Hearing Voices? The Complexity of Auditory Hallucinations

A woman gazes out a car windowThough hearing voices is often stigmatized as the product of mental health issues, it’s fairly common to hear voices. As many as 15% of people hear voices at some point, though only 1% have schizophrenia. Previous research suggests that these auditory hallucinations may be shaped by cultural factors. And now, a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry Today has found that the voices people hear may be more multidimensional than scientists previously believed.

The Complexity of Auditory Hallucinations

Researchers provided 153 respondents with online surveys about their experiences hearing voices. Twenty-six had no history of mental health issues, and 127 had a mental health diagnosis. The surveys allowed participants to respond in their own words, giving researchers access to a broad array of subjective characterizations.

Eighty-one percent of participants reported that they heard multiple voices, with 70% attributing playful characteristics to these voices. Less than half reported that the voices were only auditory. Instead, the majority reported that the voices they heard presented as a combination of thoughts and voices. Sixty-six percent of participants experienced physical sensations while hearing voices. Those who experienced such sensations were more likely to characterize the voices they heard as abusive. Many participants reported negative associations with the voices they heard, but 31% also reported positive emotions. 

Changing Perceptions of Hallucinations

This research calls into question much common wisdom about auditory hallucinations. For example, researchers often argue that hearing voices is a purely perceptual phenomenon. But this study shows that many people with hallucinations experience the voices they hear as distinct personalities. A person’s experiences can also shape hallucinations. People with a history of trauma were more likely to report abusive voices.

Researchers point to the need for different types of therapies to support voice hearers. Some participants found that peer support was especially helpful when they experienced auditory hallucinations. Hearing Voices, a support group for those who experience hallucinations, is one of many options for getting support from others with similar experiences. Other approaches that may be used for people who want help with the voices they hear include cognitive behavioral therapy, voice dialogue techniques, group therapy, self-help, and medications, among others.


  1. Cooke, A. (2014). Understanding psychosis and schizophrenia [PDF]. Leicester: British Psychological Society.
  2. Voices in people’s heads more complex than previously thought. (2015, March 10). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150310205707.htm

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  • Chad


    March 12th, 2015 at 12:10 PM

    What surprises me is the small fraction of these who report hearing voices who are diagnosed schizophrenic?
    I guess that was a misconception on my part because I just assumed that if this was something that happened frequently then the chances would be much higher that you were dealing with a schizophrenic patient.

  • stef


    March 13th, 2015 at 10:20 AM

    Let me just tell you that if I am hearing voices and know that there is no one around then you better believe that there will be negative emotions associated with that!

  • khanyi


    March 14th, 2015 at 12:28 PM

    I’ve been under alot of stress since last year the man that made me pregnant was not happy when he foundout that i was preg he said i must abort the baby i couldnt do it i kept my child now he is 2months he is not in the picture now he badmouth me in his family. my problem now ive been hear a voice calling my name it sounds like a 5year old and i cant stop thinking about all the bad things he has done help me pls i feel like im gonna loose mymind and i also feel dizzy

  • Katie


    March 14th, 2015 at 10:36 PM

    You may be experiencing postpartum psychosis Khanyi. This is something that some women go through after giving birth. It is fully treatable and women recover, but it is urgent that you seek medical attention–if untreated, symptoms can get worse. If you do not have a doctor you trust, you can go to the ER and they will know what to do as well. Hang in there!

  • Seth


    March 16th, 2015 at 3:05 PM

    Happy to know that there are so many different treatment options available and widely used!

  • Aaliyah


    March 16th, 2015 at 11:54 PM

    Great article and helpful information. Thank you for sharing with us. Thank you so much.

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