What is it Like to Hear Voices?

Caravaggio - The Inspiration of St Matthew

'Hearing voices' has become a phrase synonymous with mental illness. But auditory hallucinations are a lot more common than many realise - in fact, as many as 1 in 8 people will 'hear voices' at some point in their life.

And what's more, if we consider how the hearing of voices has contributed to some of the core elements of a number of religions, we might be quite startled to find that it has had a rather large influence on the world we live in. And yet very little research has been done on the topic until now.

To help gain a better understanding of this strange phenomenon, a research team from Durham and Stanford Universities designed an open-ended online questionnaire in which they asked people to describe, in their own words, what they experienced. It was completed by 153 people with a range of diagnoses, including 26 who had never had a psychiatric diagnosis.

Their findings have just been released in a new paper published by The Lancet, titled "Experiences of hearing voices: analysis of a novel phenomenological survey". For TL;DR sufferers, they also have summarised their results on the Hearing the Voice website:

Public perception is that hearing voices is always a symptom of severe mental illness such as schizophrenia and psychosis, and that the voices people experience are loud, commanding and dangerous. Our study confirmed previous research that challenges these assumptions, finding that people hear many different kinds of voices (some with strong characterful qualities); and that despite associations with negative emotions such as fear, anxiety and depression, many people also hear positive and supportive voices.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the study’s findings call in to question the presumption that voice-hearing is always and exclusively an auditory experience. While many of the participants said that the voices they heard were similar to hearing somebody speaking in the same room, 10% of participants reported purely ‘thought-like’ voices with no acoustic properties, and a further 40% reported ‘mixed’ voices that had both thought-like and auditory characteristics. These findings challenge the view that hearing voices is necessarily a perceptual or auditory phenomenon, and may also have implications for future neuroscientic studies of what it is happening in the brain when people ‘hear’ voices.

Our study also found that changes in emotion and bodily sensations often accompany voice-hearing experiences. 66% of participants reported alterations in the way their body felt while hearing voices, such as feeling hot or tingling sensations in their hands and feet. Nearly 20% of participants experienced ‘multi-sensory’ voices, suggesting that their voices were ‘perceived’ simultaneously through more than one sensory modality. Interestingly, it was voices with effects on the body that were more likely to be abusive and violent; and in some cases, were linked to previous experiences of trauma, such as bullying, neglect, and physical and sexual abuse.

Link: Hearing the Voice

Paper (full-text): "Experiences of hearing voices: analysis of a novel phenomenological survey"

EdgeScience #21

Issue 21 of the free PDF magazine EdgeScience is now available to download from the website of the Society for Scientific Exploration (SSE). In the new issue:EdgeScience 21

  • "Does Consciousness Continue Beyond Death? A Search for Certainty", by Michael Urheber with Rhonda Drake.
  • "Theoneurology: A New Model for Spiritual Experience", by Rick Strassman.
  • "Moving Targets: Religious Studies and the Paranormal", by Joseph P. Laycock.
  • "Phenomena Rich, But Science Poor" - Book review by Serena Roney-Dougal of Erlendur Haraldsson's Modern Miracles: Sathya Sai Baba: The Story of a Modern Day Prophet.
  • "Professor Bottazzi's Toolkit", by Michael Schmicker.

Grab a free PDF of EdgeScience 21 from the SSE website, or the print version from MagCloud. If you do grab the free PDF, please consider a small donation to help the EdgeScience team continue with this excellent publication, via the button on the webpage. There's also a link to join the SSE on that page if you want to keep up with the latest academic research into the 'edgier' areas of science.

News Briefs 11-03-2015

We must not always talk in the market-place of what happens to us in the forest.

Quote of the Day:

The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

John Muir

They Hacked a Mouse's Brain and Made New Memories...Sort Of

Scientists have hijacked the memories of mice as they slept.  That’s the headline they’re going with, and it is rightly quite sensational, as mainstream media is wont to be.  It may not be entirely accurate though – to our great surprise.

I’m talking about a paper that was published yesterday in the scientific journal Nature (Neuroscience).  It expounds on a breakthrough experiment whereby researchers from the National Center for Scientific Research (CRNS) in France claim to have implanted conscious memories into mice as they slept.[1]  That requires a bit of explanation though.

