Basic Information About Voices & Visions

This page contains some basic information about voices, visions and other unusual sensory perceptions. If you feel you know little about the experience of hearing voices or seeing visions, it’s a good place to start. However if you already know the basics and would like some more detailed information, check out the ‘About Voices‘ and ‘Personal Experiences‘ sections.

What Are Voices & Visions?

When we talk about voices and visions, we simply mean someone is hearing, seeing or sensing something that others around them aren’t. These experiences can include all five senses, hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch. These experiences can occur in one sense at a time (hearing a voice, for example, or smelling something), but they can also happen in combination.

For some, these experiences can be comforting. For example, someone who is lonely may really value a voice that becomes a trusted confidant. A person who has recently lost someone they care about may benefit from talking to them at the end of the day, or smelling their perfume/aftershave. Others find these experiences to be a source of inspiration. Authors, for example, sometimes talk about how the characters can come to life and write the story for them. However, for some people these voices and visions can be extremely distressing – criticising, threatening or causing confusion.

How Common Is It?

Statistics vary, but it’s generally accepted that between 3 and 10% of the population hear voices that other people don’t. If you include one off experiences (like hearing someone call your name when you’re out shopping, or feeling your phone vibrate in your pocket) this figure goes up to 75%. So, having at least one experience of hearing or seeing something that others around you don’t is incredibly common. Those that have never had this experience are in the minority.

A number of famous and important people (past and present) have experience of hearing or seeing things that other people don’t. Without these people, the world would be a very different place. This list of famous people who have talked or written about hearing voices includes: Gandhi, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Freud, Anthony Hopkins, Philip K Dick, John Frusciante, Carlos Santana, Robert Schumann, John Forbes Nash, Zoe Wannamaker and Charles Dickens.

What’s It Like?

We’re all unique, so it’s unsurprising that voices and visions can be equally individual in terms of their identity, content, interpretation and impact. The following gives a brief overview. If you don’t recognise your experience here, that doesn’t mean you’re ‘weird’ or ‘unusual’.

Voices

Some people hear voices talking when no-one is around. These could be like the voices of people they know, or complete strangers. They might hear many voices, or just one. Voices can shout, whisper, be clear or muffled. They can speak in sentences or say single words. These voices can be male, female, genderless, old or young. Sometimes they have names, but not always. Voices can speak constantly (24/7), but they can also utter occasional words or phrases. People can hear other types of sounds too, including knocking, rustling, crying, screaming or music.

Some voices can be positive – providing the support and encouragement someone needs to get through the day. Other voices can be confusing, perhaps echoing thoughts or repeating strange phrases. Some voices can be very frightening, saying things that are critical, threatening or commanding. Voices can claim to have great power and knowledge, which can sometimes leave the voice-hearer feeling scared and powerless. Some voices can leave a person feeling very vulnerable and exposed (e.g. hearing a crowd of people jeering at you, or discussing intimate details of your life).

Visions

Some people see things that others don’t. These visions can be very clear and realistic, but they can also include fuzzy shapes, shadows and beams of light. Some people see the voices that they hear, others see insects or spiders. For some, the visions are very complex (like entering into another world). For others, the visions sit alongside their everyday world (an added box, person or animal for example). Sometimes, it can seem as if people or objects are changing shape. Their faces may turn to stone, they may be surrounded by a coloured aura or, for example, their eyes may change colour. As with voices, these visions can be reassuring, funny, frightening or distracting.

Smells

Some people smell things that remind them of their past. This could be something nice, like a loved one’s perfume/aftershave or a favourite food.

Sometimes people smell things that remind them of a particularly traumatic experience. For example, someone who survived a house fire may smell smoke when they feel anxious. Someone who was hurt by someone wearing a particular scent may, sometimes, smell this when there is no-one there to account for it. This can be extremely frightening, especially if they don’t recognise that this sensory experience comes from the past.

For others, the smell isn’t linked to a particular memory or traumatic event. For example, some people smell gas, burning or rotting food. These smells can feel very real and leave them fearing for their safety.

