How to Live With Hallucinatory “Voices” Without Drugs

A European-centered movement is trying to change the perception that hearing voices is bad

voices in head illlustration
Illustration Works/Corbis

Schizophrenia muddles the brain's ability to determine what is real, and sometimes—famously—that uncertainty includes auditory hallucinations. Traditionally, doctors have used pharmaceutical treatments to banish those hallucinatory "voices." But now a new movement out of Europe aims to help people live with them, by engaging with the voices, and it's gaining momentum, Roc Morin writes for The Atlantic.

One organization, called Intervoice, takes the position that hearing voices can even be beneficial. Morin’s interview with a doctor and two people who hear voices delves into this theory. One of the patients says:

[Dr. Corstens and I] started to work with each other five years ago, or more. I was around 20 years old. It took about two years of work to actually figure out what the relationships were, what the triggers for the voices were, and what feelings are coupled to these voices. Once you start to learn to express yourself and work out these problems on your own, the voices don’t have to act out their part. Now, when I hear voices, I know what triggered them. I ask, “What is happening with me? What am I neglecting in my own emotions?”

Schizophrenia has been stigmatized and misunderstood throughout history. John Forbes Nash, Jr. the Nobel-prize winning mathematician portrayed in the film "A Beautiful Mind," lives with schizophrenia; some people have put hypothesized that Mary Todd Lincoln may have had it. Still, despite its long history, schizophrenia remains a difficult to treat, and Intervoice's strategy is controversial. 

At Scopea blog published by the Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann who's studied auditory hallucinations across cultures, details some of the more contentious points of this theory: “They often reject the idea of schizophrenia, are hesitant about medication, and have a model of hearing voices that identifies sexual trauma as the most important cause of hearing voices,” she tells writer Rina Shaikh-Lesko.

The approach will not work for everyone, but for some the harmful effects of hearing voices are lessened. 

Morin: When you engage with your voices—when you ask them what they want or why they’re saying these things—what do they say in response?

Angie: It depends on the voice. It depends on his mood and my mood. It depends on how strong I am at the moment. Sometimes they do engage in conversations. Sometimes they answer your questions and they ask questions back. Other times, they refuse to engage and just shut you down. It really depends. With Sam, for example, I reached a point where I can go into a conversation with him, and he even uncovers aspects of other voices that I hear.

Luhrmann’s work does seem to indicate that how people perceive the voices they hear—as good or bad or just part of them—might influence the voices' power. Her recent study shows that in the United States people who hear voices tend to experience them as "bombardment" and from strangers, whereas people in India and Ghana tend to hear more playful voices that they associate with family members. The non-Americans also didn’t view the voices as a mental illness.

It may be the case, as Intervoice doctor Dick Corstens told The Atlantic, that, "You can become mad from voices, but voices by themselves are not the madness."

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