The group, led by Karim Benchenan of the CRNS Brain Plasticity Unit’s MOBs Team, achieved this astounding breakthrough by implanting electrodes into the brains of mice, specifically targeting a type of brain cell called place cell neurons.  Place cells, which were discovered in 1971, are a specialised type of neuron that are key to remembering where one is and where one has been.  They act as a sort of map inside your head, with individual cells firing when you’re at a certain location, creating a memory of that spot, so that you can find your way back there in the future, should you need to.

Now, when you – or any of us – sleep our brains undertake to review the memories we’ve made during our waking day.  That process entails a firing of the neurons involved in those memories, just as when the original experience occurred, and scientists can monitor this process.

By comparing neural scans of the mice from a period of exploration in a maze, to their later subconscious review of the associated memories, paying attention to place cell neurons, they were able to identify which neurons were associated with memories of which places inside the maze.  Once identified, they used the electrodes implanted in the mouse’s hippocampus, to stimulate a pleasant feeling at the same time as targeted place cell neurons fired during recall.  They effectively created an association between the memory of whatever location was involved and a pleasant feeling, or a reward so to speak.

The interesting thing is, once the mice woke from their short nap, they immediately headed straight for the location now associated to the pleasant feeling, as though looking to recreate the experience.

This research has obvious potential to transform treatments for post-traumatic-stress-disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and even schizophrenia and depression, by allowing clinicians to alter memories, building positive associations where traumatic or problematic ones once existed.

Benchenane insists, and it seems Nature’s peer-reviewers agree, that the mice’s behaviour following the procedure is proof that they have artificially created a conscious memory.  They qualify it by calling it an “association between a particular place and a reward [that] can be consciously access by the mouse.”  But is adding a sensory association to an already existing memory really creating a conscious memory?

The same effect has been sought, and variably achieved, through behavioural conditioning by various means, but the product in that case is always a subconscious association.  As seen with smokers trained to associate cigarettes with the smell of rotten eggs.  The difference seems apparent, but it might be an illusion.

The sole reason Benchenane and his colleagues believe this is the first example of an artificially induced conscious memory is the fact that the mice actively sought out the location associated with the memory and reward upon waking.  Benchenane states, had the mice wandered randomly and simply stopped and focused on that key location once they stumbled upon it, that would have represented a subconscious memory.

This seems like a little semantic word play, as I see it.  I don’t really question the notion of conscious recognition, so much as the idea that a memory was implanted in the first place.  Here’s my reasoning: the researchers simply added an association to a memory that already existed.  The mouse’s natural cognitive machinery created the memory the same way all of its memories are created, by experiencing stimulus.  The question is, is an association the same as a memory?  Clearly, connecting bits of sensory information is a key part of the memory making process, but isn’t a memory a little bit more than just the sum of its parts?  If we are to properly call this the artificial creation of a conscious memory, then I would expect a more direct influence on the origin of the memory, not simply the introduction of another sensory input to be associated to an already existing memory.

I suppose you could reduce this to the argument between dualism and reductionist materialism (no pun intended).  If consciousness, and therefore memory, are nothing more than emergent properties of the biomechanical processes of the brain, then perhaps Benchenan et al are correct.  It certainly appears that their ability to manipulate memories and sensory input supports the notion of emergent consciousness, but reductionist materialism is by no means a foregone conclusion, not yet at least.

But where does that leave us in the dualism camp?  I don’t have the answer.

No matter your philosophical bent in this case, or even in the case of dualism vs. reductionist materialism, Benchenan’s research is indeed a valuable step forward, and has real potential to drastically change the lives of people suffering with debilitating mental illness.  Even if we can’t agree on exactly how or why it works.


[1] Karim Benchenane, Gaetan de Lavilléon, Marie Masako Lacroix, Laure Rondi-Reig. Explicit memory creation during sleep demonstrates a causal role of place cells in navigation. Nature – Neuroscience March 9, 2015. doi:10.1038/nn.3970

 

Science Fiction's Gifts to Paganism

Readers of both this website and our Fortean anthology series Darklore will be familiar with Cat Vincent's brilliant writings about the real-world influence of fictional characters. Cat was recently invited to give a talk at the wonderful Treadwells bookshop in London, in which he expounded upon the synergistic relationship between paganism and science fiction.

