Scientists have identified the traits that could make people more inclined to claim they “hear” the dead. A new study suggests that those who describe themselves as “clairaudient” – as opposed to clairvoyant (“seeing”) or clairsentient ("feeling" or "sensing") – have certain traits in common, including susceptibility to auditory hallucinations and childhood experiences.
If you’re wondering why scientists are spending precious time investigating the supposed paranormal, the researchers say the findings of the study have great value in understanding the sometimes traumatic auditory hallucinations that can accompany mental health issues. Their study, fittingly, is published in Mental Health: Religion and Culture.
The claims of spiritualists, mediums, and psychics have long fascinated scientists. They are met with both skepticism due to lack of evidence, and genuine curiosity about why someone would claim they can hear, contact, or converse with the no-longer living. Fraud is often the simple answer, and the fact these experiences are notoriously hard to disprove – though it should be noted they are notoriously difficult to prove, too. A recent study found 12 self-proclaimed mediums willing to be put to the test actually performed worse than the control group in attempts to contact the dead.
The researchers led by Durham University, however, wanted to explore why some people with these auditory experiences are more likely to adopt spiritualist beliefs and engage in the so-called practice of "hearing" the dead, while others who find the experience more distressing may receive a mental health diagnosis.
“Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences which are positive, start early in life and which they are often then able to control. Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too,” Dr Peter Moseley of Northumbria University, a co-author of the study, explained in a statement.
They recruited 65 members of the UK's Spiritualists' National Union and 143 members of the public, who don't regularly claim to hear the voices of the dead, to carry out the largest scientific investigation into the experience of clairaudient mediums yet. The researchers gathered detailed descriptions from the mediums on how they experience these "voices", and compared levels of absorption, proneness to hallucinations, aspects of their identity, and belief in the paranormal.
They found that of the self-proclaimed spiritualists, 44.6 percent claimed hearing spirits' voices every day, and though these voices were heard primarily in their own head (65.1 percent), 31.7 percent reported experiencing spirit voices coming from both inside and outside the head.
Compared to the control group, the results showed that spiritualists were more likely to report a belief in the paranormal, and less likely to care what people thought of them. The majority of them experienced their first time hearing voices when they were young, on average 21.7 years old. They also reported a higher level of absorption, a term used to describe total immersion in mental tasks and how effective someone is at tuning out the "outside" world. They also reported they were more prone to "unusual hallucination-like auditory experiences".
For the general population, higher absorption was associated with belief in the paranormal, but there was no link between that belief and proneness to hallucinations.
What these results suggest, the researchers say, is that claiming you can hear the voices of deceased spirits is unlikely down suggestibility due to believing in the paranormal. Instead, people who adopt spiritualism are more likely to be predisposed to absorption and to have experienced unusual auditory experiences when young, and spiritualism's beliefs align with their experience.
“Our findings say a lot about ‘learning and yearning’. For our participants, the tenets of Spiritualism seem to make sense of both extraordinary childhood experiences as well as the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practising mediums," lead researcher Dr Adam Powell from Durham University’s Hearing the Voice project said.
“But all of those experiences may result more from having certain tendencies or early abilities than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough.”