Varieties Of Voice Hearing
A team at Yale University has been working with people from the mediumship community in an effort to understand their experiences. The team would like to apply what they learn to help people who hear voices that are distressing, who might suffer from serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. We do have drug treatments for those experiences, but the drugs have some very unpleasant side effects and they do not work completely in 30-50% of people. We need some new and creative approaches to this unmet need.
The Yale team, including Dr. Albert Powers (of Spirit Alliance), have been working for the past five years to learn as much as they can about voice hearing and clairaudience in an effort to inspire new treatment approaches to voices that are distressing. They began by collaborating with the CT Psychics association. However, they are now interested in broadening their reach and working with more people who are clairaudient and receive daily auditory message experiences.
Voice hearing is much more common than previously acknowledged. Up to 20% of people might hear a voice when no-one is around at some point in their lives; between 3 and 10% have that experience more frequently, perhaps following a bereavement, for example. Hearing voices is not a sign of mental illness and, by working with people who identify as clairaudient, the team believes that they can help the 1% of the population who suffer from schizophrenia, for whom voice hearing can be very distressing.
In this phase of the work, the team is trying to understand and learn as much as they can about what it is like to be clairaudient, how clairaudience arises, what it involves, and, as part of the research study, the patterns of brain responses and behavior that characterize clairaudience as compared to voice hearing in the context of serious mental illness – what are the similarities and differences?
In their work so far, the team – led by Professor Phil Corlett – has learned that people who identify as clairaudient have voice experiences that are very similar to those reported by people whose voices are distressing; they happen as frequently, the voices say things of similar length and loudness, the content may be more positive and the experiences are understood as spiritual gifts that clairaudient people have more control over and therefore find less distressing.
Furthermore, when the clairaudient people first shared their experiences with another person, their response was significantly more positive than the people with distressing voices. The Yale team wants to learn more about why that might be. One interesting possibility revealed in their data is that clairaudient people have their experiences earlier in life and perhaps learn to interact with them more effectively than people who suffer with their voices.
Using brain scans and computer games, the team has shown – in Science Magazine — that people who hear voices (both the clairaudient people and the patients with distressing voices) develop strong expectations about what might happen next. These predictions (or priors) fill in their experiences of the world. The patients find it hard to update those predictions when the game changes, whereas people with clairaudient abilities can change their minds more easily.
These similarities and differences were also apparent in the brain scans. The study uses a magnetic resonance imaging brain scanner, or MRI; it measures changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain by tracking the iron in people’s blood. When parts of the brain are active, more blood flows to them. The team can measure those changes while people do different tasks.
Different parts of the brain were active in people who were clairaudient compared to people who had distressing voices, during the computer task. The parts that were similar included regions that are involved in hearing, attending, and reflecting on what one has perceived. Activity in these parts related to strong expectations.
The parts that were different included old structures deep in the brain that are associated with memory and learning (the hippocampus), as well as parts that are involved in the control of movements and thoughts at the back of the brain (the cerebellum). These parts were more active in people who were clairaudient and less in patients with distressing voices. Activity in these parts changed at the same time as people changed their minds; the more flexible people engaged those brain regions more. The team is already developing approaches to change activity in these regions to better assist people who experience voices that are distressing.
Corlett says, “We feel extremely fortunate to have the privilege to work with people from the mediumship community. They have been so helpful. They referred their friends and colleagues to our study and have approached participating with open mindedness, patience, and sincerity. I am delighted that the community shares our goal of working together to learn about the varieties of human experience, in the service of the many people world-wide who suffer with voices that are distressing. That people from the mediumship community are willing to share their gifts with my team to an extremely deserving population is inspiring to me and I feel utterly grateful.”
Corlett’s work with the community has been featured on the BBC, in The Atlantic, and on various podcasts and websites. There is a real excitement about the work from the public, from the mediumship community, from patients and their advocates, from the academic community and from the National Institute of Mental Health who are supporting the work.
Corlett says, “The next step is to replicate and extend what we found. We need to be confident of our initial observations. That will entail recruiting and working with more people who experience clairaudience, as well as more people who have voices that are distressing and who suffer from serious mental illnesses. If we see the same sorts of patterns, of similarities and differences again, we can be more sure that what we have learned could be useful and we can begin to put all that good work to use, to help people who suffer.”
In a new study, across two sites (Yale University and University of Maryland), the scientists are trying to learn more about clairaudience and voice hearing. If you are interested in helping them to help people with voices that are distressing, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The study involves coming to the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven, CT (or the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center) on four occasions and completing interviews about your experiences, as well as participating in computer games and brain scans. You will be compensated for your time and inconvenience.
Dr. Corlett says, “There are many different ways that human beings experience the world. Our team would like to learn more about how and why people have the experiences that they do. We are not interested in proving or disproving anyone’s abilities. Instead we want to learn from you what it is like to have the experiences that you do, how you feel about them, when they started, and how you stop them. We think this might be one way to better help people who suffer with their voices and find them frightening. We would very much appreciate your help with this mission.”
Dr. Philip Corlett is an Associate Professor at Yale University Dept of Psychiatry. He is very interested in hearing from you if you would like to be part of this study. Please contact his team at email@example.com.