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Everything you ever wanted to know about voice hearing (but were too afraid to ask)

Posted by: Michelle Quint
Eleanor Longden gave a candid talk about the fact that she hears voices at TED2013. Today, we also release her TED Book, which delves further into her experience of the mental health system. Below, all the questions you'd want to ask Longden but might be a little hesitant to. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Eleanor Longden gave a candid talk about the fact that she hears voices at TED2013. Today, we also release her TED Book, which delves further into her experience in the mental health system. Below, all the questions you’d want to ask Longden. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

During her freshman year of college, Eleanor Longden began hearing voices: a narrator describing her actions as she went about her day. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Longden began what she describes as a “psychic civil war,” fighting to stop the voices as they became antagonistic. Eleanor Longden: The voices in my headEleanor Longden: The voices in my headWhat helped her was something unexpected: making peace with them. By learning to see the voices as a source of insight rather than a symptom, Longden took control.

What’s it like to hear voices? Read Eleanor’s FAQ below — where she tells you everything you wanted to know about voice hearing, with her signature honesty and humor.  

Want more? Longden first spoke during our Worldwide Talent Search; then told a longer version of her journey toward acceptance of her own mind on the mainstage at TED2013. And today, Longden premieres her TED Book, delving deeper into her experience. Learning from the Voices in My Head is available for the Kindle, the Nook and through the iBookstore.

Do your voices ever talk to each other (and exclude you)? 

Sometimes. In the old days they would talk about me a lot more, but now they usually speak to me directly. And when they do discuss me, it’s more likely to be compliments or positive encouragement. Or sometimes they’ll discuss something I’m worried about and debate possible solutions. There’s one particular voice that will repeat helpful mantras to the others. A recent one was: “If you can do something about it, there’s no need to worry. And if you can’t do anything about it, there’s no point in worrying!”

Do the voices sound like they are coming from inside your head or through your ears?

This is something else that’s changed a bit over time. They used to be more external, but now tend to be internal or outside, but very close to my ears. It can also vary depending on which voice is speaking.

What would you miss if you lost the voices? Would you be lonely?

My voices are an important part of my identity – literally, they are part of me – so yes, I would miss them if they went. I should probably insure them actually, because if they do ever go I’ll be out of a job! This seems extraordinary given how desperate I used to be to get rid of them. But they provide me with a lot of insights about myself, and they hold a very rich repertoire of different memories and emotions. They’re also very useful when I do public speaking, as they’ll often remind me if I’ve missed something. They can be helpful with general knowledge quizzes too! One of them even used to recite answers during my university exams. Peter Bullimore, a trustee of the English Hearing Voices Network, published a beautiful children’s book that was dictated to him by his voices.

Do your voices ever overlap? Could they harmonize?

They sometimes talk over each other, but don’t really say the same things in unison. I’ve met people whose voices do that though, like a chorus. Other people sometimes describe voices that sound like a football crowd, or a group talking at a party. At a recent conference, I heard a really extraordinary fact: that people who’ve been deaf from birth don’t hear voices, but see hands signing at them.

Do your voices happen all the time? Like, even during sex? Do you have to shush them during a movie?

No, not all the time! Although they’re often more active (and sometimes more negative or antagonistic) when I’m stressed. Even this can be useful though, as it’s a reminder to take some time out and look after myself. I relate to them so much better now, so if they become intrusive and I ask them to be quiet in a calm, respectful way — then 99% of the time they would.

Can you make certain voices pop up at will?

Yes, some of the time. Actually, this was something I used several years ago during therapy – my therapist would say for example, “I’d like to speak with the voice that’s very angry,” or “the voice that talks a lot about [a particular traumatic event],” and he’d dialogue with it.

Is there a time when you want to hear voices or are you always trying to get them to be quiet?

I sometimes discuss dilemmas or problems with them, or ask their opinion about decisions, although I would never let them dictate something to me that I didn’t want to do – it’s like negotiating between different parts of yourself to reach a conclusion ‘everyone’ is happy with. So, for example, maybe there’s a voice that represents a part of me that’s very insecure, which will have different needs, to a part of me that wants to go out into the world and be heard. Or the needs of very rational, intellectual voice may feel incompatible with those of a very emotional one. But then I can identify that conflict within myself and try to resolve it. It’s quite rare now that I have to tell them to be quiet, as they don’t intrude or impose on me in the way that they used to. If they do become invasive then it’s important for me to understand why, and there’ll always be a good reason. In general, it’ll be a sign of some sort of emotional conflict, which can then be addressed in a positive, constructive way.

