Prestigious award for Durham University research into hearing voices

Artwork produced by young voice-hearers from the North of England for the exhibition ‘Hearing voices: suffering, inspiration and the everyday’

Hearing the Voice, a Durham University research project, has been awarded the 2020 Medical Humanities Award for Best Research by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Wellcome Trust – an award which recognises outstanding research that draws on the arts and humanities’ ability to improve the health and well-being of people facing medical challenges.

Up to 1 in 10 people hear voices that others don’t. This experience is most commonly associated with mental illness, distress and also shame linked to the stigma. Over the last eight years, Hearing the Voice researchers have sought to provide a better understanding into what these voices are like and why they happen.

The research project has put lived experience at the centre of their research and, as a result, has been able to shed light on the connections among voices, ordinary self-talk, sensory perception, memory and creativity. They have looked at portrayals of voice-hearing in medieval and modern literature as well as experiences of it in contemporary clinical services and religious and spiritual practices.

This has led them to be involved in many opportunities, such as partnering with the Edinburgh International Book Festival in a five-year study of the voices ‘heard’ by readers and writers of fiction. They have also worked with voice-hearers, their families and mental health professionals with the aim of enhancing clinical practice and improving the daily lives for those who find the voices distressing.

The Hearing the Voice team have also built the world’s most comprehensive website on hearing voices (understandingvoices.com) which was produced in consultation with over 2000 members of voice-hearing and clinical communities. Their website provides support for those who may find themselves hearing voices with accessible information, personal perspectives, coping strategies and signposting for support services.

They have also developed a digital intervention for the management of unusual sensory experiences that is currently being used in mental health settings across the North of England. They also aim to challenge public misconceptions of hearing voices and to reduce the stigma surrounding, which has involved a major touring exhibition (hearingvoicesdu.org) as well as consulting on the multi-award-winning video game Hellblade: Senua’s sacrifice.

Speaking of this achievement, Professor Colin Bain, Durham University’s Vice-Provost for Research said:

“The Hearing the Voice project has made a seminal contribution to our understanding of voice hearing and had a tremendous impact on people who hear voices and on those who live and work with them. We’re delighted by the recognition that this award brings to the Durham team and their partners, and to Durham University as a centre for pioneering research in medical humanities and the interdisciplinary study of human experience.”

Professor Charles Fernyhough, Principal Investigator of Hearing the Voice stated:

“We’re delighted to receive this award, which recognises what can be achieved by a genuine commitment to bridging the divide between the sciences and the humanities.

As a psychologist and cognitive scientist, it has been deeply rewarding for me to work with literary scholars, narratologists, medieval historians, theologians, anthropologists, linguists and philosophers.

Combining insights from these disciplines, we have been able to further our collective knowledge of voice-hearing which has real applications in clinical practice. We’re grateful to the Wellcome Trust for their generous and flexible support.”

Rachel Waddingham (Chair of the UK Hearing Voices Network, the leading charity supporting people who hear voices in the UK) commented: 

“Hearing the Voice have gone to great lengths to work with voice-hearers and their families, especially in developing the Understanding Voices website. In a field where we – as people who hear voices – are so often cast as passive objects of study it has been truly refreshing to work with this team as they strove to hear and value the importance of lived experience as a form of knowing.”

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