There are many different ways that human beings experience the world. A team at Yale University has been working with people from the mediumship community in an effort to understand their voice-hearing experiences. Their goal is not trying to prove or disprove any individual’s abilities; rather the team would like to learn more about how and why people have the experiences that they do. They want to learn what it is like to have those experiences, how those receiving them feel about them, when they started, and how they stop them.
The team hopes to apply what they learn to help people who hear distressing voices, including those who might suffer from serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. There are drug treatments for those experiences, but the drugs have some very unpleasant side effects and do not work completely in 30 to 50% of people. Patients need new and creative approaches to this unmet need.
The Yale team, including Albert Powers of Spirit Alliance, has been working for the past five years to learn as much as they can about voice-hearing and clairaudience in an effort to inspire new treatment approaches for those hearing distressing voices. They began by collaborating with the Connecticut Psychics organization, the local branch of the American Association of Psychics. However, they are now interested in broadening their reach and working with more people who are clairaudient and receive daily auditory message experiences.
Voice-hearing is much more common than previously acknowledged. At some point in their lives, up to 20% of people might hear a voice when they are alone; between 3 and 10% experience this more frequently, perhaps following a bereavement, for example. Hearing voices is not necessarily a sign of mental illness and, by working with people who identify as clairaudient, the team believes they can help the 1% of the population who suffer from schizophrenia, for whom voice-hearing can be very distressing. In this phase of the work, the team is trying to understand and learn as much as they can about what it is like to be clairaudient, how clairaudience arises, what it involves, and, as part of the research study, the patterns of brain responses and behavior that characterize clairaudience as compared to voice-hearing in the context of serious mental illness—what are the similarities and differences?
In their work so far, the team has learned that people who identify as clairaudient have voice experiences that are very similar to those reported by people are distressed by voices. They happen as frequently, and the voices say things of similar length and loudness. However, the content may be more positive and the experiences are understood as spiritual gifts that clairaudient people can control and, therefore, they find the incidents less distressing. Furthermore, when the clairaudient people first shared their experiences with another person, their response was significantly more positive than the people hearing distressing voices. The Yale team wants to learn more about why that might be. One interesting possibility revealed in the data is that clairaudient people have their first experiences earlier in life and perhaps learn to interact with them more effectively than people who start hearing voices later in life and perceive them as distressing.
Using brain scans and computer games, the team has shown – in Science Magazine—that people who hear voices (both the clairaudient people and the patients with distressing voices) develop strong expectations about what might happen next. These predictions (or “priors”) fill in their experiences of the world. The patients find it hard to update those predictions when the game changes, whereas people with clairaudient abilities can change their minds more easily.
These similarities and differences were also apparent in brain scans. The study uses a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) brain scanner; it measures changes in blood flow to parts of the brain by tracking the iron in people’s blood. When parts of the brain are active, more blood flows to them. The team can measure those changes while people do different tasks. Different parts of the brain were active in people who were clairaudient than those in people who heard distressing voices during the computer task. The areas that were similar included regions involved in hearing, attending, and reflecting on what one has perceived. Activity in these areas related to strong expectations. The areas that differed included old structures deep in the brain that are associated with memory and learning (the hippocampus), as well as parts that are involved in the control of movements and thoughts at the back of the brain (the cerebellum). These areas were more active in people who were clairaudient and less so in patients with distressing voices. Activity in these areas changed when people changed their minds; the more flexible people engaged those brain regions more often. The team is already developing approaches to change activity in these regions to better assist people who experience distressing voices.
The team feels extremely fortunate to have the privilege to work with people from the mediumship community. They have been helpful, referring their friends and colleagues to the study, and they have approached their participation with open-mindedness, patience and sincerity. The mediumship community shares the Yale team’s goal of working together to learn about the varieties of human experience, in the service of the many people worldwide who suffer with distressing voices.
The work with the community has been featured on the BBC, in The Atlantic, and on various podcasts and websites. There is a real excitement from the public, the mediumship community, patients and their advocates, the academic community and the National Institute of Mental Health, which is supporting the work. The next step is for the team to replicate and extend their discoveries. That will entail recruiting and working with more people who experience clairaudience, as well as more people who hear distressing voices and those who suffer from serious mental illnesses. If the team observes the same sort of patterns of similarities and differences again, they will be more certain that what they learned could be useful to people hearing distressing voices.
In a new study across two sites (Yale University and University of Maryland), scientists are trying to learn even more about clairaudience and voice-hearing. The study involves visiting the Connecticut Mental Health Center in New Haven (or the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Catonsville, Md.) on four occasions and completing interviews about your experiences, as well as participating in computer games and brain scans. Participants will be compensated for time and inconvenience. If you are interested in helping them help people with voices that are distressing, please contact BeliefLab@yale.edu.