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Why do some people hear the voices of the dead

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A new study tries to find out why for some hearing voices is a symptom of mental illness but for others a religious or spiritual experience.

The research group, led by Adam Powell of the project Listening to the voice from the University of Durham and the Department of Theology and Religion, interviewed 65 people who claim hearing voices. 

To do this, experts conducted a survey in which 65 people, calling themselves mediums, from the National Union of Spiritualists, participated. Another group consisted of 143 people who claimed that they did not hear any voices. 

All participants speak English and were between 18 and 75 years old. 84.4% came from the United Kingdom and the rest, mostly, from North America, Europe or Australia.

Of the spiritualists surveyed, 79% said hearing voices was a normal part of their lives in church and at home, while 44.6% said they heard voices every day. Most respondents reported that the voices were inside their heads (65.1%), although 31.7% said they came both inside and outside their heads.

Not surprisingly, more spiritists reported believing in the paranormal than participants from the general population. They also cared less about what others thought of them.

Spiritists reported that they first experienced other voices at an average age of 21.7 years. However, 18% of spiritualists reported having experiences “for as long as they can remember” and 71% had not encountered spiritism as a religious movement before their first experiences, that is, the voices led them to religion.

“Our findings speak volumes about ‘learning and yearning.’ To our participants, the principles of spiritism seem to make sense both in the extraordinary experiences of childhood and in the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practicing mediums,” said Adam Powell.

Still, the voices came first, so “all of those experiences may result more from having certain early tendencies or abilities, than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough.”

How science explains the abilities of mediums 

The most likely factor is the relationship of spiritists who hear the voices to absorption, the scientists say.

Absorption reflects the cognitive ability of an individual to participate in sensory and imaginative experiences in ways that alter the individual’s perception, memory, and mood with behavioral and biological consequences. 

Responses to questions based on the Absorption Scale developed by Auke Tellegen revealed that these people tended to possess an absorbing personality. These are described by the study authors as “being easily captured by fascinating stimuli, reporting vivid mental images, immersing themselves in their own thoughts.”

Some, but not all, individuals who heard the voice of the control group were found to show high levels of absorption. Those who did were more likely to believe in the paranormal than others.

“For many who report anomalous experiences, belief in the spiritual or paranormal may be the result of years of searching for personal meaning. For others, those beliefs may seem almost to coincide with the experiences,” the authors wrote. 

However, the study researchers note, their findings leave unanswered the question whether absorption captures a predisposition to have spiritual experiences or a belief in the plausibility of having them.

The study was published in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture.

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