Peter Bullimore hears voices 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Sometimes he doesn’t have time to listen to them. Sometimes he does. One voice urged him to do something creative, so last year he wrote a children’s book. When it was published, the voice stopped talking to him. Another voice he hears belongs to his dead mother.
Bullimore, 52, from Sheffield, has been hearing voices for more than 30 years. ‘I think it’s a very creative way of coping with adverse life experiences,’ he told Metro.
He didn’t always feel that way, however, spending ten of those years as a psychiatric patient after being diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia following a breakdown. But the drugs didn’t work and in the mid-1990s he attended a session run by the Hearing Voices Network support group, where he is now a trustee, in a bid to obtain a better understanding and get on with his life. He has never accepted his diagnosis or the supposed effectiveness of the medication he was given.
‘You can’t cure voices,’ he said. ‘Voices aren’t curable, just like you can’t cure left-handedness. So we should not give treatment that doesn’t work.’
He said he was able to cope with his voices once he started to control his emotions. ‘When it first started it was a very frightening experience. It’s confusing, it’s disorientating, it makes you angry. But now I see it as a part of me. I wouldn’t want to be without my voices because I think they are guides in their own way.’
One of the myths about hearing voices is that everyone who experiences them is mentally ill. In fact, a range of studies indicate that about 1 in 20 people regularly hear voices in their head, many of whom have no need for treatment. The rush to label voice hearers as ‘crazy’ appears to be abating.
Little is known about the exact reasons for hearing voices. An international team of researchers, led by British experts at Durham University and backed by the Wellcome Trust, is aiming to delve deeper into what happens when people hear voices.
It wants to find out what the experience of hearing voices is actually like for people and, in cases where clinical help is sought, what are the best approaches. The research project is called Hearing the Voice and involves neuroscientists, health practitioners, psychiatrists and voice hearers.
‘Many people think that voice hearing is just a symptom of severe mental illness like schizophrenia or psychosis, but what they don’t know is that hearing voices is also an important aspect of many ordinary people’s lives,’ said Charles Fernyhough, professor of psychology at Durham University and the project’s director.
‘Voices are experienced by the majority of people with a diagnosis of schizophrenia, a distressing and disorientating condition that is much maligned and poorly understood. We hope that by providing a better understanding of voice hearing, our research will help to raise awareness, reduce stigma and discrimination and ultimately be of benefit to people who hear voices and those who care for and about them.’
While voice hearing is linked to those with mental conditions such as schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder, it can also be a positive force. ‘Public perception is that people only hear voices that abuse, threaten and command them to do dangerous or unacceptable things,’ said Dr Angela Woods, co-director of Hearing the Voice and a lecturer in medical humanities at Durham University.
‘But voices are as diverse as the conversations that we have every day. Some voices are distressing and malevolent; others are kind and encouraging, providing a person with an important source of comfort and support.
‘A common reaction is fear and the thought, “I must be mad”. But hearing voices is not always pathological – research suggests that it is the stress associated with negative interpretations of this experience and ineffective coping strategies that can cause the most distress.’
Dr Woods said there was also a correlation between voice hearing and creativity – Charles Dickens and Socrates are among those thought to have heard voices. Prof Fernyhough said that, technically, hearing a voice is a hallucination, but that they are ‘very real to the voice hearer and can often have important meanings for the individual’.
Although there are theories equating them to neglect, bullying and abuse, the big question – why do people hear voices? – is still unanswerable. Hearing the Voice researchers will examine the link between the phenomenon and ‘inner speech’ – what goes through our minds when we are thinking to ourselves.
Prof Fernyhough said: ‘One of the theories we’re exploring is the idea that voice hearing experiences arise when someone mistakenly attributes an episode of inner speech – one of their own thoughts – to an external source.’
Doctoral researcher Peter Moseley elaborated on this idea. ‘Unlike instances of our own inner voice which clearly belong to us, most people report that hearing a voice in the absence of any speaker has an “alien” quality to it, so that it doesn’t feel like it comes from the self,’ he said. ‘If the voices are derogatory, they might say, “I would never think that”, and attribute the experience to an external source. It is not the case that voices are always distinguished from thoughts by virtue of their perceived location: whether or not they are experienced as coming from inside or outside the head. Some people experience voices that sound as if they are coming from the external environment, but many voices are experienced as internal in the same way that our own inner voice is.’
Another researcher on the team, Dr Ben Alderson-Day, said that evidence gathered suggests that many of the brain’s ‘language centres’ (where speech is processed) are active when someone hears a voice.
‘What we don’t know yet is why they are active,’ he said. ‘Why it is that some people hear a voice when no one is present? One possibility is that the answer will be found in how these language centres are connected to other parts of the brain, such as the motor cortex and areas linked to long-term memory.’
For Bullimore, the recollection of the decade of unhappiness before he found a way to live with his voices is what drives him forward. He now teaches others worldwide how to cope with similar situations. He has embraced his voices. ‘They can’t harm me any more,’ he said. ‘They can’t make me do things I don’t want to do any more.’
Go to HearingTheVoice.org for more information