Understanding, not pathologising

Kawthar Alli visits 'Hearing Voices: Suffering, Inspiration and the Everyday', an exhibition at Palace Green Library, Durham.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said ‘We are spiritual beings having a human experience’, and this quote has always resonated with me. It prompted me to visit the Hearing Voices exhibition in Durham, where academics from history, anthropology, English literature, psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience have joined forces to understand the multiple facets of voice hearing. They also work with a movement formed by voice hearers that promote an awareness and understanding of voice hearing, moving beyond the psychiatric diagnosis.

The exhibition included many works of art that showed the narrative of voice hearers. They were positive and negative; at times the voices were shown to act as a guide like an archangel on one’s shoulders. At other times they could be demonic, overwhelming and chaotic.

The exhibition was accompanied by lectures and panel discussions, and I attended the talk titled ‘Voices, visions and divine inspiration’. I was particularly interested in this as someone of faith and from an African background; I have grown up in an environment where the belief in the supernatural is very strong. It isn’t uncommon to hear stories of people having audio-visual hallucinations, and they aren’t necessarily seen as psychotic in the same way it may be seen in a Western society.

English professor Corinne Saunders spoke about medieval English women such as Margery Kempe and Julian of Norwich [see also ‘The medieval mind’, November 2016]. These women all had multi-sensory experiences hearing internal and external voices, the feeling of bodily invasion and seeing Jesus in human form. This suggests there has long been a link between hearing voices and a gaining a deep spiritual connection to the unseen world. I’m reminded of the masquerades that are present in most African traditional religions, with the worshipper’s soul moving out of this world and connecting with their ancestors. Rather than these voices being a hindrance they are described as providing knowledge; even, at times, political advice and salvation (consider Joan of Arc, and Mother Teresa).

The talk by clinical psychologist Isabel Clarke explained that it’s the dominant culture that determines what reality is. Voice hearing was accepted in Europe before the rise of secular thought, but as religion declined so did the acceptance of voices. Instead of having one rigid sense of self, Clarke proposed that it is fluid: some people float in and out of boundaries of self that most of us wouldn’t understand. However, voices can also be triggered by traumatic experiences that break the boundaries of self. One of the speakers, Satyin Taylor, had an episode of psychosis in his twenties and now co-facilitates the Spiritual Crisis Network. It was inspirational to see someone who made the transition from patient to professional using their inside knowledge to make a difference to people’s lives. When I asked him what to do when I come across someone that is hearing voices, his advice was to simply listen without judgement. He explained that at times a crisis can be a gateway for renewal or awakening that allows a person to examine their purpose in life and where they would like to be.

This event was an enlightening experience for me; it went outside the box of the typical diagnosis and labelling protocol. Instead of pathologising voice hearing its aim was to understand it. I left with more questions than I had coming in, but that simply reflects the vastness of the human experience.

Find out more at the exhibition website: http://hearingvoicesdu.org

- Reviewed by Kawthar Alli, a research assistant at NAViGO Health and Social Care

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