Jemima Hodkinson – Mosaic
One man experiences a voice projected in his brain “like a ghost”. A woman hears voices “shouting through her stomach” accompanied by “black, shadowy lips”; another hears her sister’s voice talking to her at night when she is in bed “like it is coming from a transmitter or a radio”.
These three people are deaf. They, along with 50 per cent of all deaf people with schizophrenia, ‘hear’ voices. It is hard to imagine an experience more strange, unsettling and counterintuitive. Research carried out recently has begun to unpick this contradictory psychological phenomenon, and may change the way that voice hallucinations are understood in hearing people too.
Trawl back through the research on voice hallucinations in deaf people and you will find plenty of case reports and studies to support their existence. Yet there is little consensus on what they actually consist of. So while plenty of psychologists supported the idea that deaf individuals – even those deaf from birth – could actually hear the voices, one researcher was unconvinced.
Joanna Atkinson is a researcher and a clinical psychologist based at University College London. She is also deaf. The idea that deaf people could really hear the voices that they hallucinated jarred with her day-to-day clinical experience. Whenever she asked a profoundly deaf person that question, she would receive the same incredulous response: “No, of course not – I am deaf.”
Yet when these same individuals were assessed by psychiatrists who could hear, using a sign language interpreter, they would describe their experience using hearing-related terms – loud, or low, or quiet – that suggested they were in fact hearing sound. What could they be experiencing?
Joanna believed that something had been lost in translation. Through her own observations and experience of deafness, she “realised they were borrowing the language of the hearing majority and psychiatric field, rather than meaning they could hear sound”. These subtle differences in language are what make this research so challenging: for a deaf person, someone could ‘shout’ at them by signing aggressively without making any sound. The inherent difficulty of explaining complex hallucinations and sensations is therefore compounded by the need to translate between different frames of reference.