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Hearing Voices: A Call More Common Than Believed

June 29, 1989|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

In the critical and popular hit "Field of Dreams," a baseball fan played by Kevin Costner repeatedly hears a voice talking to him in his cornfield at night. It's loud. It's direct. And very spooky.

Costner is a little freaked out, but he's intrigued--enough to test the voice's advice. It leads him on a grand adventure that culminates in his finally forgiving his deceased father for a long-held grudge, and saving the family farm from foreclosure.

"Field of Dreams" has been hailed by critics as a glorious fantasy, a momentary escape into make-believe that proved to be just the box-office ticket this spring.

More Admit to Privately

It's also kindled interest in the ages-old phenomenon of "hearing voices"--an experience therapists say more people will admit to privately than in public.

Even W. P. Kinsella, author of the novel "Shoeless Joe" on which "Field of Dreams" is based, thinks his story is an utter fabrication. He's especially irritated that some of his fans think he must hear voices himself to have produced such a moving depiction of the way the experience reportedly occurs.

"I've had some annoying calls from people who confuse me with the person in the story," Kinsella said by phone from his home in White Rock, British Columbia. "I don't believe in the supernatural in any form at all. I'm strictly a storyteller. I know how to manipulate people's emotions. I certainly don't believe in the things I write about. . . . There are no gods. There is no magic. I may be a wizard only because it takes a wizard to know there are none."

Though they debate about wizards and magic, psychologists and psychiatrists typically acknowledge that significant numbers of people do have what they call auditory hallucinations, or "outer" voices.

By contrast, inner voices are most frequently reported--and may be called by other names: conscience, intuition, hunches or gut feelings. Outer voices are heard as if coming from outside the person, just as if somebody else were standing nearby and talking. Only when the hearer turns around to look for the speaker, nobody's there.

Judy Rosenberg, 29, a court reporter who lives in Anaheim Hills, has heard an outer voice call her name. "I'll say, 'What? What?' and turn around and nobody's there," Rosenberg said. "The outer voice is very scary to me. But the inner voice . . . any time I've ever listened to it, it's never done me wrong. It's strange. When I was really young, a little girl, this voice--I thought it was myself talking to myself. It doesn't sound like another person. . . .

Voice's Opinion

"I'll be looking for something and it will tell me where to find it. Any time I need it, it's there. I don't always want it though. I'm now dating a guy who's getting serious and wants to get married. This voice is telling me, 'Don't do it.' It's been telling me that since I met the guy. I'm going, 'Nah,' like I'm not listening. If I'd just listen and pay attention, I'd be better off."

Psychologist Julian Jaynes, a visiting fellow at Princeton University, suspects that as many as one-third of the U.S. population may have heard an outer voice during childhood or at another time in their lives.

Jaynes, the author of the popular and controversial "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind," has written on the outer voice phenomenon, noting that it exists in varying percentages in every population in the world where it's been studied.

Hearing outer voices is reported most widely by schizophrenics, he observed. But his research shows that the experience also occurs in significant numbers of "normal" individuals.

Jaynes admits that he has heard a distinct outer voice on a couple of occasions. One time, "I was trying to puzzle out the mind-body problem (the influence of the mind on the body and vice versa) and it really was frustrating," he recalled. "I heard a voice say, very distinctly, 'Include the knower in the known.' It was so clear, I had to go outside the apartment to see if somebody was there."

Only trouble was, he didn't find the voice's tip particularly useful: "It's not something I agree with, though I thought about it a great deal."

Controlled Study

When Jaynes and his assistants conducted a "carefully controlled" study of Princeton students about a year and a half ago, they found that "fully one third of the students have heard (outer) voices at some time during their lives."

As for why the phenomenon occurs, Jaynes doesn't claim to have the definitive answer to what he considers a profoundly important and mysterious phenomenon. He speculates that auditory hallucinations were once "the basis of a mentality different than the one we have now. There is evidence suggesting that this ability to hallucinate evolved along with the evolution of language"--sometime between 50,000 and 10,000 BC.

Non-academics also report that the phenomenon may be more popular than is recognized.

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