Voices that murmur unpleasant nothings

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The Independent Culture
As part of the "States of Mind" series Horizon (BBC2) presented an intriguing film about hearing voices. It was itself an alternative voice, arguing that psychologists and patients might do better to listen to this classic symptom of insanity rather than try to drown it out with drugs. It also brought home the fact that the distinction between the mad and the sane is still an unresolved border. Clearly, hearing a voice that says "Hang yourself - do it now - hang yourself," as Alan Leader did when he was a young boy, is a pretty extreme case of mental vocalisation.

But a later therapy session, in which students replicated the effect of voices by whispering unpleasant nothings in each others' ears, was a reminder that most of us are prey to unbidden commentaries, audible only to ourselves. "She's lying to you," whispered one participant, as another attempted to have a civil conversation, which brought to mind a celebrated journalistic voice, the one that whispers, "Why is this bastard lying to me?" throughout any political interview.

The difference between most people's inner voices and those of the "mad" ("States of Mind" encourages such arms-length quotation marks) is that the mad aren't sure where they come from. Horizon showed you where, though not in a way that will necessarily relieve the distress of voice-hearers. Brain scans have revealed that an area of the brain which is active when healthy subjects conduct internal conversations with themselves is equally active when sufferers hear their supposedly external voices. The researcher described this finding as surprising, which seemed a little ingenuous of him. Unless he had hitherto believed that such voices were the product of malevolent demons or thought-control by the CIA, there weren't really many alternative explanations. Still, the result has encouraged some psychologists to treat the symptom as an attempt at internal communication, rather than a simple delusion. They encourage patients to listen to the voices and try to interpret their messages. More conventional practitioners regard this as collusion rather than cure, but it seems to work for some, allowing them to answer back for the first time in their lives.

I was hearing angry voices myself for the rest of the evening, firstly during "Black and Blue", a World in Action (ITV) report on racism in the police force. The programme's best piece of evidence was a recording of Bernard Manning spewing out racial abuse for an audience of policemen attending a charity dinner. Far from being dismayed by jokes about "shooting niggers", the officers lapped it up. The one black officer present was presumably required to display his ability to take a joke as Manning singled him out. "This is better than swinging through the trees," he noted, getting another huge guffaw from the man's supportive colleagues. David Wilmot, chief constable of Greater Manchester, responded to this with the sort of craven defensiveness one has come to expect from senior policemen. "I can't control where my officers go when they're off duty," he said limply, at which point an enraged voice shouted, "Oh yes you can, you pathetic fool. I wonder what would happen to their career prospects if they all started attending gay discos or Socialist Worker rallies?"

And someone else, more sibilant and cynical this time, rather distracted from my enjoyment of Rules of Engagement (ITV) by whispering "What a load of bollocks" at 20-second intervals. With Horizon in mind I paid attention, trying to discern whether there was some message contained in the remarks. Could they possibly be related to the ill-mixed mush of macho clichs and implausible plotting that was unfolding on the screen? I experimented by switching the set off and, almost miraculously, the voice went away.

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