The number of people who hear voices at some point in their lives may be as high as 15 percent of the population. Despite this, voices are poorly understood and frequently feared. In western cultures we have come to view voices as a feature of mental illness (along with all the stigma that comes with this), yet in some cultures voices are regarded as a gift that extends the person's senses beyond those of normal people.
It is often assumed that all people with schizophrenia hear voices. This isn't the case. Another assumption is that voices are always nasty or persecutory in nature. Again, this isn't always the case. As anyone who hears voices will attest, it is not so much the hearing of voices that matters as the effect they have on you. Put another way, voices can be warm, reassuring, comforting, funny and familiar. Unfortunately for some people they can be threatening, abusive, hostile and bullying. As people can change, so can voices. A voice that starts out nicely can become hostile and then become calmer. And so on.
Pretty much everyone is familiar with the experience, if not the term, of ‘inner speech'. Inner speech is the term given to the voice you hear in your head when you think of a song, or you recall the words someone said to you, or you rehearse for a speech or maybe an interview. The difference between inner speech and an auditory hallucination is the activation of a part of the brain known as the auditory cortex. Normally the auditory cortex becomes active whenever you hear a noise or someone speaks. If the cortex activates during inner speech, the experience is of the sound coming from outside their body - hence an auditory hallucination.
People who regularly hear voices often find their own techniques for integrating or ignoring them. One person described it to me as like having a child demanding your attention whilst trying to concentrate on a telephone conversation. If you're lucky, she said, the telephone conversation is short-lived and then you can attend to the voice(s), or sometimes the voice(s) will find something better to do and leave you alone for a while.
The most common way to cope with voices involves the use of prescribed antipsychotic medication. Less known, but increasing in its use and popularity is a psychological therapy known as Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT has been used with some success in attempts to ignore voices or to help reduce delusions (false beliefs) that can accompany them.
Shouldering the burden of voices is something you don't need to do alone. It can be difficult for people who have no understanding of mental illness to sympathise or even attempt to understand the experience of voices. Perhaps in this respect they have their own burden to carry, but the effect is to make the person who hears voices feel even more marginalized. Fortunately there are often local support groups and clubs that operate locally. Details in the form of posters are frequently found in local libraries, clinics, day centers, or other public places. Otherwise, the internet provides some highly active resources in the shape of specialized sites with active communities that share ideas and can offer support.