Reading Voices Into Our Minds

Each of us is a multitude. There is no single unified self. Our thoughts are a conversation. The voices of family echo in our minds when we first leave home and long after our loved ones have died. Then there are all the television, movie, and commercial characters that invade our consciousness with their catchphrases, slogans, and taglines. And we can’t forget how songs get stuck on cognitive repeat or emerge as a compulsion to sing.

Yet another example are the intimate voices imagined as you read novels, a form of inner speech that can carry on after you have put down a book. These can be the most powerful voices. There is nothing that compares to the long periods of time spent with compelling fiction. The voice of characters in a novel are heard within your own head as you read. You can return to this experience again and again, until the characters have become internalized and their words inscribed upon your psyche. Their voices becomes your own voices.

This chorus of voices is constantly playing in the background, a caucophony of thoughts vying for your attention. But occasionally they rise into the spotlight of your consciousness. Even then, it rarely occurs to any of us how strange those voices are, except when some particular voice insistently refuses to go away and maybe even seems to have a mind of its own. Then we might begin to question the distinction between them and us and question what kind of being we are that can contain both.

There is an argument that novels help us develop theory of mind. But maybe in the process novels, along with certain other modern media, result in a particular kind of mind or minds. We come to identify or otherwise incorporate what we empathize with. The worlds we inhabit long enough eventually inhabit us. And what we’ve heard through out our lives can have a way of continuing to speak to us, layers upon layers of voices that for some of can speak clearly.

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Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds
by Richard Lea

It’s a cliche to claim that a novel can change your life, but a recent study suggests almost a fifth of readers report that fiction seeps into their daily existence.

Researchers at Durham University conducted a survey of more than 1,500 readers, with about 400 providing detailed descriptions of their experiences with book. Nineteen per cent of those respondents said the voices of fictional characters stayed with them even when they weren’t reading, influencing the style and tone of their thoughts – or even speaking to them directly. For some participants it was as if a character “had started to narrate my world”, while others heard characters talking, or imagined them reacting to things going on in everyday life.

The study, which was carried out in collaboration with the Guardian at the 2014 Edinburgh international book festival, also found that more than half of the 1,500 respondents said that they heard the voices of characters while reading most or all of the time, while 48% reported a similar frequency of visual or other sensory experiences during reading.

According to one of the paper’s authors, the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, the survey illustrates how readers of fiction are doing more than just processing words for meaning – they are actively recreating the worlds and characters being described.

“For many of us, this can involve experiencing the characters in a novel as people we can interact with,” Fernyhough said. “One in seven of our respondents, for example, said they heard the voices of fictional characters as clearly as if there was someone in the room with them.”

When they asked readers to describe what was happening in detail, the researchers found people who described fictional characters remaining active in their minds after they had put the book down, and influencing their thoughts as they went about their daily business – a phenomenon Fernyhough called “experiential crossing”.

The term covers a wide range of experiences, from hearing a character’s voice to feeling one’s own thoughts shaped by a character’s ideas, sensibility or presence, he continued. “One respondent, for example, described ‘feeling enveloped’ by [Virginia Woolf’s] character Clarissa Dalloway – hearing her voice and imagining her response to particular situations, such as walking into a Starbucks. Sometimes the experience seemed to be triggered by entering a real-world setting similar to one in the novel; in other situations, it felt like seeing the world through a particular character’s eyes, and judging events as the character would.”

The characters who make the leap into readers’ lives are typically “powerful, vivid characters and narrators”, Fernyhough added, “but this will presumably vary hugely from person to person”.

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“illusion of a completed, unitary self”

The Voices Within:
The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves
by Charles Fernyhough
Kindle Locations 3337-3342

And we are all fragmented. There is no unitary self. We are all in pieces, struggling to create the illusion of a coherent “me” from moment to moment. We are all more or less dissociated. Our selves are constantly constructed and reconstructed in ways that often work well, but often break down. Stuff happens, and the center cannot hold. Some of us have more fragmentation going on, because of those things that have happened; those people face a tougher challenge of pulling it all together. But no one ever slots in the last piece and makes it whole. As human beings, we seem to want that illusion of a completed, unitary self, but getting there is hard work. And anyway, we never get there.

Kindle Locations 3357-3362

This is not an uncommon story among people whose voices go away. Someone is there, and then they’re not there anymore. I was reminded of what I had been told about the initial onset of voice-hearing: how it can be like dialing into a transmission that has always been present. “Once you hear the voices,” wrote Mark Vonnegut of his experiences, “you realise they’ve always been there. It’s just a matter of being tuned to them.” If you can tune in to something, then perhaps you can also tune out.

Kindle Locations 3568-3570

It is also important to bear in mind that for many voice-hearers the distinction between voices and thoughts is not always clear-cut. In our survey, a third of the sample reported either a combination of auditory and thought-like voices, or experiences that fell somewhere between auditory voices and thoughts.

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Charles Fernyhough recommends the best books on Streams of Consciousness
from Five Books

Charles Fernyhough Listens in on Thought Itself in ‘The Voices Within’
by Raymond Tallis, WSJ (read here)

Neuroscience: Listening in on yourself
by Douwe Draaisma, Nature

The Song Of The Psyche
by Megan Sherman, Huffington Post

Keep Your Experience to Yourself

Voice-hearing is one of those odd experiences that most of us ignore. Unless you’ve personally experienced it, it isn’t real. But for those who have, it can be one of the most real things they know, voices that can be as ever-present as the air one breathes.

In a book I was reading, the author mentioned visiting a conference for voice-hearers. Some people had been attending such conferences for years and they were old hands at talking about the voices they hear. Others were attending their first conference and it was a new experience to meet other people who also heard voices.

At the conference, there was a young man who came with an assistant. He was a voice-hearer who had autism. The author explained that he would get irritated. He heard voices and couldn’t believe that everyone else didn’t also hear voices. He thought others were putting him on by pretending they didn’t hear like he heard. I can imagine how autism would complicate the experience of voice-hearing.

What interested me is the basic situation of that young man. We all have experiences and we tend to assume that others experiences are more or less like our own. It is the opposite problem of lacking some experience and assuming everyone else also lacks it. Even language can’t overcome such gaps of experience. Sometimes language hides the gaps, to such an extent we don’t even suspect anything is unusual.

It amuses me to think of a scenario in an ancient bicameral society. Voice-hearing, according to theory, would have been the norm. Someone who didn’t hear voices would have been the crazy one. That person might assume everyone else was speaking metaphorically when they mentioned voices they heard. And so that person might even act like he was hearing voices because that is how everyone else was acting. It might not even occur to him to argue with anyone about whether the voices are real. If he did argue with others about it, it wouldn’t likely lead to happy results and easy relationships.

It’s not wise to argue with people about their experience of reality, especially when they are part of the majority.