I was reading a recently published article in the New Yorker, by Jerome Groopman, about those who hear voices. The article questions why some people hear voices, and when such voices might become a problem. I found the article interesting. The article builds upon the concept of self-talk and the fact that most of us talk to ourselves, some more subtly, and others more intensely. In our thoughts, we are talking to someone, either to our spouses, our bosses, our friends, or even God. Some of us clearly hear the other party talk back to us, leading us to maintain a dialogue. And that is when the rest of us become suspicious!
The question that continues to be debated is whether one could consider unusual thoughts, or hearing voices pathological. If you went to a psychiatrist today and said you were hearing voices, before you could take your coat off, the psychiatrist would be writing a prescription for a psychiatric drug to silence the voices. Without hesitation, biological psychiatry, considers many biblical experiences of prophetic visions or inspirations pathological. After all, they claim, a “normal” brain cannot function that way. But is that true? What is “normal”?
John Mirowsky, of the University of Illinois, explains that psychotic symptoms are exaggerations and distortions of normal functions. He conducted a study on 463 people in El Paso, Texas, to evaluate their thought processes. He found out that most people in the community had experiences that might be deemed symptoms of “schizophrenia,” yet none of these individuals were ever diagnosed as mentally ill.
The New Yorker article refers to Charles Fernyhough, a British professor of psychology at Durham University, in England, who studies such “inner speech.” Apparently Fernyhough “identifies himself as a voluble self-speaker, relating an incident where, in a crowded train on the London Underground, he suddenly became self-conscious at having just laughed out loud at a nonsensical sentence that was playing in his mind. He goes through life hearing a wide variety of voices: “My ‘voices’ often have accent and pitch; they are private and only audible to me, and yet they frequently sound like real people.”
The article continues to explain: “Fernyhough has based his research on the hunch that talking to ourselves and hearing voices—phenomena that he sees as related—are not mere quirks, and that they have a deeper function.”
Fernyhough tries to capture the effect of self-talk inside the fMRI machine. The action can only show the effect on the brain, but cannot provide a deeper understanding of what the experience is about. The images, whilst arguably telling us where in the brain such phenomenon is experienced, do little to inform us of what causes them to begin with. To reduce such encounters to their neuroanatomical explanation is missing the deeper function of the phenomenon. “This hard truth harks back to William James, who concluded that such “introspective analysis” was like “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.”
It seems like when the battle between right and wrong, truth and deception, and light and darkness takes off, the voices intensify. Fernyhough writes that “his most elaborate inner conversations occur when he is dealing with an ethical dilemma.”
One of the key points of debate is whether the voices are from within or without. Many have a hard time believing that any forces from outside could talk to us, so they conclude that it is all in one’s head and a byproduct of inner speech.
I believe in the spiritual realm, because God is Spirit (John 4:24). We are all under positive and negative spiritual influences. The topic is vast and complex to be addressed in this space. I have tackled the subject in great depth in my book.
Moreover, with my own eyes I have witnessed phenomena in my own journey with my daughter’s madness that are not explicable by science. At least not yet!
The history of the church is filled with mystics with supernatural experiences. One of the most famous characters is Teresa of Avila, the famous sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, who suffered from a variety of illnesses and serious mental anguish all her life. “Cohen, who translated her autobiography, refers to her as a “hysterically unbalanced woman, who…was entirely transformed by profound experiences.” She was haunted by persistent hideous visions and experienced hearing inner voices. At times, she was lifted into the air to her own consternation and the amazement of those around her. Additionally, she suffered from physical pain, vomiting, heart-spasms, cramps, and partial paralysis. She was considered by most of her contemporaries to be either insane or possessed by the devil, and yet her “insanity” transformed her into one of the heroes of the Catholic Church. She combined the religious life with one of great public service in the later years of her life.”
Similarly, Fernyhough refers to cases of conversations with God and other celestial powers that occurred during the Middle Ages. “In fifteenth-century France, Joan of Arc testified to hearing angels and saints tell her to lead the French Army in rescuing her country from English domination. A more intimate example is that of the famous mystic Margery Kempe, a well-to-do Englishwoman with a husband and family, who, in the early fifteenth century, reported that Christ spoke to her from a short distance, in a “sweet and gentle” voice. In “The Book of Margery Kempe,” a narrative she dictated, which is often considered the first autobiography in English, she relates how a series of domestic crises, including an episode of what she describes as madness, led her to embark on a life of pilgrimage, celibacy, and extreme fasting.”
The medical psychiatry refers to the phenomenon of voice-hearing as “auditory hallucinations.” I know many people who hear voices, find that term offensive, because it invalidates their reality. Who has given us the right to invalidate someone else’s experience and label it as false? Could it be that the rest of us are lacking the ability to experience similar phenomenon? The history, both inside the bible and outside, is filled with people who lived with hearing voices–some Divine, some demonic, and a wide range in between. Remarkably, Fernyhough, too, is hesitant to call such voices hallucinations. He considers the term “hallucination” as pejorative, and he is notably skeptical about the value of psychiatric labeling in the personal and intimate experience of voice-hearing. He opposes diagnosing the biblical visual and auditory revelations as a neurological breakdown and is reluctant to automatically pathologize similar experiences in the modern era.
As strongly as I am opposed to labeling these experiences through psychiatric classification, I also advise against the church jumping into conclusion that voice hearing must be a sign of demonic possession. It is imperative for the church to be humble and discerning and not make judgments hastily in this regard. There is a lot happening in voice hearing. Some voices are persecutory, and some are quite encouraging and transformative. It is my experience and conviction that in psychosis there is deeper meaning to be discovered than meets the naked eye. Is evil present in some psychotic episodes and voice hearing encounters? Yes, there is! But even in those cases, the act of exorcism cannot be trusted to anyone who claims to be a good Christian or believes to have the gift of exorcism. Many people have been damaged by these processes. It takes such a strong spiritual discernment, purity of soul, humility, solid holiness, pure faith, selfless love, and deep devotion to Christ to enter into such spiritual battles, that I venture to say not many will qualify for it.
Moreover, according to the research conducted by Professor Oesterreich of The University of Tubingen, when the idea of possession is entertained, it influences the person and occasions the possibility of demonic influences. He believes that the “appearance of possession,” is “always” associated with “the belief in the devil.” He considers that the belief itself—by means of “autosuggestion”—actually cultivates possession and sustains it.
I encourage you to beware! Voice hearing is a rich experience, laden with deep revelatory content. Attend to it with love, care, and a sense of awe!
 John Mirowsky, “Subjective Boundaries and Combinations in Psychiatric Diagnosis.” The Journal of Mind and Behavior 11, no. 3 and 4 (Summer and Autumn 1990, 1990): 407  –424  cited in Elahe Hessamfar, In The fellowship of His Suffering: A Theological Interpretation of Mental Illness—A Focus on “Schizophrenia” (Eugene, Oregon: CASCADE Books, 2014) 85- 86.
 Hessamfar, Fellowship of Suffering.
 Teresa of Avila, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself (London; New York, N.Y., USA: Penguin Books; Viking Penguin, 1957) cited in Hessamfar, Fellowship of Suffering, 235.
 Traugott Constantin Oesterreich and Dora Ibberson, Possession, Demoniacal and Other, among Primitive Races, in Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times. (Authorized Translation by D. Ibberson), (London: Kegan Paul & Co., 1930) cited in Hessamfar, Fellowship of Suffering, 227.