Hearing Voices (2012)


Hearing voices

The histories, causes and meanings of auditory verbal hallucinations

Cambridge University Press



This book has four main parts.

Part A: History

The first part, which spans three chapters, examines the history of the experience of hearing voices. This begins 5,000 years in Ancient Mesopotamia, where I examine the evidence for Julian Jaynes’ theory of voice-hearing at this time. I then move through Ancient Greece and Rome (looking specifically at Socrates’ voice-hearing experiences) and consider voice hearing in the Old and New Testaments. Key events and voice-hearers in the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the English Civil War are then examined, before continuing through the birth of psychiatry, and the development of the Hearing Voices Movement. Throughout this I provide examples of voice-hearing in these different historical epochs and consider how power, religion, medicine and gender have interacted to change how we understand the meaning of the experience of hearing voices.

Part B: Phenomenologies

In this part of the book I examine what the voices people hear are actually like. Firstly, I consider what the voices that people with psychiatric diagnoses hear are like. Then I move to consider how these voices can impact one’s life, and how a person may make the journey from being a patient voice-hearer to a non-patient voice-hearer. Next I turn to a consideration of how contemporary religions (specifically Christianity and Islam) understand voice-hearing, as well as how voices are understood in other cultures. Finally, I look at voice-hearing in the general population, and introduce the important category of the ‘healthy voice-hearer’. I try to quantify what percentage of people who hear voices are given what diagnoses and what percentage can be termed healthy voice-hearers today.

Part C: Causes

What causes somebody to hear voices? I start with the most proximal and immediate cause, the brain. After reviewing what contemporary neuroscience can tell us about how the brain produces such experiences, I turn to psychology, examining contemporary psychological theories, including the inner speech model, the memory-based model, a newer theory surrounding what have been termed ‘hypervigilance hallucinations’, as well as other leading theories. I then go on to examine more distal causes including the role of traumatic life events, and then consider the role society may play in causing voices. This part also includes a consideration of clinical interventions for those who hear voices.

Part D: Meanings

What does it mean to hear voices? In part A, my examination of the history of this experience showed changing and conflicting meanings of voice-hearing. Here I examine in more detail clashing contemporary meanings, noting here the impact of the Hearing Voices Movement (HVM) on the meaning now given to voices, as well the creation by the HVM of tools to help voice-hearers such as the Maastricht Interview and the technique of voice-dialogue.

I conclude by arguing that we are likely to need to use different models for different types of voices, start to consider how existing models may be synthesised, and note that we really need to begin future work by listening better and enquiring more deeply into what the experience means.


  • Prof Marius Romme: “The book is a very comprehensive overview of the knowledge of hearing voices with the the characteristics of auditory hallucinations… It is a must to read for those who want to do any research in this field.”
  • A/Prof Flavie Waters: “The book brings together contributions from biological and psychological research, and more originally, it documents the history of hearing voices and the meaning of such experiences. Dr McCarthy-Jones’s book is grounded on scientific research and comprehensively researched historical material. The book is a real feast, and Dr McCarthy-Jones charms us with his lively narrative. The book will appeal to modern ‘voice-hearers’, clinicians, and scholars of auditory hallucinations.”