Do you ever confuse your internal voice with ‘the voices’?

No, they feel quite distinct.

When you talk back to the voices, do they react differently if you speak out loud or just think your response?

I rarely respond to them out loud now, but they wouldn’t react differently to when I ‘speak’ to them internally.

What’s the difference between schizophrenia and voice hearing?

While the experiences that get labeled as symptoms of schizophrenia –and the distress associated with them — are very real, the idea that there’s a discrete, biologically-based condition called schizophrenia is being contested all over the world. While voice hearing is linked with a range of different psychiatric conditions (including many non-psychotic ones), many people with no history of mental health problems hear voices. It’s also widely recognized as part of different spiritual and cultural experiences.

Do you feel like other voice hearers understand you better?

They can appreciate what it’s like more precisely, but I’m fortunate enough to have met some really empathic, imaginative non-voice hearers who really want to understand too. In this respect, I think there’s actually more continuity between voices and everyday psychological experience then a lot of people realize. For example, everyone knows what it’s like to have intrusive thoughts. And most of us recognize the sense of having more than one part of ourselves: a part that’s very critical, a part that wants to please everyone, a part that’s preoccupied with negative events, a part that is playful and irresponsible and gets us into trouble, and so on. I think voices often feel more disowned and externalized, but represent a similar process.

What makes the voices talk more at some moments than others?

Usually emotional experiences, both positive and negative. In the early days, identifying these ‘triggers’ were very helpful in making more sense of why the voices were there and what they represented.

Do the voices ever make you laugh out loud?

Yes, sometimes! Some can be very outrageous with their humor, very daring, whereas others have a droll, Bill Hicks-like cynicism. Well, maybe not quite like Bill Hicks. Wouldn’t that be great though … having Bill Hicks in your head!

Comments (25)

  • Diamond Ozier commented on Mar 9 2014

    The person i used to hear could also read my mind, this was triggered by falling deeply in love …..we been itseperated for 2 yrs trying to find each preventitother but people are trying to prevent it and i dont know EXACTLY why yet.

  • Steviez McElhone commented on Jan 2 2014

    I never heard voices till I was 29 and am 53 now, I had a RTA and besides most of my bones being broke and 5% brain damage. The voice in my head kept telling me to do things. I got treatment and was hospitalized for a long time the treatment worked for a short time. And when I was asked was I hearing voices I would say no but actually they where there all the time from I went to bed till I got up, but I was in control of them. Lately the voices have came back with a vengeance there’s one dominant voice with lots of others nattering in the back ground. Am so tired with them I don’t get a minutes rest I must be on my guard at all times. Its got that I spend most of my time in my bedroom should I talk out loud no one else will hear me. At this point am not in control of the voices and haven’t been for a while, hopefully someone can help me before I lose it all togather

  • commented on Nov 26 2013

    Reblogged this on Far be it from me -.

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  • Anna Kutcher-Kochov commented on Aug 17 2013

    when i was young i would be told something in my head and run and tell my Mom–she was always surprised because what i would tell her–would happen. i do not know why the voices disappeared but they did and returned at age 45 in a full blown schizophrenic nervous breakdown–about 20 yrs ago. i got truthful voices and later lying voices. the liars frustrate me! here is something i know you will not believe but i have discovered to be true for me–i hear space aliens…really shook me up at first..but not any more. they told me they often speak to us humans in our heads–people write books using their words. one was “I come as a brother” another, they told me, was written as though the voice that spoke was the Virgin Mary–this book was written and published. who are all these voices??? sometimes at night i go for a walk and someone follows me–i cant see them–but they speak and tell me that they were murdered and wish to tell me about it. i found that i can speak to the spirit in an animal or a tree–i can hear the words they say in response.
    i found i can sit alone in my room and speak to a person far away from me and have a conversation with them. i never know if it is real or not–not until someone calls me and says “Anna–you kept me up all night talking–i needed to sleep!” sometimes people think it is God they hear when i speak–yes, i guess iam the craziest person i know. if iam NOT crazy–what am I?

