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Durham University

Durham University News


Talking to ourselves and voices in our heads

(27 May 2016)

Charles Fernyhough @ 5x15 - On hearing voices

Auditory verbal hallucinations, more commonly known as hearing voices, and the way many of us talk to ourselves inside our heads may be more closely linked than we previously thought, according to a new book by a Durham psychologist.

In the book, Professor Charles Fernyhough from the Department of Psychology, sheds light on the complicated relationship between the day-to-day conversations people have with themselves and hearing voices when there is no one speaking.

Inner speech and voice-hearing

One theory, which has significant scientific support, is that voice-hearing experiences result from the misattribution of what psychologists call ‘inner speech’ – the inner voice that accompanies thinking – to an external source.

Professor Fernyhough is director of Hearing the Voice, Durham’s interdisciplinary study of voice-hearing funded by the Wellcome Trust. He explains: “The idea is that someone who hears a voice inside their head has actually produced some inner speech, a conversation with themselves, but the brain fails to recognise it as such and therefore perceives it as an external alien voice.

“Neuroscientists now believe this is due to two areas of the brain, involved in speech production and speech perception, not communicating effectively with each other, and not sending the signal which says, ‘it is you talking to yourself, so you can ignore it’. The person then perceives it as someone else’s voice.”

The voices within

In his book, called The Voices Within, Professor Fernyhough draws on extensive original research and a wealth of cultural touchpoints to reveal the workings of our inner voices, and how those voices link to creativity and development.

People who hear voices may have a diagnosis of psychosis, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, PTSD, anorexia or severe depression.

However, not all voice-hearers have a mental health problem.

Figures suggest that between five and 15 per cent of the general population have had an occasional experience of hearing voices, with about one per cent having more complex and regular voice-hearing experiences in the absence of any need for psychiatric care.

Guide to voices

Building on the latest theories, including the new 'dialogic thinking' model, and employing state-of-the-art neuroimaging and other ground-breaking research techniques, the book provides a guide to the voices in our heads.

Professor Fernyhough explains: “We all hear voices, whether they are in the form our own voice as inner speech, or as other voices inside our heads which can guide us, surprise us but can also chastise or scare us.

“Ordinary thinking is often a kind of conversation which fills our heads with speech when we are going about doing day-to-day things like preparing tea, waiting for a bus or having a bath. Many of us also use inner speech to work through problems or make difficult decisions.

“For some people, such as voice-hearers, the voices seem to come from outside and they can be perceived as being friendly, malicious, as the voice of God or the Devil, or the muses of art and literature.”

You can watch Professor Fernyhough talk about inner speech and voice-hearing in this 15-minute video recorded as part of an evening of science stories organised by 5 x 15 in collaboration with Mosaic, the Wellcome Trust’s online science magazine.

The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection in the UK and will be published in the US by Basic Books in October 2016.