Taste

It can be difficult for someone to know that they’re tasting something that others can’t – unless they get someone else to try it too. This can make taste experiences particularly difficult to deal with. Some people get a strong bitter taste in their food or drink and, understandably, start to worry that there is something wrong with it. This can lead people to worry that they are being poisoned, or that someone is tampering with their food. Others have taste sensations when they are not eating. This might be when they are hearing a voice, watching a TV programme or thinking about something. These taste sensations can be pleasant (e.g. chocolate or a favourite food), but they can also be unnerving or unpleasant (e.g. something bitter or metallic).

Feeling (touch)

Some people can feel things on their skin when there doesn’t seem to be anything there. They might feel something crawling over their skin, tickling them or pushing them. Sometimes people feel something underneath their skin, and this can lead them to feel really worried about what is happening to their body.

Understandably these experiences can be very confusing and frightening. It’s not as simple as this, though. For others, these experiences can be reassuring. Someone who feels lonely and hears a reassuring voice may feel comforted if they feel a hand on their shoulder. They might interpret it as a sign that the voice is trying to support them.

Why Do People Hear Voices

There are lots of different theories and ideas to explain why people hear voices or see visions. These include:

  • A special gift or sensitivity
  • Trauma or adverse life experiences
  • Dissociation
  • Spiritual experiences
  • Biochemical (e.g. excess dopamine)
  • Paranormal experiences
  • Emotional distress
  • Physical health problems
  • Cognitive error (misattribution of ‘internal speech’)
  • Individual difference

The truth is that we do not know why people hear voices or see visions. As the experience is so diverse, it’s likely that there are a number of different explanations. Whilst this can be frustrating for those who feel confused and would like a simple answer or some certainty, it means that the most important explanation is the one that the voice-hearer themselves finds useful. It is important not to impose your own belief on someone else’s experience – this is fundamental to the Hearing Voices Network approach. Rather than providing a dogmatic view of voice-hearing, we recognise and celebrate a festival of explanations.

Whatever someone believes about their experiences, the most important thing is to find ways of dealing with that belief and finding some sense of power, control and hope within it.

Is Recovery Possible?

At the Hearing Voices Network we use the word recovery to mean ‘living the life you choose, not the life others choose for you’ (whether those others are family, friends, workers or voices). Many people who hear voices simply don’t need to recover – they are already living lives that they love. The voices might enhance their wellbeing, or their experiences may simply not detract from it.

For those who have particularly overwhelming experiences that lead them into the mental health services, recovery can feel like a distant dream. The good news is that people can, and do, find ways to deal with (and recover from) distressing voices. Perhaps more importantly, people can also recover from the situations that can make voices and visions so hard to deal with. Many people who recover continue to hear voices. Sometimes these voices change during the recovery process (being an ally, rather than an attacker). Other times these voices become quieter, less intrusive or even disappear altogether. Others find that the voices stay the same, but that they are no longer ruled by them. They feel stronger and more able to choose whether to listen to the voices or not.

We have witnessed many amazing journeys of recovery in the Hearing Voices Network. These journeys are, by their very nature, very individual. However, these journeys have led us to believe that no matter how overwhelmed or distressed the person is by their experiences (or whatever labels they have collected throughout their time in the mental health system) – recovery IS possible.

203 responses to “Basic Information About Voices & Visions”

  1. Helen

    Thank god for your website. I’ve been hearing muffled conversations when theres no one even in the house, feeling that some things crawling on me when there’s nothing, and I see dark shapes once in awhile. I thought I was insane or something, but this helped. My mom said I did strange, disturbing things when I was asleep, like just sit up in my bed all night. Does that have anything to do with it?

