diseases], she has no ‘functional impairment.’ She can work and care for herself and others; her marriage is good and stable. She has never been hospitalized.”
Sarah describes the council’s voices as if they are coming from a radio which would tune in and out.
My mother used to describe something like that: voices that that seemed to be coming from a radio; indistinct and sometimes with music. She would try turning off the radio only to find it was already off.
As an electronics teacher, people sometimes approach me with what I call the “radio phenomena.” They would wonder what the electronics were behind the indistinct voices they heard, seeming to come from a radio. While people can pick up strong radio signals as a result of metal oxides in tooth fillings, it’s rare and only works with strong AM signals. I was generally at a loss to explain the phenomena but it’s starting to make sense now.
Sarah has learned to live with her voices but others struggle. Schizophrenics have traditionally been prescribed antipsychotic medications with limited results.
One grassroots movement called Hearing Voices is offering an alternative approach to medication. They encourage those who are tormented with voices to address them. It’s difficult because the voices are frightening.
Luhrmann met one man at a Hearing Voices workshop. “His voices would yell at him for hours, cursing him, screaming that they should drag him out to the forest and leave him to die in the leaves.” He was encouraged to placate them. One of his voices was obsessed with Buddhism, so he agreed to read Buddhist texts and offer prayers during an allotted hour. Within a year, he had almost completely transitioned off medication.
Rather than treating voices as a disease, a better plan might be to treat them as part of rainbow of voices -some relatively benign, some requiring therapy.
“The central insight of these methods is that the way people respond to their voices can change the course of their lives,” says Luhrmann.