Sitting alone in your home, resting or reading, you suddenly hear your name called or a voice in the room, but there’s no one is there with you. Are you beginning to have symptoms of a serious mental illness? Are you losing your mind? Should you immediately seek help? The simple answer is that it’s not out of the ordinary, and scientists are beginning to make sense of this unusual phenomenon.
The reason we may worry is that one of the most serious forms of mental illness, schizophrenia, has as one of its hallmark symptoms auditory hallucinations. For some, the voices will be there saying things to you, and for others, they will begin by engaging and flattering you and then turn to making highly derogatory remarks about you and calling you “disgusting, worthless,” or something equally disturbing. They may even suggest that the world would be better off without you. For others, the voices are of a command nature, and these are the most troublesome since they usually result in violence toward others.
My first introduction to A/H (auditory hallucinations) came while I was a graduate student, waiting in line in the university library for source materials. An older woman, neatly dressed and groomed, stood in front of me, and she was telling her shoulder to “shut up!” This went on for the entire time we waited, and I knew what she was experiencing but had never seen someone respond to the voices.
Individuals with a history of street drug use may find that they are tortured by auditory hallucinations they cannot stop, and medication does little to help. I have had hospital patients plead with me to make the voices stop because of what they were saying about that patient. I was helpless, and so were the psychiatrists; the voices remained no matter the intervention. The patient tried to commit suicide several times in an attempt to free himself from these voices.
Now, thanks to new neurologic research, we have a different orientation for the voices, and it’s not mental illness or drugs; it may be childhood trauma or appear in healthy individuals exposed to certain physical stimuli. The researchers found: “Results showed that auditory hallucinations are quite common (10%) in the general population during lifetime, with children and adolescents reporting these experiences significantly more often compared with adults and the elderly.” But what causes them?
Physical and sexual abuse in childhood may account for some people having A/H or AVH, according to prior research. However, a new understanding has arisen as a result of research where non-psychotic persons who had simple physical stimulation to their backs had these A/H experiences. Some initially, when a bar was gently pressed against their backs, thought someone was in the room.
The researchers noted that “different types of sensorimotor stimulation can selectively induce vocal false percepts and that stimulations that induce sensations related to otherness and an alien agent led to a higher number of other-voice false alarms…” Therefore, our internal alarm processes and our minds work together to make sense of what is happening, and that “sense” may be in the form of a voice.
Anyone spending the first night (FNE) in a new home may have experienced heightened internal alarms working, and this is the reason why, while not hearing voices, sleep is difficult. It seems our ears are always scanning the environment for anything out of the ordinary.
Behavioral perceptions of a physical nature are, in a sense, a form of novelty that we try to explain. How a voice enters the equation is something to be further researched in terms of neuropsychology/neuropsychiatry.
If you have questions about any auditory hallucinations you may experience, be sure to consult with a healthcare professional.