RECENT advances in the scientific understanding of voices heard in the absence of a speaker (”auditory verbal hallucinations” — AVH — to use the technical terminology) have been significant. We now know that most voice-hearers hear more than one voice, and fewer than half of them hear these voices out loud (thus making them simply VH rather than AVH).
More importantly, voices are not “just” voices: they are perceived to have personality and agency. Fewer than one fifth, one recent study states, are understood to represent supernatural agents. The content of what the voice says often has biographical or psychological significance for the hearer. A history of sexual or emotional abuse greatly increases the likelihood of hearing voices, and what the voices say is often related to this in one way or another.
NEURO-IMAGING studies show that regions of the brain associated with the production and procession of speech are implicated in the production of AVHs.
It seems likely that at least some AVHs are misattributed “inner speech”: that is, arising from the person’s own thoughts, but experienced for some reason as alien, and with perception-like qualities. Others may arise from memories, or “imagined” voices, or from misinterpretation of sounds in the external environment (so that they are strictly illusions, rather than hallucinations).
It would seem likely that there is a “top-down” effect at work in many experiences of voice-hearing, where higher mental processes, in an environment where sensory information is ambiguous, wrongly “predict” a voice, even when one is not present. Culture, including religion, also plays an important part in shaping expectations.
WITH this growing body of knowledge about the science of AVHs, it is tempting for some to conclude — as in so many areas of scientific progress — that we now know (almost) all there is to know about how the world works, and that there is nothing left for theology or faith to explain. Such a view tends to emphasise religion as being concerned only with the transcendent realm, and science as occupying and explaining the immanent frame of reference.
As the gap in (immanent) knowledge becomes smaller and smaller, the (transcendent) God of the gaps is extruded altogether. But Christian theology has traditionally been concerned with understanding the Divine as both immanent and transcendent. Indeed, the doctrines of creation and incarnation require us to grapple with the paradox. God is not absent from his creation. Divine immanence is as important a truth as Divine transcendence.
Our knowledge, then, of the science of voice-hearing does not require us to abandon faith in the God who communicates with humankind. Most of this communication, in any case, occurs in ways other than through the hearing of the Divine voice in any literal (perception-like) sense.
When God does appear to put a thought into our minds, however, or when (rarely) a Christian does literally hear God answer his or her prayers in an audible voice, it is not necessary to explain everything away on the basis of psychology or neuroscience. A thought can — at the same time — be our “own” thought, but also divinely inspired, just as scripture is both the work of human authors, but also divinely inspired.
THE human brain is a highly complex system. John Polkinghorne has suggested that God may act within complex systems in such a way as to convey information without exchange of physical energy. Taking a simpler and somewhat different model, Fraser Watts has suggested the analogy of a radio receiver: that human minds can be, in some way, “attuned” to God.
Thomas Merton, influenced by his reading of Simone Weil, reflected on the importance of prayer as giving attention to God. It is notable that Tanya Luhrmann’s work (referred to in the second of these three articles) also focuses on the importance of attention (as an aspect of absorption), in her theory of voices arising as “sensory overrides” during intense prayer.
When we attend to God carefully, sometimes it may seem that we
hear him speak to us. To dismiss such voices completely would be as rash as accepting them without question. They arise within human minds which are prone to error, but which are also very good — at least, sometimes — at tuning in to God.
Professor Chris Cook is a Co-Investigator on the Wellcome-funded project Hearing the Voice, at Durham University. http://hearingthevoice.org.
He is keen to hear from readers who are willing to share their own experiences of hearing spiritually significant voices. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.