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Understanding how it feels to hear voices

18 January 2018

Psychologists can use immersive art exhibitions to increase public understanding and compassion towards people who hear voices.

That is the conclusion of research presented today by Dr Simon Riches from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience, King’s College London, to the annual conference of our Divison of Clinical Psychology in Cardiff.

Altered States of Consciousness was an immersive art exhibition held in London in January 2017. It provided visitors with an opportunity to challenge their own perceptions of mental health and normality, allowing them to appreciate what it feels like to hear voices and have other unusual sensory experiences.

Working with a group of people who have lived experience of visual and auditory hallucinations and artists, Dr Riches and colleagues developed a voice-hearing simulation using exhibition audio guides, headphones and concealed actors.

Art exhibition visitors heard a conventional guide to the artworks, but it was overlaid by ‘voices’ performed by professional actors who were watching them from a different room.

The same team designed a video installation on the London Underground that simulated a stressful, paranoia-inducing environment.

Auditory hallucinations – ‘hearing voices’ – are associated with psychotic disorders, but studies have shown that they are common in people without a psychiatric diagnosis.

A total of 150 people (107 women, 75 per cent aged 35 or under) completed psychological measures of their mood and attitudes towards voice-hearing and unusual perceptual experiences before and after experiencing the exhibition.

When they analysed the results, researchers found statistically significant increases in understanding what it feels like to hear voices, compassion towards people who hear voices, and comfort in talking to people who hear voices.

Qualitative feedback from participants included an appreciation of “how disruptive the experience of hearing voices can be” and of how it can “lead to feelings of anxiety and paranoia”. Participants said the experience helped them to have greater understanding and compassion.

Dr Riches said:

“We set up this study hoping that taking part would improve participants’ understanding of the experience of hearing voices and increase compassion towards people who hear voices.

“That does seem to be what happened. The participants also reported that they enjoyed and felt they learnt from the experience.

“We hope that such simulations can be used more widely to lessen the stigma attached to hearing voices and improve public understanding. We are already researching ways of making the simulation more immersive and multi-sensory, and are considering its potential application for training clinicians who work with people who hear voices.”


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