Luckily for those of us who aren't near London, Cat's talk was filmed and uploaded to YouTube by Treadwells - I've embedded it above. He begins in the early 19th century with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and moves forward through the decades from there. Here's just a sample:

By the 1930s, science fiction had acquired many avid fans - some of whom started to organise meetings. Britain’s first science fiction convention took place in Leeds in 1938, and included such luminaries of future British SF as Arthur C. Clarke.

Another enthusiastic British fan was Olaf Stapledon who wrote a series of highly influential works in the 1930s which had more than their share of the mystical - his books, such as Last And First Men and Starmaker influenced many of his contemporaries - including CS Lewis, who was inspired to explore the combination of SF tropes and his own Christian apologia in Out Of The Silent Planet and its sequels.

The crossover between an interest in fantastic fiction and the weird and spiritual has dovetailed for a long time. Many attendees of that first convention were also connected to Fortean groups - even HG Wells had read Charles Fort, though he hated his work. The rise in interest in spirituality after the Great War had also influenced the fans - as did the arrival in that same year of 1938 of a new phenomenon: the superhero comic book.

For those interested in exploring this fascinating topic further, Cat has also helpfully collated footnotes to the information presented in his talk and posted them on his blog. Wonderful stuff.

Related:

News Briefs 10-03-2015

There's a feeling I get, when I look to the west...

Quote of the Day:

Science has enjoyed an extraordinary success because it has such a limited and narrow realm in which to focus its efforts. Namely, the physical universe.

Ken Jenkins

The John Michell Reader (Coming Soon!)


Forteans come and Forteans go, after they spent their entire lives trying to unravel the truth behind challenging mysteries. But with any luck their thoughts and wisdom can be preserved, benefitting future generations of consensus dissenters.

Such is the case of John Michell (1933-2009), a true counter-cultural iconoclast of the 1960's, who left behind a great deal of books and essays focusing on a wide range of 'heretical topics': From sacred geometry, earth mysteries, geomancy, gematria, archaeoastronomy, metrology, euphonics, simulacra, sacred sites, faeries, flying saucers and even the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Because the sign of a true Fortean is an eclectic curiosity, and always adopting a 'holistic' vision of the world's mysteries.

Our friends of Inner Traditions will soon release a compendium of Michell's works, curated by Joscelyn Godwin, who aside from his Fortean interests is also a composer and musicologist. Here's an excerpt from his introduction to The John Michell Reader:

It is not too much to say that John Michell was a prophet. Prophets do not foretell the future, so much as warn what may come to pass if events continue on their present course. Nowadays this is so blindingly obvious that we hardly need prophets to tell it to us. But there is a rarer prophetic gift, which is the seeing of forms in what Plato called "The World of Ideas" —not the imaginary ideas of men and women, but the divine or daemonic ideas after which the material world is formed. Exekiel saw the Chariot of the Most High; John the Divine saw the New Jerusalem; Mohammed in his night-journey passed through the planetary spheres and met the other prophets of his lineage. Such visions may be warnigs too, but they also inspire confidence in the meaning and goodness of the cosmos; they enable us to imagine Paradise here and now, and to adjust our lives in harmony with it.

Since the publication of the New Jerusalem canon in 1971, a prophetic vision of the latter kind was the foundation of all of John Michell's writing, and his efforts were bent on bringing about its new descent as a source of joy, sanity, and sacred order in the world. These little essays were like the foam thrown off by the great wave of creative energy set in motion by this discovery, which Michell characterised, in all humility, as a revelation.

__________________

Great Pyramid Controversy - 'Vandals' to Release Their Analysis of Samples Taken from the Famous Monument

"Kheops-Pyramid" by Nina - Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5

In 2013 we wrote about a controversy regarding two amateur archaeologists who had allegedly chipped off parts of the famous cartouche of Pharaoh Khufu in the Great Pyramid. That story subsequently blew up, with Egypt laying charges against the pair - Dominique Goerlitz and Stefan Erdmann - and the Egyptian guards who were in attendance during the act.

