Well, yes and no, it depends on your perspective. If you happen to be a psychiatrist who has learned about schizophrenia and the diagnostic criteria of the DSM, then you will probably refer to Auditory Verbal Hallucinations and will know about the use of medication for treating it. If you are more experienced you will know that medication rarely eradicates the voices and that Auditory Verbal Hallucinations occur not just in Schizophrenia, but in other mental illnesses and disorders as well. If you are more enlightened, or hear voices yourself, you will know that many people hear voices and don’t have any mental illness or disorder and you may have heard of the Hearing Voices Movement. So yes, some people call the trait of hearing voices Auditory Verbal Hallucinations. But that’s an out-of-date understanding that belongs in the biomedical model of mental illness.

Some people hear voices that other people can’t hear. Not everyone who hears voices also has a mental illness, and many people who hear voices are not distressed by them. Just think of the clairvoyant as one example. So, what is “hearing voices”? What does it feel like? What does it look like? What is the difference between hearing voices and hearing your own voice as you think?

Firstly, I should point out that I am not a voice-hearer. I do not have the lived experience of voice-hearing so I cannot give you a first-person account. My initial understanding of this experience was gained as a nurse working in a large psychiatric hospital in Sydney in the late 1980s. I was taught that it was an auditory hallucination, a product of the chemical changes in a person’s brain when they had schizophrenia. I was also taught that the voices spoke gobbledygook, they had no purpose and no meaning, and that I should not talk with the person about their voices but try to distract them. I remember patients walking around the hospital grounds with a Walkman and headphones, not interacting with anyone, chain smoking, talking to themselves. Thank goodness we have moved on since then!

Also in the late 1980s, a psychiatrist in The Netherlands, Professor Marius Romme, was working with a patient who challenged him about his concept of her voices. She wanted to know how people could believe they were hearing the voice of God and were not called mad, but she believed she could hear voices (not God) and she was called mad. That started his long journey of learning to understand about voices. They discovered that there were more people in the world who heard voices, and were not distressed by them, than there were people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia! The difference seems to be that people who have developed a mental illness where their thinking is disorganized, get distressed by the voices. It’s the distress that’s the issue, not the voices themselves.

The experience of what it is like to hear voices varies between people who hear them. Essentially, you ‘hear voices’ if you can hear voices that other people can’t hear, regardless of whether they originate inside or outside your head. Beyond that, it varies from person to person. It’s heard by the person so it is described as an auditory experience. But most voice-hearers would argue with the term ‘hallucination’ because that implies something that is not real, and it is a very real experience to them. They hear it. The voices exist. It is not their imagination. So while the term ‘Auditory Verbal Hallucination’ is what you will hear in most mental health settings, it is considered derogatory by the Hearing Voices Movement.

While I can’t give you a personal account of what it is like to hear voices, I have been trusted enough by many voice-hearers that I have worked with to be told of their experiences. That means I have an outsider perspective of the voice-hearing experience of those people. To gain some perspective on what it is like to hear voices here are some sources that are located on the internet and freely available, that fit with the experiences that people have shared with me.

This video is a Ted Talk by Debra Lampshire, a voice-hearer in New Zealand, called Hearing Voices : an Insiders Guide to Auditory Hallucinations;  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NjL2dqONIqQ

This video was made by Rethink Mental Illness who put together some examples of what people hear; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZxGowUJVjfw

This video was made by a woman with schizophrenia about her experiences hearing voices; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch14SzuEI0Y

This video is about Jeannie Bass, a voice-hearer in the United States who works as a specialist peer worker; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYdjojgDOuw

Here’s a video of a man trying a hearing voices simulation – very similar to what nurses listen to here to learn empathy for people who hear voices; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yL9UJVtgPZY

A lecture by Charles Fernyhough, The Science of the Voices in your Head. It goes for an hour, and is about much more than hearing voices, and has some different views, but is very interesting; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=95otBlepVHc

This is a video put up by a man living with schizoaffective disorder, but it also demonstrates his experience of hearing voices https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M3_hny4GFlY

Here is a short video of two people trying the simulation of hearing voices as they had people close to them diagnosed with schizophrenia and wanted to understand more; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AxWxJNHoLC8&t=224s

I hope that has given some insight into the experience of hearing voices.