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SYFY WIRE ghosts

Ghosts have voices... or do they? Science is demystifying why some people hear them

By Elizabeth Rayne
the Fox sisters

Maybe some people watch too many paranormal documentaries and have become positive they hear creaking or moaning in the dark, but for others, hearing the dead speak out of nowhere is hardly the stuff of nightmares.

Some people are more likely to claim they literally hear the voices of the dead. Meaning, they actually hear the sound of a voice that originates inside our outside their own head. Known as clairaudience, this phenomenon has been linked to certain predispositions by new research. These include experiences of auditory hallucinations or a high susceptibility to them. Because most clairaudients claim the voices are positive and can be controlled, understanding where they come from can help scientists figure out how to approach certain mental illnesses that cause negative auditory hallucinations.

This is why religion scholar Adam Powell interviewed self-proclaimed spiritualist mediums who experienced clairaudience as part of Durham University's Hearing the Voice project. He and his team looked at occurrences of this experience and how certain abilities and personality traits were connected to it. They found that one of the most dominant predispositions in people who are supposedly clairaudient was absorption, or the tendency to get so lost in doing something you just about forget everything else around you.

“We saw a very strong connection between absorption and both hallucination-proneness and the frequency of hearing from the dead,” Powell, who recently led a study published in Mental Health, Religion & Culture, told SYFY WIRE. “One possibility for this connection has to do with a person's ability or tendency to direct their attention to stimuli and experiences that are internal or external and to be able to identify them as such.”

Imagine being so into reading a book you almost feel as if you exist in that otherworld. Being highly absorptive is something like that. Powell believes that those who believe they hear ghosts talking to them may possibly be going through the transformation of internal thoughts into external experiences. More subjects heard the voices inside their heads, as if someone was speaking directly into their ear, than outside their heads, like a mysterious echo from across the hall. Both cases are still seen scientifically as the externalization of thoughts that could have started in the subconscious.

the Fox sisters

Spiritualism is a movement that has been gaining popularity among those who believe that the spirit continues to exist long after it has left the body. Surprisingly, experiences of clairaudience were not limited to spiritualist mediums. They were also reported by people who either did not consider themselves spiritualist mediums or did not believe in the paranormal (or both), but are still convinced that they had heard the voices of the dead.

“Our findings surprised us in this regard because the majority of our participants had unusual auditory experiences prior to encountering the tenets of Spiritualism - in most cases they already believed it was a deceased person that they heard even before coming to believe more fully and formally in that possibility,” Powell said.

Whether or not ghosts exist or can communicate with the living was not the point of this study. It was both a way to make scientific sense out of the supernatural and provide the basis for a deeper investigation that could probe the origins of the mostly positive auditory hallucinations experienced by spiritualist mediums. Most of them remembered their first clairaudient experience happening around a certain age. The majority were also unaware of the spiritualist movement when they first heard the dead. Powell believes figuring out the origin of positive hallucinations and ability to control them could reveal how to better treat diseases that exhibit negative hallucinations as a symptom.

“For all of us, the hope would be that we can eventually identify specific mechanisms—social, cognitive, and behavioral—that have permitted spiritualists and others with positive voice hearing experiences to control the voices and to minimize any accompanying distress,” he said. “Once those mechanisms are identified, it may be possible to apply them to the study of psychosis - eventually informing popular discourse and therapeutic treatments around schizophrenia and other controversial diagnoses.”

Next, Powell plans to take apart the unearthly communications to see whether they have certain tendencies, such as the direction they come from or whether they are heard in full sentences. It will allow him and his team to see a more detailed picture of something that is otherwise invisible.

So many questions. Say what these mediums are hearing is the real deal. Could that mean spirits tend to follow psychic mediums around? How many of the clairaudient subjects live near a place with a reputation for being haunted? What about when an unnerving percentage of people (even those who swear up and down there are no such things as ghosts) who visit a haunted place all end up hearing strange noises?

Most chilling of all, if a ghost is not actually floating right there and whispering in someone’s ear, could it be that the person is hearing a voice from another realm far beyond the grave?

These uncertainties are still floating in a gray area that is (at least for now) out of the reach of science. However, what can be studied could open a portal into a world that, at least for now, only exists in ghost stories.

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