The case has since concluded, and it is the Egyptian guards who have paid the heaviest price, with all six currently serving time in prison. Goerlitz and Erdmann escaped serving any time - by being out of the country - and continue with their research. Yesterday they put out a press release about their findings:

Notwithstanding the politics, distractions and shenanigans caused by the rash accusations made by Dr. Hawass, the samples that were collected and scientifically tested in Germany for Goerlitz and Erdmann may have solved the age-long mystery concerning the use of iron and possible advanced technologies used by the Pyramid Builders of Giza.

Goerlitz and Erdmann are not the first discoverers of iron in the Great Pyramid - but their research results finally could close the necessary chain of evidence. The particular importance lies in the proof that they can demonstrate ancient Egyptian wrought iron in the original finding context. Both, the occurrence of 18 black magnetite traces on the ceiling and the iron plate found by J.R. Hill in 1883 (metallurgically investigated by El Gayar & Jones, 1989) provide the physical proof for the use of iron in the Fourth Dynasty. The presence of magnetite and “[…] other inclusions of un-reduced iron show that the "melting" operations had been inexpertly carried out at low temperature probably between 1.000 and 1.100°C […]" (Gayar & Jones). All these archaeo-metrical evidence contradict strongly the official statements of the scholars that in the Old Kingdom people neither knew how to produce iron nor how to use it.

The evidence culled from the scientific tests also would explain the mystery of how huge multi-ton blocks were transported and, more intriguingly, how they were lifted and positioned by the Pyramid Builders of Giza, suggestive of a highly advanced technology and the use of iron equipment in the 3rd millennium BCE in Egypt. Goerlitz is preparing an experiment in which he is trying to demonstrate how the ancient Egyptians may have used their iron equipment (Congress in Lennestadt -> August 22nd-23rd, 2015).

Head over to Andreas Muller's website to see the full press release.

Related:

News Briefs 09-03-2015

You get the feeling that Islamic State militants are just attention-seeking brats who have mummy issues?

Thanks to @anomalistnews, @djp1974, and @tobadzistsini.

Quote of the Day:

Experience is not what happens to you; it's what you do with what happens to you.

Aldous Huxley

Ancient Meteorite Impacts Recorded in the Oral Folklore of Indigenous Australians

Wolfe Creek Crater

A couple of years ago I mentioned some fascinating research about ancient meteorite impacts being possibly recorded in the oral folklore of indigenous Australians. The researcher who wrote that paper, Duane Hamacher, has a new paper out on the same topic in the journal Archaeoastronomy ("Recorded Accounts of Meteoritic Events in the Oral Traditions of Indigenous Australians" - PDF).

One interesting example covered in the paper is that of the Henbury crater field, located in Central Australia roughly 150km south of Alice Springs, which was the site of a meteor impact around 5000 years ago. There was a vague suggestion that the event may have been commemorated in the name of the place (chindu china waru chingi ya bu - “sun walk fire devil rock”), but it was not until recently that it was realised there was other supporting evidence - evidence which had been around for some 90 years:

When James M. Mitchell visited the site in 1921, he took an Aboriginal guide. His interest was piqued when his guide refused to go
near them, saying that it was a place where a fire “debil-debil” [devil] came out of the sky and killed everything in the vicinity. He visited the craters again in 1934 and took another Aboriginal guide with him. The guide said Aboriginal people would not camp within two miles of the craters or even venture within half a mile of them, describing them as a place where the fire-devil lived. He claimed they did not collect water that filled some of the craters, fearing the fire devil would fill them with a piece of iron. The guide said his grandfather saw the fire devil and it came from the sun. Aboriginal groups to the north of Henbury (including the Kaitish and Warramunga) hold traditions that meteors are fiery “debil-debils” that hurtle from the skies to feast upon the entrails of the recently deceased.

Link: Recorded Accounts of Meteoritic Events in the Oral Traditions of Indigenous Australians (PDF)

(h/t @djp1974)

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