Hearing Voices

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Moses heard voices or one voice the Bible tells us: the voice of God. So did Mohammed, and Abraham, and Joan of Arc.

The Iliad tells us the Greek gods spoke constantly to the heroes of the Trojan wars. William Blake and John Milton said they heard voices. So did Socrates and many others across the centuries.

Today, when people hear voices we say they're ill. But human history is full of humans, hearing voices, in their heads — and following.

This hour On Point: the history and science of hearing voices.

Quotes from the Show:

"We tend to think reflexively of hearing voices as a psychiatric phenomenon, as something that bespeaks the most horrible psychiatric diagnosis one can be burdened with — and that's schizophrenia — whereas in fact, throughout history, hearing voices has not been thought of in that way." Daniel B. Smith

"There is an example of historical voice-hearing that does not cause panic or trouble for people and that is in the Iliad and in Hesiod's poetry. These are much more normal seeming to the people who hear them." Daniel B. Smith

"Trying to parse the real from the metaphorical is not only difficult but it seems to me perhaps even impossible. You can't question of course a lot of figures in history so it's difficult to know whether they actually heard a voice physically or whether they were simply using that as a metaphor for an experience that came to them with a great strength, great force, great meaning. I think meaning is the most important thing here." Daniel B. Smith

"Around 3 to 5 percent of people have said that at one time or another they have heard a voice, clearly and audibly. ... It's hard to say but I would guess that it's a lot more common than people recognize or realize or perhaps want to think." Daniel B. Smith

"The brain science [of auditory hallucinations] is actually not very advanced." Daniel B. Smith

"There are many conditions and deceases that can cause someone to hear voices, many more than simply psychotic illness — not only these physical illnesses but also perhaps psychological trauma. ... There have been a lot of anecdotes, anecdotal evidence suggesting that trauma can be a cause of hearing voices." Daniel B. Smith

"There's something diminishing about talking about auditory hallucinations exclusively in terms of pathology." Daniel B. Smith


Daniel B. Smith, author of "Muses, Madmen and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination."

This program aired on April 2, 2007.


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