  2. tom foley

    i am 29 male and have recently heard voices mostly they are aggressive towards me an my world,they have ruined my life in ways but i am getting it back together piece by piece. firstly id like to say how many people and services have helped me a lot and family have been here so i am lucky. secondly i am mixed opinion on what causes them and wether they are spirits or paranormal, im sure science isnt advanced enough to get it yet and i know its not just an illness i am certain its a gift eg we can hear or hack into another wave length or similar, i have 1 voice who has been 3 times and told me 3 things and instantly they happened and it wasnt my imagination as i would of never thought these incidents up,so i am sure in some cases voices are something we cant explain, anyone feel free to drop me an email for a chat anytime as it is interesting to hear others beliefs and opinions etc take care everyone and keep an open mind as we could be enlightened ones and not all sick like most believe.peace and love to you all

  3. Fuzyhamster

    I’ve had a creature of sorts follow me around and talk to me since I was maybe 12? I have seen things since I was about 4 or 5 years old but quickly learned that this was not a normal behavior and kept quiet about it.

    The creature (reptilian of sorts, though can change form) isn’t really threatening, but maybe because I’ve known him for so long. I can go weeks without hearing or seeing him, and sometimes it’s constant. I rarely see him full-on in reality. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like if your thoughts are half-way brought into reality. You can see it, but you can’t. You can hear it, but you can’t. There have been times where I have seen him fully, felt him touch me, heard him clearly, but those times are rare.

    He can be really harsh but not in an unbearable way. He shows me life though a very aggressive and negative way… that has a very clear, positive, and valid point. ie asking me why I don’t just punch someone in the face and expecting me to give a good reason why I SHOULDN’T. (I get chewed out for being snarky) He never encourages me to be a terrible person, he wants me to grow. He just has a really odd way to go about it. Sometimes he can be an utter shit and makes fun of me, but it isn’t threatening. He makes sure I face problems head on, not avoid them. He can be super annoying, but not necessarily a negative thing in my life.

  4. Charley

    Glad i’m not the only one thought I was going insane, everyday i’ll hear someone call my name directly behind me when i’m out but when I look back literally no one is there, also I hear random voices or noises when i’m at home alone, can be freaky at times, or ill see things move or something just at the side of me but when I look its gone. Its the same with smells, the other day when I was home alone I went to stand up and there was a strong smell of some perfume similar to coconut and then it was gone and no one in my house has perfume. i’m 18 now and this has been happening for the past 2 years, id say it scares me but it doesn’t cause I’m into the whole paranormal stuff, just thought I share my experiences.

  5. Sherri

    All my life I have experienced odd things, the fondest memory i have is from the age 6 an apparition of a man was standing by my bed, I could hear him clearly calling out the phrase Niecie mesie, and saying I didnt do this. I was scared that I blocked him out. At the age of 24 I saw a picture of this man in my sisters photo album. I was told this was my uncle who killed him self when I was just 18 months old and that he had a nick name for me which was niecie mesie.
    When I was 28 my father past away and I was having it rough, I heard his voice tell me ” watch him closely. over and over again I was hearing it for about a good hour. I tried to ignore it but I couldnt. That night my boyfriend of three years left me.
    I hear random things, colors, numbers, dates, names, I have even seen things that have not happened but this is not as common.
    One example of this is back in 1996 I was with a bunch of friends walking down the road I stopped and stared at this brick wall. my friends were all there saying my name but i was in a trance so they say, but I saw a red sports car speeding down the road and slammed into this wall. Just an hour later walking back home there it was this red car mangled by the wall.
    Just last week I was working with this guy I like alot, as we stood near each other I was hearing march, march ,march 16th I couldnt ignore this it was so loud in my head that without hesitation I turned and looked at this guy and said ” is your birthday im March?” he replied yeah it is. I wanted to just keep my mouth shut but no my words just kept coming. I then wanted to ask if it was the 16th but instead I said is it in the teens, he said yes thats when I said is ti the 16th, I think I might have spooked him and a few other coworkers. Some have called me a stalker others just call me weird.
    Please if anyone can help me please please comment back.
    This guy is like my happiness when he is around he puts a smile on my face. my heart races, the butterflies swim in my stomach like the fish in the sea. How does one explain how these things happen

