Hallucinations tend to be associated with psychosis, but the reality is more complicated than that. Some people who hear voices don’t suffer from other mental health problems, and the voices they hear aren’t distressing. These “non-clinical voice-hearers” provide an important opportunity to understand hallucinations without the complications of mental illness or medication.
A preliminary study published this week in the journal Brain reports that non-clinical voice-hearers were more likely to detect language in a recording of distorted speech. Voice-hearers also showed some different patterns in brain activation as they listened. The results could help to explain why some people are more likely to hear voices, as well as help to direct future research on the topic.
Hearing meaning in noise
Ben Alderson-Day, the lead author on the paper, is a psychologist at Durham University whose research focuses on auditory hallucinations. To investigate differences of perception in voice-hearers, Alderson-Day and his colleagues used sine-wave speech, which strips out some of the most vital acoustic properties of speech and leaves something that sounds kind of like a series of clicks and whistles. It’s possible to understand it—once you already know what it says, or once you’ve listened to quite a bit of sine-wave speech. (Listen to some examples here.)