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  • kevin healey commented on Aug 10 2013

    Hi Eleanor, great job. Congratulations.

    For everyone… I hear voices too – have done for as long as I can remember, which is well over forty years.
    Many of us do hear voices that others don’t and or see things that others don’t – likely many more than you have any idea.
    In some cultures it’s those people who don’t hear voices of some sort – and don’t talk about it openly – that are regarded as strange, and are worried about.

    Yes some people really have a hard time with voices they hear but is that because something is wrong in their brain chemistry or is it mostly because when they try to talk about it society treats people who are a little different the way it does – the way Eleanor describes and the way many, many others have experienced?

    Drugs can help some people cope with feeling overwhelmed by powerful emotions, but there’s a price to pay and they don’t work as well as we might wish. If we could divert just a fraction of resources that go into coercing people to take meds we might be able to actually help people learn how to live with whatever they experience so they need meds less.

    Like Eleanor says we’d do better if treat people than can treating diagnoses.

    And’s much easier to help people find their own way if we listen rather jump on them assuming we know what’s wrong and what they jolly well need us to do to them.

    Just like some people, some “voices” are full of bile and crap but many voices can offer valuable clues and insights into what’s out of whack in a person’s life… Even the difficult, violent, hating voices are often reflecting something hidden deep and locked away, that unaddressed will become more toxic. I have first hand experience of this, and with help from HVN of working it out.
    It takes courage and support to learn how to do it but many, many of us do – and like Eleanor, we’re grateful for the learning, and regard ourselves better off for it.

    Hearing Voices as an approach is not about telling everyone what will work for them and what they need to do – how could we possibly know?- but about creating choice so people can discover for themselves, with as little or as much help as they need, and get on with living their lives.

    …what isn’t cool about that?

    I even get people asking if I can teach them how to hear voices…but that’s another TED talk.

  • Nancy Radford commented on Aug 10 2013

    I love this. Thank you, Eleanor. I am an unmedicated bi-polar person who believed when I read in Gary Zukav’s “The Seat of the Soul” about the soul being splintered and by healing and reintegrating those parts the person heals. In this he went on to refer directly to schizophrenia and I believed this to be true for my situation as well. What began with the professionals whom permitted and supported me in removing the medications went on to be a spiritual quest that has lead to almost 20 years un-medicated and living an independent, self-supporting life with a marriage and full time job and very full wonderful life! I applaud you Eleanor and maybe someday we can meet and discuss. Brava, my dear, Brava!!!

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  • robert Padgett commented on Aug 9 2013

    I do not see this as being as abnormal or odd as others. If no one had ever told her that hearing other voices and conversations in her own head was wrong she would never see herself as abnormal. Her way of representing emotions is simply less socially acceptable than other forms.

    The part where she comes to the realization that deaf individuals do not hear voices, but see sign language is a incredibly important part of this Ted Talk. The majority of the population fail to realize that other people think differently. They never stop to question that maybe what goes on in their own heads might be different than someone else. There are the keywords like hearing voices or similar keywords that jump out at people as abnormal. These labels can be incredibly damaging.

    Eleanor Longden has personified her emotions. She might have had any number of reasons, but what she has done is given her emotional feelings a voice. Instead of feeling a emotion, she has given them a voice. Each one represents a different emotion or feeling. In a “normal” person, we might have a fight in our heads on whether or not to eat that doughnut. We might feel guilt, sadness, depression, anger, happiness, excitement and other emotions in a quick internal debate with outselves. What we do not realize, is we are talking to ourselves just like Eleanor Longden is. We just just have this conversation in feeling and emotions. We could stop and write out what was being said if we wanted to.

    What Eleanor Longden has done is simply coped with emotions in a different way. Who is to say her way is worse than anyone elses? Some people take in information in different ways. Conversation might have just made more sense to her and caused her emotions to speak to her in a way she could understand. How many people out their complain they are an emotional wreck, or can never understand their own emotional state? In my opinion, Eleanor Longden has a gift.