  6. ethan

    i keep seeing stuff in my uncles house such as figures of a man running down the hall i also keep hearing voices and footsteps if anyone funny thing is my grandpa died there years ago if anyone else is experiencing things please make me feel better by telling me so

  7. james

    i sometimes hear different voices as in if i was watching a tv show i would hear the result of the show in my head i never really cared too much but today was more extrordinary i was watching spain play tahiti and it was 4-0 to spain i had a bet on as i do and then suddenly in a very faded out foreign voice (im irish) i heard the voice saying ten nil spain as the game went on and spain kept scoring goals i start thinking please dont be ten nil please dont be ten nil cause the game is in live play so that meaning the 10 nil result hasnt happened yet freaks me out, they won 10 nil in the end . have you ever heard of anything like this before

  8. Rachel Van Den Bergen

    I often hear voices from past books I have read. At first I didn’t know what these voices were about. Some of the voices are from books I read as a child. I also hear music and singing.

  9. James Shayler

    I hear 3 voices a girl , mother and father . Mother name is nancy
    Father is name Robert . I don’t here them any more, but the girl
    Talked to me every day and night. I also here there voice strong of
    Noise of moving cars.

  10. Ryan

    My voices are of mostly family, my father, mother, and sister. I hear my mom crying, my dad rages and says NASTY things of how much of a disappointment I am , likewise with my sister. It makes it hard to be around them because no matter how much they tell me that they love me I can’t help but always think that what the voice versions in my head of them says is right.

    When my psychosis is really bad I hear the voice of someone who hates everything about me. I’ve been an alcoholic for about 10 years and unfortunately got addicted to amphetamines just over a month ago. i KNOW they both spell disaster for a severe psychosis but it bothers me most that the voices I hear are my family and they are ruthless and make it hard to be around them, thinking that maybe the voice is what they really think of me or what I think THEY think of me. , but in reality they are soft spoken kind hearted people that have only been supportive in my recovery. they are amazing people.

    Does anyone have any other ideas of why I have these specific types of voices? I was clean for 7 days (in hospital) . the voices stopped around the 5th day. but as soon as I got home and went for a walk BOOM it came back instantly.
    I am staying away from all the bad stuff in hopes that this psychosis will go away because I can’t take much more of these hateful voices , I walk with my head down and feel very awkward when socializing and think that everyone knows all the bad things I’ve done in my life and criticize me for it.
    I feel like such a piece of crap since they started. Is there any techniques I can do that will make them go away or if not at least make them be a little more positive??
    I’m going to get into a rehabilitation center to stay clean asap and talk to my doctor about getting medication today.
    Thanks to anyone who can help me!!
    -Ryan

    1. lorna

      Hi ryan, I just read your comments and because your experience is so like my own I wanted to reply to you, I cant give you any answers as to why this happens to you but maybe I can give you some hope. I got addicted to speed 2 and half years ago, for about the first 9 months I started hearing voices, I couldnt work out what was going on, it was about a year into my addiction/phycosis that the voices became clear as 2 sometimes 3 women, one was my sister, I beleived they could read my thought’s and that I could talk to them with my mind, to start with they were so horrible, and would insult me criticise me, keep me awake at night basically I felt like I was being bullied 24/7, I have named my voices aand actually believed real people were some how doing this to me, so I avoided these people in real life. Over the year of living with my voices I have kinda got usec to them they are no longer horrible but have supported me through hard times they are almost like friends although I would rather not have them sometimes othertimes I listen to what they have to say and quite often find they offer good advice.
      I am off the speed now and its been 4 months clean, I still have my phycosis/voices but im in control and strong enough to deal with them. I am starting new meds today so hopefully they might be gone totally before long.
      I hope you are in a good place today, and hope you know your not alone. X

  11. Adam

    I was wondering, I often have a feeling of a spider crawling across the back of my neck. But I know that there isn’t one. I sometimes even swat my neck and there is nothing there. Is there any explaination to that?

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