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 other pages in this section.
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’.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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
- 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.
Does Everyone who Hears Voices Get a Diagnosis of Schizophrenia or Psychosis?
Whilst many people associate voice-hearing with diagnoses of schizophrenia and psychosis, research suggests that the majority of people who hear voices have no mental health issue at all. Those who become overwhelmed, distressed or struggle to cope
Those who become overwhelmed, distressed or struggle to cope in some aspect of their life may receive a range of diagnoses including: anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality disorder (also known as ’emotionally unstable personality disorder’), obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, psychosis, dissociative identity disorder, eating disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder.
When someone receives a diagnosis, this diagnosis is not necessarily for life. Many people who are part of our network have met the criteria for a diagnosis at some point in their lives – but no longer do.
Diagnoses like these are a hotly contested area – with some finding that they are useful and others finding them a barrier to healing. For more information on a critical perspective on diagnoses, see: Position Statement on DSM 5 & Psychiatric Diagnosis. You might also find Lucy Johnstone’s book ‘A Straight Talking Introduction to Psychiatric Diagnosis‘ an interesting introduction to the debate.
If you’re struggling with voices or visions, please speak to someone. See our page on getting help for more information.
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.
9 responses to “About Voices & Visions”
My name is Makenzie and I hear voices and see them what can I do to stay calm
Hi Makenzie – thanks for getting in touch. There are different things people do to stay calm when they’re hearing voices and/or seeing things. You can find some ideas here, on the Voice Collective page. You can also have a look at some coping strategies in our Free Downloads page. Everyone is different, so the key is finding something that works for you. I find grounding strategies really helpful to stay calm (ways of connecting with my environment that helps my voices fade to the background). Voice Collective’s site mentions a few of those. But it’s really an individual thing. A good starting point is what kind of things help you feel calm generally, and trying to build on that.
I am new to this community but would like to comment on hearing voices a little bit. I’m a bit confused what you mean by “hearing voices” as in if the voices are auditory in nature or if they are what in spiritual context is meant by a thing called Clairaudience. I myself experience clairaudient voices which means that I don’t exactly “hear” anything, but the “voices” simply appear in my consciousness as words and sentences in a same way as thoughts do but are not experienced as my own thoughts but that of an another “entity” so to speak.
I hope I could explain this in a way that makes sense. I just wish for a clarification on this. Thank you so much! 🙂
Hi Tuuli, that’s a great question. There’s no really solid definition of ‘hearing voices’, but one I personally find helpful is that it’s an experience that’s on a continuum. Some people hear voices out loud – and initially turn their head to try to locate them. These voices can sound as real as any other voice out there in the world. It has a sense of space. Some people hear voices that sound different to them, but that don’t have that quality of space … they don’t turn their head to find them. They can have different ages, genders and sounds – and be every bit as real as voices that are heard as being outside one’s head. Then there are experiences that are like very strong thoughts – or thought-voices – that the person ‘hears’ or feels. These experiences often feel external to the person – but aren’t heard in an auditory way. I’ve also heard people talk of ‘soundless voices’ – which seems like a sensory experience, a felt sense of a presence that doesn’t speak in a traditional way.
Whether it’s worth calling these experiences ‘voice-hearing’ depends on the person and whether this label is useful in any way. Many spiritual experiences could fit under the ‘hearing voices’ umbrella – but when there is a rich history and context for them, the person may find it simpler to stick with that rather than think of themselves as a voice-hearer. Yet, to me at least, it’s all in the same ball park (especially if you think of voice-hearing as an experience which can have many causes).
On reading Voices and Visions, I found it very informative and in a language which can be understood. I have read all the Networks information on Hearing Voices and Visions, very good.
It’s very refreshing to find a website like this which strikes a chord with the very points I feel are important with hearing voices and having visions. Points such as especially that recovery is possible. For those that have been in the Mental Health system (under the Mental Health Act) the road to recovery can seem almost endlessly long above all when you consider recurring patients and the strife they go through for large periods of their lives. It’s just nice to see that there is an open forum that promotes different perspectives. No-one really knows the absolute answers as to what hearing voices boils down to, the reasons or possible explanations as to why an individual experiences them. And every case is not the same. Being able to talk about it is a huge positive in my eyes and so a forum facilitated by this website for such is a huge plus. I have signed up and will revisit in the future.
I just discovered your site and reading you makes me feel better. I am 70 year old and started hearing voices about 4 years ago a few months after my husband died of a cancer. At first it was from a house on my street where people were asking for help or were fighting. It became so loud that I called the police but no one needed help. That is when I decided to see my doctor in a panic and was told that I had schizophrenia. The psychotics medicine I was given give me many negative side effects – depression- no sleep – throwing up … etc. I decided to stop taking them and decided to try to understand what I had. The best I could find was that it was paraphrenia (hearing voices but with no negative effect of schizophrenia which is depression etc.) … I also hear my husband talking to me again saying he wants to come back … or telling me sometime what to do … I saw a medium which did help since the voices are now further apart and harder to hear … voila this is my story …. I have learned to live with it since I am also often having many things happening … what we call coincidences … but those are always positives like trying to let me know that I am OK and not alone … so yes we can learn to live with this without drugs and in a peaceful manner and acceptance is probably the key to my success. I am now starting to think that I may have a special gift and try to get the positive out of it. Beside the voices the coincidences happening are always kind of letting me know that I have done the 360 degree turnaround and that I should now enjoy the rest of my life without worrying all the time. Thanks for your site it is very helpful and well done
Tuuli Mäkinen February 16, 2018 at 4:13 pm said
“I’m a bit confused what you mean by “hearing voices” as in if the voices are auditory in nature or if they are what in spiritual context is meant by a thing called Clairaudience. I myself experience clairaudient voices which means that I don’t exactly “hear” anything, but the “voices” simply appear in my consciousness as words and sentences in a same way as thoughts do but are not experienced as my own thoughts but that of an another “entity” so to speak.
I hope I could explain this in a way that makes sense. I just wish for a clarification on this. Thank you so much!”
I think this is a very important point! I used to be a member of Hearing Voices, but I could never find people with uplifting clairaudient experiences like mine. I too, do not ACTUALLY hear a voice – but was guided on a spiritual journey through what I called a “voice”, but was rather a loud intruding thought, not my own. The whole experience was benevolent.
So I think folks like us are out of place here?
An important part of the reply to this post was this –
“but when there is a rich history and context for them, the person may find it simpler to stick with that rather than think of themselves as a voice-hearer.”
I think it would be helpful to visitors to make this difference clearer on your site.