what are 'voices'?

We get this question a lot, don't we? The schizophrenic subject - and others too - have an experience which it often comes naturally to them to describe as 'hearing voices'. What is that? Lots of not-very-illuminating answers flood in: they are auditory-verbal hallucinations; they are more like inner musings mistaken as being externally produced; they are inner musings occurring within a subjectivity the fundamental structure of which has been altered, so that what ought to be a live subjective moment of thought becomes an intentional object of a self-alienated consciousness; they are the irruption of superego dictats and id impulses into the conscious part of the ego; they are actually perceptual illusions / misperceptions. Etc. Matthew Ratcliffe raised the question again recently, and aptly questioned many of the above options, but hasn't yet given us his own answer.

Well, I want an answer! So I'm gonna try make one up. What follows rambles; it'll do for now.

How does our hearing of actual voices work? I've got no idea. Presumably what we most need to steer away from, in our theorising, is any primitive conception of a sequence of energetically defined 'auditory stimuli' being transformed into a genuine 'auditory experience'. That way lies mere cognitive psychology and the mess it makes of relating physical to psychological as one of relating
outer to inner. ... But way back to the Gestalt psychologists we already had in play some more intriguing ideas of figure and (back)ground, and a little more recently we have the important but difficult ideas of correlative constancy and transformation (e.g. from Gibson).

Kohler's Ghost
Let's start with the not very illuminating but somewhat unassailable notion that sometimes we hallucinate what we expect to hear. The mother 'hears' her crying baby. You 'hear' your name being called in the street. This particularly tends to happen in hypnopompic and hypnogogic states. Waking up, 'clear as a bell', your friend is calling your name. (Except she's not.) But... so far so nothing. This is mere observation; it's not any kind of theory. For: why should we hear what we expect to hear? Anyone who's had this experience will know that it really isn't just a matter of misinterpreting auditory stimuli. (Yeah, I know, that whole idea that perception is a matter of interpreting auditory stimuli is in any case just a cognitivist's confused fantasy... But my point here is just to make clear that: the hallucination of your name being called or your baby crying really can just happen when there's no actual vaguely similar sound going on at all; it can happen in total silence.)

The answer I've touted before (here and here - mainly about visual and movement hallucination) is that a hallucination is a 'negative of an expectation'. You approach the static escalator. You know it's static (in the sense that you would say 'it isn't moving' if someone asked you), but yet in your lived body resides an expectation of movement from the escalator, which expectation manifests itself in your still habitually and automatically readying yourself for it by pushing yourself forward more than normal - so as to join in the forward movement in a smooth way (so in this sense you don't know it isn't moving). One might say: the static escalator seems, for a moment, to be moving backwards.

This example is supposed to help us grasp how what one might think is rightly described as a total
Gibson's Ghost
absence of stimulus can yet manifest as an experience which is the negative of an expectation. You expect - in your lived body if not in your noggin - the escalator to move forward. It doesn't. Yet you ready yourself habitually - and this results in an hallucination of backward movement.

How might this kind of conception translate to the 'hearing voices' experience? Well, my proposal here is that whereas the 'opposite' of an experience of movement in one direction is an experience of movement in the other direction, the 'opposite' of an experience of an embodied you calling my name is ... an experience of a disembodied you calling my name.

All of this involves the mark of the ghostly. Ghosts are, I imagine, psychological anti-matter - the negatives of our thwarted expectations.

When we are sane, grounded in reality, we rapidly and automatically adjust our lived expectations of sensory stimulation depending on the sensorimotor feedback we get. This is entrainment: the automatic update of those lived expectancies only ever against which sensory stimulation makes for experience. But there are moments in our lives - hypnopompic moments, psychotic moments - when we are not thus looped into the habitus. Moments in which the lived expectancies can't update so flushly. And then what we meet with are 'ghosts' - these negatives of our latent expectancies. This is the mark of the ghostly, whether we're talking about the 'cold touch' on our arm, the empty spectral outline we see, the oddly loud yet somehow also oddly internal or unlocalised voice calling our name when we wake, and so on. When our expectancies are not super-rapidly pulled into line through sensorimotor entrainment, we naturally get flashes of psychological antimatter, ghostly presences, these un-sights and un-sounds that more than anything else we're drawn to calling 'visions' and 'being spoken to'. We're loopy to the extent we're unlooped.

Voices can be oddly internal because they're not a part-function of a rich domain of sensory stimulation which, to lazily lapse temporarily into cognitivism, 'provides information about' relative location etc. ... It is not impossible for us to expect to be addressed from over here or over there, but it is more likely that a standing expectation of address is non-localised.

And why do we go round expecting, primed for, our name to be called? Well, often we don't. But we do when, roughly speaking, we think we are - or the person calling our name is - in trouble. We're in our own world, and the person calling our name is addressing us, pulling us for some reason into a shared space. ... This too is what the baby's cry achieves. It's an address which pulls us into a zone of responsibility. ... And this too is why the accounts of voices 'emanating from the superego' have applicability - the superego being precisely the intrapsychic domain of accountability.

Ratcliffe's Ghost
And what do we make of the phenomenological inner objectification theory? Well, as Matthew Ratcliffe points out, the theory may get a little carried away with itself, conflate different senses of 'object' and pass way too quickly over decent sceptical questions regarding what it could even mean to 'morbidly experience one's thoughts as objects'. (These theorists just tend to say this stuff, about basal hyperreflexivity, or about automatic self-presence, in a kind of authoritative manner, like we ought just accept that it's obvious that something rather than nothing is here being meant!) But their idea that the form of consciousness we meet with here is dirempted, and not merely the content, does seem helpful to me. ... Sure, we don't need a phenomenological theorist's spurious fantasy providing an explanatory theory of hallucination. And there's an important sense in which we really don't want a psychologically explanatory theory at all; psychological explanations - explanations which presuppose the intact applicability of concepts like 'experience' and 'experiencing subject' and 'object of experience' - will I believe self-defeatingly presuppose the core sanity of the psychosis sufferer. We genuinely need to understand diremptions in, and not somehow presuppose the operation of, subjectivity. (What I'm saying is: such phenomenological theories are, despite themselves, perhaps as unhelpfully homuncular as cognitivist theories.) BUT the idea that psychosis is to be understood in terms of ontological form and not merely content or putative psychological mechanisms - and that we essentially meet with a background unworlding in the psychotic, an unworlding which is a condition of intelligibility of psychotic symptoms as such - this seems super-helpful to me. The other answers (from the first paragraph) seem less likely: saying that voices are AVH's is I believe at best rather tautologous, and only looks helpful to the extent that we somehow wrongly imagine we already understand what an auditory hallucination is. And the cognitivist' idea of the hallucinator mistaking an inner musing as externally produced is also either merely a gauche definition of the phenomenon, or a corrupt source-discrimination theory which just mushes together matters psychological and neurological in the groaningly obscurant manner we've all come to expect. (I mean, come on, no one else after all is talking to you, so in one sense of course you're 'talking to yourself without realising it'!)


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