Hearing Voices: When the Unconscious Calls

Auditory hallucination is common according to Daniel B. Smith. In “Can You Live With the Voices in Your Head?”, Peter D. Kramer’s summary of Smith’s 2007 book, Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination (Penguin Press), Kramer summarizes Smith’s data. Though many of us in the mainstream associate hearing voices with pathology, 39 percent of healthy volunteers said they had heard their own thoughts aloud. Another 13 percent of those who had lost a spouse reported hearing their dead partner’s voice, and three percent with a running history of auditory hallucinations and deemed mentally healthy didn’t feel the experience required treatment.

With the increasing technology and ease of conducting bran scanning in the field of Neuroscience, scientists have attempted to explain the phenomenon of hearing inner voices. Their take? They report that for schizophrenic individuals who experience auditory hallucinations, the language related part of their right brain lights up when they read. In those who do not experience auditory hallucinations, the left brain shows the bulk of activity. For the first group whose right brain lights up, the fact that the words appear to be processed on the “wrong” side of the brain could potentially lead an individual to believe that he “hears” a voice that he does not attribute to the self (Kramer, 2007).

Any event where language is processed involves perception, emotion, and attention, and Kramer (2007) recounts Smith’s experiences in trying to recreate and research the phenomemon himself by putting on a portable headset that simulates voices, by floating in a sensory deprivation chamber, and by meeting with a group who all claim to hear voices. In fact, Kramer relates, it appears that Smith’s own father began hearing voices when Smith was a boy of 13, voices which instructed him to move objects or take certain routes or turnstiles in the subway for example. Unfortunately, the elder Smith, perhaps fearing judgment or being labeled psychotic, wrestled with his experience for decades, always keeping the voices a deep, dark secret—a situation Daniel Smith attributes to causing his father to fall into a psychotic depression in his late thirties. More, the elder Smith responded with feelings of betrayal and anger upon discovering his father, too, had heard voices telling him (with varying results) what hand to play at cards or which horse to bet on at the track.


What Smith—and Kramer after him—seems not to realize is that there is yet another explanation beyond neurobiology or psychopathy that may validate the presence of “inner voices.” A depth psychological take would easily attribute the would-be voices to something larger than the individual, a manifestation of the unconscious that is emerging into the individual’s consciousness for good reason, perhaps drawing his attention to something important, offering information, transformation, or healing. In fact, unconscious processes “often take the form of a patient describing a bother some condition that the patient can neither account for nor control” (in Shevrin & Dickman, 1980, p. 422).

Ancestral connections are not uncommon in manifestations of the unconscious. In fact, Robert D. Romanyshyn (2007) suggests unfinished business of the soul often emerges when there is work that needs to be to address it or complete it and, as C.G. Jung himself believed, is on behalf of the ancestors that the work is done. An individual who is privy to manifestations that burst through the unconscious into consciousness can act as a witness and a spokesperson for those who “linger with their still unanswered questions.” The voices which Daniel Smith’s father heard, and his father before him, may well have been a pressing weight of history that was being passed across generations until someone actively engaged it.

One way to engage with the unconscious is to actually dialogue with the voices, rather than ignoring, repressing, or simply acquiescing to what they say. Thomas Elsner (2009), in his astute review of The Wounded Researcher points out Romanyshyn’s assertion that there is a transferential field hosting a wealth of information that can be navigated   through fantasies, reveries, and images. August Cwik (1991) reminds us that Jung regarded active fantasy, what he later termed active imagination, as a powerful way to create a transitional space, a safe container in which play can occur and new material emerge. By beginning from a reflective state and allowing oneself to enter into relationship with the voices, an individual may actually be able to elicit information he wouldn’t ordinarily necessarily have heard. Following the dialogue, it must be concretized in form through some kind of art or writing (Jung, in Cwik) or to ritualize the new information so it will deepen into understanding at the somatic level rather than remaining intellectual only (Johnson, in Cwik). Ritual, states Johnson, is “symbolic behavior, consciously performed” (p. 105).

In fact, in Muses, Madmen, and Prophets, Daniel Smith entertains the idea that auditory hallucination may be a source of inspiration, the closest he can come to assigning it to something akin to the unconscious, or the Self (Kramer, 2007). While remaining agnostic himself about whether these hallucinations actually transmit authentic wisdom, Smith recounts several stories of historical and religious figures who perceived the voices they heard to come from the Divine. The list runs from Muhammad to the Archangel Gabriel to John Bunyan, a central figure in the literary work Pilgrim’s Progress, who all were urged by voices to turn to Scripture. Teresa of Avila was given mandates that didn’t actually include sound (perhaps a convenient way to stymie the Inquisitors) but which initiated a new era of Divine inspiration that was hotly debated as either a Christian triumph over the pagan oracles, or as a loss of direct inspiration. Still other forms of “hallucination” have manifested in automatic writings. However, in the end, Kramer reports that Smith issues a provocative question about the source and value of this phenomenon: If antipsychotic medication had been available, Smith wonders, “Would Moses have dismissed Yahweh’s demands at the burning bush ‘as his dopamine system playing tricks on him?’” (para. 5). While not answering directly, we are ultimately left with the distinct impression that as a culture, Smith believes we are likely headed more toward a neurological manner of dealing with otherwise inexplicable voices in our head, rather than a mystical one. Those of us who believe in the power of the unconscious will have to continue to listen, and to watch.


Cwik, A. J. (1991). Active imagination as imaginal play-space. In M. Stein & N. Schwartz-Salant (Eds.), Liminality and transitional phenomena (pp. 99-114). Wilmette, IL: Chiron Publications.

Elsner, T. (2009). Following the footsteps of the soul in research. Psychological Perspectives, 52, 24-36.

Kramer, P. D. (2007). Can You Live With the Voices in Your Head? New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/08/books/review/Kramer.t.html

Romanyshyn, R. (2007). The wounded researcher: Research with soul in mind. New Orleans, LA: Spring Journal Books.

Shevrin, H. & Dickman, S. (1980). The psychological unconscious: A necessary assumption for all psychological theory. American Psychologist, 35, 421-434.