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Imagining voices: A look at an alternative approach to treating auditory hallucinations

The idea of hearing voices, or auditory hallucinations, is an experience that frightens many of us. It can be seen as a sign that you are no longer in control of your mind. Auditory hallucinations are also a symptom of schizophrenia, and those with the disease often hear voices which are hostile, mean and disturbing. But some clinicians, including Marius Romme, MD, PhD, a Dutch psychiatrist and president of Intervoice, are exploring alternate ways to treat the problem of hearing distressing voices. A recent interview with one of Romme’s colleagues, Dirk Corstens, MD, and two of his patients, was featured in The Atlantic.

Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, PhD, has worked extensively with people who hear voices, and a recent study she conducted compared the experiences of psychotic patients with auditory hallucinations living in three very different locales - San Mateo, California; Chennai India; and Accra, Ghana. Her team found that the voices of Indian and Ghanaian patients were more likely to be playful and benign, whereas those of U.S. patients were on average more threatening.

When Luhrmann took time to talk with me to discuss the implications of her research and the approach, which calls itself the Hearing Voices movement, she noted early on that although the treatments espoused by the movement won’t work for everyone, “The Hearing Voices approach is very important and has an important kernel to it.”

Some of what the group advocates is controversial. “They often reject the idea of schizophrenia, are hesitant about medication, and have a model of hearing voices that identifies sexual trauma as the most important cause of hearing voices,” she says. But a growing body of scientific evidence shows that it may be useful to teach people to interact with their voices.

The Hearing Voices movement, says Luhrmann, advocates seeing the voices as meaningful, treats them as people, respects the voices and encourages patients to interact with them with the help of a trained clinician. One of the patients featured in The Atlantic piece described how he learned to work with the voices he heard:

[Dr. Corstens and I] started to work with each other five years ago, or more. I was around 20 years old. It took about two years of work to actually figure out what the relationships were, what the triggers for the voices were, and what feelings are coupled to these voices. Once you start to learn to express yourself and work out these problems on your own, the voices don’t have to act out their part. Now, when I hear voices, I know what triggered them. I ask, “What is happening with me? What am I neglecting in my own emotions?” Does that make sense?

Luhrmann says that while more research needs to be done, it seems that some patients appear to benefit and the voices they hear diminish, or at least become less aggressive and intrusive. But she cautions that the method may not be appropriate for all patients. “I think it’s important to remember that schizophrenia is a difficult heterogeneous experience," she says. “It’s pretty clear, even at this early point, that these techniques don’t work for everyone.” At the same time, she points out, research on related practices like cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to ease the severity of the voice-hearing experience.

The Hearing Voices movement is mostly centered in European countries at the moment, but Luhrmann notes that it’s growing fast in a grassroots kind of way, somewhat in the way Alcoholics Anonymous grew in the last century. She predicts that some of the approaches used by the group will probably be used among patients with schizophrenia here in the U.S. in the next decade.

Previously: The link between mental-health conditions and cardiovascular diseaseNew thinking on schizophrenia, it’s the mind, body and social experience and Study shows meditation may alter areas of the brain associated with psychiatric disorders
Image by Craig Finn

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