What can we learn from people who hear the dead?

Do you believe in ghosts? I don’t. Visiting a medium, or otherwise trying to communicate with the dead, was surprisingly common in my North-East Catholic family. I’ve always looked upon the practise with a lot of scepticism and a little cynicism. Medium’s a word for these people, I’d have thought, but some other words, like hack or charlatan, might be more accurate.

But as is so often the case, it appears that science might’ve proven me wrong again. Durham researchers surveyed 65 clairaudient (meaning able to perceive what is inaudible) spiritualist mediums from the Spiritualists’ National Union and 143 members of the general population as part of the largest scientific study of clairaudience to date. This research is part of the university’s Hearing the Voice study, an interdisciplinary study of voice-hearing.

Spiritualism is a sort-of religious movement based on the belief that spirits of the dead exist and have the ability – and the inclination – to communicate with the living. Mediums are individuals who have a gift of communication with the dead, but spiritualists believe that anybody can become a medium with study and practice.

The researchers found that spiritualists are much more likely than the average person to report experiences of unusual auditory phenomena, such as hearing voices. The average age of first clairaudient experience was 21.7 years, but 18% of spiritualists reported having clairaudient experiences “for as long as they could remember. 71% had not encountered spiritualism prior to their first clairaudient experiences. In addition, when compared to the average person, spiritualists have a strong proclivity for absorption – an individual’s capacity for immersion in imaginative experiences in a way that alters perception, memory, or mood.

These observations together begin to paint a picture of your average spiritualist – if such a thing can be said to exist. They are people who are uniquely predisposed to unusual auditory experiences, and uniquely predisposed to be involved in and affected by these experiences. Whether they’re really hearing the dead is beyond the scope of this article, but we can be pretty sure that they’re hearing something. The spiritualism isn’t about deception – it’s a means of understanding, as so many unconventional beliefs are, an unusual and affecting experience or series of experiences.

This research is important because, although voice-hearing forms part of a quasi-religious practise for proponents of spiritualism, most people who hear voices would rather not. Understanding what motivates positive and controllable voice-hearing could give some insight into people who hear more distressing or non-controllable voices, such as auditory hallucinations induced by schizophrenia. Durham researchers are now engaged in further investigation of clairaudience, working with practitioners to gain a fuller picture of what it is like to be on the receiving end of such unusual and meaningful experiences.

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