Hearing voices…of readings past

I see this week’s articles and lectures as having similarities or connections, at least on an implicit level, to earlier readings in the course. An interesting question to ask in connection with voice-hearing might be what the other authors in this course would make of it – whether they would categorize it, as science often has, as a mental illness, or would see it in a less pathologizing light.

Luhrman’s New York Times article summarizes the conclusion of a recent British Psychological Society report on psychosis and schizophrenia with the fighting words “there is no strict dividing line between psychosis and normal experience,” and contrasts this notion with the prevalent beliefs about schizophrenia held by American psychology. In fact, Luhrman could have put the American point of view into an even wider comparative context, and pointed out that many other cultures (and, as Rufus May mentions, other historical moments) have been much less troubled by voice-hearing than ours has.

My own first thought was of Mrs. Konile in There Was This Goat, and how her community might have reacted to the news that someone among their number had started hearing voices. I suspect the response would have been far calmer and more accepting than that of the friend and the psychiatrist to whom Eleanor Longden naively confessed her own experience of hearing voices. If the voices had been those of people who had died, for instance, the community would probably have felt that the voice-hearer’s ancestors simply wanted or needed something from the living. The situation might have called for action on the voice-hearer’s part, and perhaps even for a resolution that would quiet or banish the voices, but the voice-hearer’s condition likely would not have been pathologized in the way that Longden’s immediately was.

I suspect that many non-western and/or indigenous cultures would regard the hearing of voices as a message that the hearer ought to attend to, but not necessarily an unusual thing or a point of worry, much less a circumstance requiring the sort of devastating intervention that Longden was subjected to. Rufus May’s lecture suggests, too, that even in western cultures there are many voice-hearers who are able to live harmoniously with their voices – though it’s perhaps telling that in the informal sample he cites (800 people who called in after watching a TV show about voice-hearing), about 40% had not made any attempt to broach their experiences in a psychiatric setting.

May’s lecture, to me, had a Hustvedt-like quality of intellectual inquiry and self-education, though it was more overtly therapeutic in its methodology than The Shaking Woman. Like Hustvedt, May isn’t fussy about observing strict distinctions between his own past condition (a psychotic episode and diagnosis of schizophrenia) and other conditions that may be related, like voice-hearing (which he says is sometimes, but not always, an accompaniment to schizophrenia); he recognizes that insights drawn from one psychological condition may have wider applicability, and wants to share them in the hopes of sparking larger conversations and helping others manage their symptoms. He’s also like Hustvedt in his conclusion that acceptance of the seemingly alien or unintegrated parts of ourselves is a more meaningful and helpful approach than denial or rejection of them.

Vaughan Bell’s article, with its interpretation of voice-hearing as “fundamentally a social experience—in essence, a form of hallucinated communication,” seems like it would be right up Matthew Lieberman’s alley. Lieberman would probably be excited to learn that many voices have personal/social identities that their hearers can recognize, and that a majority of voice-hearers report being able to interact (one might say, socialize) with their voices; these phenomena would seem to confirm that sociality is so central to our mental functioning that it expresses itself in refracted form even in situations of apparent social isolation – and also that it is the norm to which our brains strive to return after trauma, and perhaps even a means our brains gravitate toward in order to overcome such trauma. (It’s interesting that adult voice-hearing is linked to childhood sexual and emotional abuse more than to physical abuse; the former two, in particular, could be seen by the child as failed social dialogues with the abuser that, if re-enacted more successfully, might be made to have different outcomes.) Most vindicating of all for Lieberman might be Bell’s assertion that “the neural networks involved in supporting [voice-hearers’] experiences have significant overlap with areas that play a key role in social neurocognition.” Do I smell a future research collaboration in the making?

Of all these readings and lectures, I responded least to Ben Alderson-Day’s podcast. Even after listening to it a second time, I got lost among his categories and didn’t grasp what the central take-away message was meant to be. Which I guess makes him a bit like Damasio?

On a final note, what does it mean that every one of these articles or lectures either has a British author or is about British research? The Brits (and the Danes?) seem to be on the leading edge of re-evaluative thinking and research on the hearing-voices phenomenon, while Americans are still placing it in the category of schizophrenia that can and should be medicated (but that should place no restrictions on sufferers’ ability to buy guns, no doubt).

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