Psychologists have launched a study to find out why some people who hear voices in their head consider it a positive experience while others find it distressing.
The University of Manchester investigation - announced on World Hearing Voices Day (Thursday, 14th September) - comes after Dutch researchers found that many healthy members of the population there regularly hear voices.
Although hearing voices has traditionally been viewed as 'abnormal' and a symptom of mental illness, the Dutch findings suggest it is more widespread than previously thought, estimating that about 4% of the population could be affected.
Researcher Aylish Campbell said: "We know that many members of the general population hear voices but have never felt the need to access mental health services; some experts even claim that more people hear voices and don't seek psychiatric help than those who do.
"In fact, many of those affected describe their voices as being a positive influence in their lives, comforting or inspiring them as they go about their daily business. We're now keen to investigate why some people respond in this way while others are distressed and seek outside help."
Although the voices heard by psychiatric patients and members of the general population seem to be of the same volume and frequency, the former group tend to interpret the voices as more distressing and negative.
The team believes that external factors such as a person's life experiences and beliefs may be the key to these differences: for example, the presence of childhood trauma or negative beliefs about themselves could have an affect.
"If a person is struggling to overcome a trauma or views themselves as worthless or vulnerable, or other people as aggressive, they may be more likely to interpret their voices as harmful, hostile or powerful," said Aylish.
"Conversely, a person who has had more positive life experiences and formed more healthy beliefs about themselves and other people might develop a more positive view of their voices.
"People being treated for hearing voices are usually given medication in an attempt to eliminate the problem. By investigating the factors influencing how voices are experienced we hope to contribute to the development of psychological therapies to help people better understand and cope with their voices."
The team would like to hear from people in the northwest aged 16 years and over who have been hearing voices for at least six months. They can be both users of mental-health services or not.
Discussions will be carried out at a location to suit the volunteer in complete privacy. Participants will also be asked to complete questionnaires about their experiences. In all participation in the study will take about an hour and a half. Travel expenses will be reimbursed.
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The University of Manchester (www.manchester.ac.uk) is the largest higher education institution in the country, with 24 academic schools and over 36 000 students. Its Faculty of Medical & Human Sciences (www.mhs.manchester.ac.uk) is one of the largest faculties of clinical and health sciences in Europe, with a research income of around £51 million (almost a third of the University's total research income).
The School of Psychological Sciences (www.psych-sci.manchester.ac.uk) was founded in 2004, and comprises the oldest Psychology department in the UK together with Human Communication and Deafness and Clinical Psychology divisions. All were rated 5/5 in the last higher education Research Assessment Exercise.