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Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination

by Daniel B. Smith

Pub Date: March 26th, 2007
ISBN: 1-59420-110-2
Publisher: Penguin Press

New York–based journalist Smith seeks to understand the experience of hearing voices.

Smith’s father had been tormented all his life by voices telling him what to do; his grandfather had also heard voices, albeit more benevolent ones. The author, who has had no such experiences, here describes his attempts to probe the mysteries of auditory hallucination. He wore headphones and played a tape entitled “Training and Simulated Experience of Hearing Voices That Are Distressing.” He attended the 2003 annual meeting of the Hearing Voices Network in Manchester, England. He spent time in a flotation tank isolated from all external stimuli in the vain hope of inducing auditory hallucinations. These personal accounts are interwoven with a history of hearing voices, from ancient Greece to the present and stories about individuals who heard them: Socrates, Old Testament prophets, Muhammad, preacher John Bunyan, the Spanish nun Teresa of Ávila, Joan of Arc and Daniel Paul Schreber, a German psychiatric patient whose 1903 Memoirs of My Nervous Illness dealt at length with the subject. The Enlightenment’s emphasis on rationality and skeptical inquiry, Smith argues, transformed hearing voices from a religious experience into a pathology. Academic research currently looks at the phenomenon through the lens of psychosis, and for some mental-health specialists, hearing voices is symptomatic of schizophrenia. The author emphasizes that, while we are not bound to believe in the existence of spirits or demons or even the worth of the messages, we must acknowledge that for those who experience auditory hallucinations, the voices will always be “real.”

An appealing introduction to a mysterious phenomenon.