Do You Hear Voices? Strange Experiences and Mental Health
For more than a half century, once it became known that I researched unusual phenomena like dreams, hypnosis, drug-induced states and other altered states of consciousness, as well as parapsychological phenomena, extrasensory perception (ESP), like telepathy, I’ve been contacted hundreds, perhaps thousands of times by people who’ve had unusual experiences*. Often it’s just intellectual interest, but frequently a common question is some version of “Am I going crazy?” Occasionally questions were from students of mine, people I knew, but for the most part they were strangers, people who wrote me letters or emails, or came up to talk more privately to me after I lectured somewhere.
I started my graduate training in clinical psychology back in the 1960s, thinking I might work as a therapist, so I learned a little about recognizing and diagnosing mental illness. But I decided I didn’t have the kind of emotional intelligence a good clinician should have, so I left the clinical training track before completing it, and focused on doing research. Thus I couldn’t really “diagnose” these inquirers, but the rough impressions I formed were generally that these were normal (for our culture – cultures certainly have funny contradictions in them at times) people who were puzzled and/or frightened by experiences that our culture thought were strange or crazy. From my study of unusual experiences in our own and other cultures, though, I knew that almost all of these experiences had no relationship to mental health or illness, and their strangeness or scariness was pretty much a matter of the culture’s attitudes toward them. Attitudes that were often wrong and caused unnecessary suffering. I would generally tell them the scientific name of what they were experiencing, and they weren’t alone, lots of normal people had experienced it, although they might not talk about it because of cultural attitudes. That was reassuring in itself for most, they weren’t the only weird person who had experienced it. And I’d emphasize that the experience in and of itself was not indicative of normality or illness just because it was unusual. I didn’t know them deeply, they might be perfectly normal or they might be mentally ill, but just having that kind of experience didn’t tell me that.
With the scientific name, they could look up authoritative information about their experience, although I often had to add that we didn’t really know much about that kind of experience or what it might mean. But whatever the experience, it could be reacted to in a healthy or unhealthy way. If they continued to be bothered by it, I suggested they could consult an appropriate mental health specialist. And/or, if really curious, they might start keeping notes on their experiences and their results, and learn more about what it meant for them personally. Was the experience in and of itself causing them difficulties in life, or was it their reaction to the experience?
It was ironic in a way. I had given up becoming a therapist, aware of my own shortcomings, but actually helped many people feel better about their experiences by being a professor, a culturally sanctioned authority, who could tell them something about unusual experiences.
There were some inquirers, who certainly seemed mentally ill to me, and I had no idea if the information I could give them would be of value. As the years went by and I matured more, mellowing my intellectual/professional training with more practical experience of the world, I realized that while my advice was usually potentially useful from an intellectual and “outside” perspective, there were ways it might seem shallow or ignorant to someone suffering from mental illness: I was an “outsider” intellectualizing about their experience, but they actually knew the experience from the inside. Luckily for me, my life has not been so stressful that I’ve been mentally ill, I’ll be glad if it stays that way, but I’ll never know much from an “insiders” perspective.
A few weeks ago I was delighted when a colleague introduced me to a brief article by a woman (she calls herself Jean P. Lee, a pseudonym to protect herself from social difficulties) who has been schizophrenic and has auditory hallucinations, as well as experiences which she believes give her information by ESP. Published in the prestigious journal Schizophrenia Bulletin (doi:10.1093/schbul/sbz008) )(Downloaded from https://academic.oup.com/schizophreniabulletin/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/schbul/sbz008/5324404 by Università degli Studi di Padova user on 09 March 2019), Ms. Lee, in spite of here problems, observed more carefully and disciplined herself in ways to understand her experiences far better and to avoid having them interfere with her ordinary life. And she’s an “insider,” so I’m very impressed that the kinds of things I’ve recommended, to various degrees, as an “outside” make sense to her.
Incidentally having an experience which seems to be ESP is not a sign of mental illness. Such experiences are reported by more than half the normal population, and they don’t correlate with measures of mental disturbance.
With Ms. Lee’s and journal editor William Carpenter’s permission, here is her essay. I trust it will be useful to many.
[* I am retired now and no longer giving advice, much as I would like to.]
Personal Experiences With Auditory Verbal Hallucination and Extrasensory Perception – FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT
Jean P. Lee
The disease schizophrenia causes to the suffering patient certain pathological maladies. Fuller Torrey says afflictions with schizophrenia, occur for most, during the teenage to young adult years of life.1 In “Hearing Voices and Seeing Pictures,” I commented that I already had lived with this diagnosis for 20 years.2 I had also experienced psychosis in my midtwenties. I have encountered auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH). A few psychiatrists informed me that there was no cure for this disease, and there was no robust model for hearing voices. Having a disease with no cure was very disheartening, but I learned to adapt to these voices which I endured sporadically. I keep a schedule to live by, allowing me to socialize, study, and work. I am pleased to know that since the early days of my diagnosis, there exists now a well established “Hearing Voices Network” (www.hearing-voices.org).
Currently, the experience of hearing voices has taken on another facade. It is less symptomatic of a disease schizophrenia and more like a communication in the mental realm. The presence of AVH or extrasensory perception (ESP) in the mind involves a physiological manifestation in the brain. If a malfunction takes precedence in the brain, it may be accompanied by the presence of AVH in the mind. Likewise, an enhancement in brain function can be correlated to ESP communication in the mind. In either of the two cases, what is featured is the dual nature of functioning in the brain and the mind.
