Why some people say they can ‘hear the dead’ © Getty Images

Why some people say they can ‘hear the dead’

According to new research, spiritualist mediums might be more prone to immersive mental activities and unusual auditory experiences early in life.

Dr Adam Powell is the lead researcher in Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project, and is the COFUND junior research fellow in the department of theology and religion. He tells us about his work into spiritualist mediums who say they can hear the dead.

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Your work focuses on a quality called ‘absorption’. What exactly is it?

Absorption has to do with a tendency to get lost in your own thoughts, become immersed in mental imagery, or become lost in an altered state of consciousness. It’s been found that high absorption rates predict things like mystical experiences among those who use psychedelics.

So, among a group of people who took MDMA, those who scored higher on absorption would more likely report a mystical experience. And it’s correlated with a lot of things, like measures of dissociation and openness to experiences.

What made you think that absorption might influence spiritualism?

Academics have spent years trying to understand why people have religious experiences. Why do some say, “I heard God’s voice” or “I heard the spirit speak to me”? Anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has really championed the idea that absorption, and the scale used to measure it, helps identify those who have the most vivid, frequent religious experiences.

We wanted to discover whether clairaudient mediums – mediums who said they had received auditory communications from spirits – have a proclivity for these experiences. And also, how they’re experiencing them. Somewhat surprisingly, existing work doesn’t go into detail about what it’s like to hear the dead, although there are discussions around whether it’s real, related to parapsychology, or whether it’s similar to hallucinations among psychiatric patients.

What were your key findings?

We found that spiritualists did score higher on levels of absorption and proneness to auditory hallucinations, compared to a control group. Many of the spiritualists had early experiences, about 20 per cent for as long as they can remember, while over 70 per cent had unexplained experiences before encountering spiritualism that they now deem spiritual.

Also, spiritualists were, figuratively speaking, off the charts in terms of personal identity and really didn’t care much about how people saw them, which corresponds well with spirituality being a subjective, personal issue.

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Did you find out what it’s like to experience one of these events?

We’re still engaged in one-on-one interviews with spiritualists, but for instance, 65 per cent reported these experiences occur inside their head. So even though it’s reported as auditory, the vast majority don’t mean it’s heard outside their head. About 30 per cent reported the experiences both inside and outside the head.

We also found these communications – and this is important if you’re comparing them with the complex hallucinations reported by schizophrenic patients – are experienced in a specific and simple way. So, it may be just an image or a word they see, kind of flashing, almost like it’s a neon light.

So, is it separate to something like schizophrenia? Or potentially part of the same spectrum?

Most of our research is corroborating the idea that voice-hearing is on a spectrum. Depending on the survey, anywhere from 5 to 15 per cent of the general population hears voices in their lifetime, and if you broaden that to any kind of hallucinatory experience, it increases to 30 to 60 per cent.

There are scenarios in which this is well accepted and not viewed as a pathological problem. For instance, hearing the voice of a deceased relative while grieving is common, but it’s more accepted, socially and culturally. They’re in the grieving period, that frame of mind. And somewhere on there, spiritualists fall alongside people who hear God’s voice, for instance.

Can spiritualists learn to control these auditory experiences?

Generally speaking, yes. Spiritualists call it an ability, a muscle [they can] train to grow stronger. But it’s a muscle they already have. Some can influence things by talking back to the voice, saying, “I’m busy, come back later”, and the voice will obey, but also influence the frequency of experiences. Some would say, “I’ve honed my skills and now I have daily experiences, but only when I want them”.

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Does being able to control the voice make it a more positive experience, as opposed to something more distressing and non-controllable?

That’s a really good question and one theory we’re working with is precisely that. If something is perceived as within your control, it’s less threatening. It may be that in Western societies that have historically emphasised individual agency and choice, it’s a threatening realisation, if these experiences are viewed as intrusive and undesired.

The other theory is that once someone embraces spiritualism and identifies as a medium, they view these communications as not intended for them, but a third party. One researcher postulated that, if these experiences are meant for someone else, you needn’t be concerned about the content, tone or temperament of the spirit.

Most spiritualists say as soon as they relay the message, they forget it. And often, they can’t recall the bulk of their experiences as a practising medium, as they weren’t meant for them. Compare that to someone with schizophrenia. Schizophrenics rarely, if ever, say those voices are directed at someone else; they’re absolutely directed at them. This could be disconcerting in itself.

What kind of possibilities does your research open up?

We’re taking it into conversations about mental health, but don’t want to claim these experiences are the same as other hallucinatory experiences. Instead, we’re addressing questions like: why do spiritualists who have these experiences feel comforted by the voices, when roughly 60 per cent of them initially experience the voices in a traumatic situation?

That’s obviously very different from people with severe mental illness who hear voices. We also have a cognitive neuroscience study coming out that used fMRI brain scans and a study of similar experiences that occur as you’re falling asleep or waking up; quite a few spiritualists reported their earliest experiences taking place in the borders of sleep.

Could that be linked to something like sleep paralysis?

Absolutely. Generally, we’d call that hypnagogia, when someone’s in that liminal state of consciousness. People have more hallucinatory experiences in that state and you can increase frequency through sleep deprivation or changing sleep schedules.

It’s even being reported now because of the pandemic. People aren’t releasing as much energy during the day and their sleep is more disrupted, so we’re seeing an increase in these experiences. But in mental health research and with the religious experience side of things, no one is really talking about cases of hypnagogia that end up being deemed spiritually significant.

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