Sunday, April 12, 2015

Hearing Voices

A number of interesting hits come up when you Google the phrase “hearing voices.” This phenomenon, also known as experiencing auditory hallucinations, is an occurrence that has traditionally provoked a distinctly negative stigma in American culture. Hearing voices is considered by many doctors one of the most common and consistent signs of psychosis, and in America, a majority of individuals affected by voice hearing report negative emotions, such as fear or stress, to be linked to the experience. However, the phenomenon of auditory hallucination is far from homogenous, and in fact, recent research is uncovering more and more variability and complexity in the neurological and cultural components of hearing voices.

The neurology of voice hearing is still being unearthed, but several regions of the brain have been found to contribute to the event. For example, in those experiencing auditory hallucinations, language-processing areas in the left perisylvian region, including Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, have been found to have a reduced density of gray matter. Research also suggests that this structural abnormality may be caused by low glutamate concentrations in the brain. A lack of glutamate, a major excitatory neurotransmitter, could lead to defective communication between neurons. Additionally, schizophrenics have been found to have abnormally high activity in the right middle temporal gyrus. The right and left middle temporal gyri respond to external speech, but in most people there is more activity in the left than the right. A hyperactive right region suggests that the brain may be attempting to compensate for a malfunction in left-brain language processing.

In addition to biological factors, social and cultural perceptions of hearing voices play a role in affected individuals’ experiences of the phenomenon. Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann provides an insightful examination into the effects of culture upon the event of auditory hallucinations in a talk she delivered for the Foundation for Psychocultural Research. Luhrmann compares the experiences of individuals who hear voices in three different locations: California, Ghana and India. She notes that the Americans interviewed were more likely than the others to describe their voices as symptoms of a disease, to report that they did not know their voices, and to report violent or hurtful voices. Other subjects, while still reporting majority negative experiences, described different relationships with their voices. Indian subjects were most likely to identify their voices as familiar—namely family members—while Ghanaians were most likely to report hearing the voice of God. Luhrmann traces these disparities partly to the way that auditory hallucinations are viewed in various cultures. Since American medicine interprets voice hearing as the sign of a “violated mind,” she suggests that the violence of the American subjects’ voices may be intensified by the impact of this viewpoint upon affected individuals.

As research has uncovered more of the complexity of auditory hallucinations, it has become clear that there are many types of voice hearing, accompanied by a wide array of emotions, tactile sensations, and other aspects. Researchers such as Luhrmann suggest that a more holistic approach to treating and understanding those impacted by voice hearing, which seeks to avoid giving affected individuals the viewpoint that their mind has been maliciously infiltrated, may help us create more effective treatments. Undoubtedly, a good deal is still to be understood about the experience of auditory hallucinations, which exist at a striking intersection of neurological, psychological and cultural elements.

-Kate Oksas

To view the video of Tanya Luhrmann’s talk, visit:

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