The disease schizophrenia is not an easy one to be living with. To guard my mind from breaking down to psychotic experiences; I became a consumer of psychiatric help and am on a regime of medicines. But my mind voices included both AVH and ESP. My doctors agree with me that my reality of hearing voices also involved an encounter with another type of mind voices. I encountered ESP. These experiences date from my early teen years before I had the AVH. The experience of ESP for me involved communication of information via telepathy or premonition. Telepathy is the transmission of information from one mind to another. Premonition is information transmitted to a mind foretelling of a future event.
To me it was a priority and necessity, to distinguish one type of voices from the other. I read a lot of literature on the two topics. I worked on a personal chart which by comparison of the differing characteristics of these two lineages of mind voices; I was able to classify two types of AVH and three types of ESP. AVH pathological, AVH nonpathological, ESP telepathy, ESP premonition, and ESP fiction or conflict. AVH pathological is the classic AVH, recorded in the literature, on schizophrenia patients who have it. AVH nonpathological acknowledges the presence of a hallucinatory thought which was not pathologic. I included in my selfanalysis, an AVH that was not morbid. I have seen this in the literature also! ESP telepathy and ESP premonition are experiences I had, which were similar to those described in the Journal of the Society for Study of Psychical Research. Although these voices are real ESPs, I may still have a mental struggle. The information or facts perceived may be nontruths and emanate a conflictual experience with my mind. These mind voices I classified them as ESP fiction or conflict.
The searches for information from the literature help unravel the puzzle or enigma of mind voices. I knew some facts now. If they are AVH pathological, they could be destructive and can initiate the breakdown of both my memory and cognitive functions. The nonpathological AVH is ephemeral and will not develop into a pathological condition. In contrast, an ESP experience is the transmission of information, with other minds, mentally. It is between gifted persons who are able to communicate in the mental realm. During ESP experiences, the functioning of memory and cognition is enhanced for me. I validated the existence of ESP in my mind with others, numerous times. I noticed that psychiatric care mostly was directed at experiences with AVH and not with that of ESP. I concluded that I would deal with voices on my own also, and for the persistence in searching for more facts, I felt somehow rewarded.
I also involved myself in activities to cope with concurrent voices I lived with. Sometimes I felt the voices were pervasive. I made use of cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). It is a tool to prevent a mental breakdown. I learned to avoid struggles with bad ideas in my mind, replacing the experiences which were difficult to endure, with positive activities like sports and music. ESP does not bring on aberrant thinking and is less worrisome for me. I have an inclination to take action on ESP. I challenged myself to look at the validity of the facts made known through ESP. Sometimes I felt a need for a call for action and I talked to others about the facts communicated to me. Many people were willing to share their experiences through a conversation, as also I did. I really did also believe that an experience with ESP was for me, an initiation to understand more, the nature of a communication which was extrasensory.
As with all experiences, mind voices needed attention and self-direction. I put in extra measures not to be overtaken by AVH, and leave from the reality of life experiences to enter that of a psychosis. As my life experiences definitely included an encounter with the extrasensory and supernatural, I also tried not to be overtaken by those experiences, as well. It was special to hear voices talk of ideas concerning the supernatural, ideas about ESP, time travel and other topics such as dreams or premonitions. But certainly, I did keep time with my real activities and thus, take myself back to the experiences of life at hand. It is a lesson to live, learn, and adapt.
Each voice type is going to alleviate in a different manner. The follow-up experiences to hearing the differing voices, helped me to understand better what to do for future encounters. For example, pathological AVH will give cause for psychiatric treatment. Hallucinations of a pathological derivation can be alleviated with some antipsychotic medication. Usually, the experience with AVH nonpathological is discontinued on its own. Telepathy will involve a latent period for which real information will reveal itself, concurrently. With regards to premonitions, the latent period can be weeks to years in the future. The ESP fiction or conflict has a follow-up experience peculiar to itself. Mostly I felt diffident to these voices. I was not looking forward to a communique which added conflictual thoughts to my mind. Usually, I made attempts to clarify any facts through the use of the Internet, reassembled my information, i.e., realistic, and not dwell on misinformation.
I now, being able to make identifications of the mind voices, started to sense the brighter sides to these experiences. The experiences of hearing voices are not as threatening or peculiar. Like many individuals and organizations, I am positively affected by stories of the Forces in the Universe, and here on Earth. The study of telepathy, telecommunications of the supernatural, telekinesis, teleportation has inspired fascination for many. Paranormal psychology have in the past examined the human response and behavior to the supernatural. Science and technology is advancing fast, and maybe 1 day it can explain human experiences with the supernatural. From my reading of the research into neurofunctioning, I have learned that new neurons are being created in the brain, even in persons who have brain cancer. I am on the trail to read more about research into brain plasticity.3 Perhaps 1 day, schizophrenia can be alleviated. My personal encounter with ESP has lightened the load on my experiences with the mind voices.
This account is very individually oriented. It may not be a general scheme of experiences, or a story for learning, pertaining to the public. I am encouraged to think that it will enlighten all those whom, it may interest. There is hope in it!
- Fuller Torrey E. Surviving Schizophrenia, 6th ed. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers; 2013.
- Psychiatr Rehabil J. 2005;29(1):73-76.