  • Linda Smith commented on Aug 8 2013

    This is an interesting and heartwarming story, and it’s wonderful that voice hearing has worked out well for this young woman. However, whether she does or does not have schizophrenia, this illness is a reality! Publishing unsubstantiated reports to the contrary is a huge inaccuracy. (In this case the author indicated that schizophrenia as an illness was being contested worldwide – by whom? What are their credentials, research and publications?) Schizophrenia can be a horrific, disabling disease tragically destroying promising lives of those afflicted as well as the lives of their family members!) This type of reporting, even with the best of intentions, place those affected, without the where-with-all to care for themselves at even greater risk of neglect and abuse. That being said, best wishes to Eleanor; she sounds like an amazing individual.

    • Becky James commented on Aug 9 2013

      You’re totally right, it’s a real shame that this type of forum doesn’t have space for references. However, it is true that the idea of schizophrenia is being debated (for example, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/6033013.stm). This presentation by Prof. Richard Bentall ‘Deconstructing Schizophrenia’ gives a good overview of some of the issues (hope the link works okay!)

      http://www.intar.org/files/INTAR2011-Toronto-Richard%20BentallDeconstructingSchizophrenia.pdf

      • Kate Torgovnick May commented on Aug 9 2013

        Also, we have another post up on the TED Blog that contains Eleanor Longden’s suggested reading on voice hearing, psychiatry and schizophrenia:

        http://blog.ted.com/2013/08/08/eleanor-longdens-selections-for-further-reading-on-voice-hearing/

      • Linda Smith commented on Aug 9 2013

        Hey, thanks for sharing the link. It did work:) Based on what I read, it is the term itself that some diagnisticians are wanting to “scrap,” not the disorder itself. Schizophrenia, like many mental illnesses includes a broad spectrum of sypmtoms. One suggestion in the article you provided was “dopamine dysregulation.” (That works). My point was that the disorder is very real, causing very real and tragic consequences for many/most that have it – regardless of what it is called. My fear is that people will begin to blame those afflicted for their illness, assuming that everyone with schizophrenia or dopamine dysregulation can manage it the way Eleanor did.

        • Becky James commented on Aug 10 2013

          Thanks for starting this discussion, it’s really interesting! I ought to say I’m definitely no expert in this either! But I did see this thought-provoking article which shows how dopamine abnormalities (and other brain changes) in people diagnosed with schizophrenia may be linked to trauma http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11822210. Prof. Richard Bentall says the “concept of schizophrenia is scientifically meaningless”, and based on my reading, I have the impression it isn’t reliable because there’s such huge symptom overlaps with other conditions, plus it doesn’t correspond to “biomarkers” in a valid way (the NIMHR talk about this problem in terms of psychiatric diagnosis in general http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2013/transforming-diagnosis.shtml). The point you make about blame is really important! People often seem to not get the kind of help they need, then get blamed for not being able to recover – this definitely happened to a family member of mine, who could only recover after fighting for over three years to get access to therapy. Until then, all he was offered was medication and was called “treatment-resistant” because it didn’t work for him – another type of blaming.

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  • kimann schultz commented on Aug 8 2013

    i have wondered before on this – that running inner dialogues are a normal, active part of an active brain and that all of us who don’t “hear” them simply do not have the ability (though it so far is not a choice, drug use and hypnosis seem to nudge open those doors) to tap into what is already there. those who do, have somehow these open channels into their consciousness (sub-, un-) and actually hear verbatim the processes/threads we “hear” only in summarized batches of thought, which we call intuition, gut feelings or instant explosions of creativity/inspiration.
    i wrote a paper eons ago about endocepts, and as a creative thinker/doer, the concept has stayed w me forever, for it seems so very logical, as do these voices and i am fully on board w the idea of ongoing, inner thought processes that rise to our consciousness when the time is right, or at least triggered. i would bet the soothsayers, seers and channelers, elevated and revered by societies in history, surely were some who endured/were gifted with such inner voice access.

  • N M commented on Aug 8 2013

    I’ve heard that that it’s foreseeable to have technology enabled hallucination. So others may join in the not so distant future.

    • kimann schultz commented on Aug 8 2013

      drug use and abuse, hypnosis & meditation i believe have already been at work there, i would say

      • Elizabeth Wynia commented on Aug 8 2013

        At work where and with what effect?

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