Schizophrenia: What It’s Like to Hear Voices

, KQED Science | August 11, 2014 | 8 Comments
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People with schizophrenia often have a hard time explaining what it’s like to hear voices.

“There’s a huge range of voice hearing experiences,” says Nev Jones, postdoctoral fellow in anthropology at Stanford University who was treated for her psychotic symptoms in 2007.

There can be “voices that are more thought-like,” says Jones, “voices that sound like non-human entities, voices that are perceived as the direct communication of a message, rather than something you’re actually hearing.”

Voices aren’t always voices, either. They can sound more like a murmur, a rustle or a beeping.

But when a voice is a recognizable voice, more than often, it’s not very nice. “It’s not like wearing an iPod”, says the Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrman. “It’s like being surrounded by a gang of bullies.”

Pat Deegan, a Massachusetts-based consultant who has schizophrenia, created this simulation to help others understand what it’s like to experience vocal hallucinations.

The simulation begins with loud music; a couple minutes later it transitions to strange, sometimes inaudible voices. “Do you have any idea how you’ve messed up?” they taunt.

She encourages people to listen to it while trying to carry out basic tasks, like grocery shopping.

(In California, PREP offers mental health services to young people and their families. offers a resource page that includes other states. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has chapters in every state and offers support to families. The young people in this story received help at Kickstart, in San Diego.)

Here are a few of the people I’ve met over the last few months I’ve spent reporting on young people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia, or experienced symptoms that seemed, possibly, pre-schizophrenic.

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

Efrain Pacheco is 21 and lives in San Diego. He can’t remember exactly when the voices began, in part because he thought everyone heard them.

Today he takes an anti-psychotic drug, Risperdal, which has mostly quieted them. Sometimes he misses them, he says.

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

Frankie Moreno is 25, and also lives in San Diego. About four years ago, his reality started to shift. At first, he heard “random noises,” like the sound of running on the roof. The sounds evolved into two voices, speaking just out of range of hearing.

Over time, the voices got louder and more threatening, until one night, they told him to hurt himself.

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

We profiled Reagan in the first story in this series. She’s 23 and lives in Simi Valley. Her hallucinations were visual, not auditory.

She knew they couldn’t be real, but they still terrified her.

 (Krista Mackinnon/KQED)

(Krista Mackinnon/KQED)

Will Hall was in his 20s when the film The Matrix came out. He was obsessed with it, and thought it had been written for him, specifically. He heard voices telling him that he had caused the Columbine massacre.

He found that as he listened to the voices, and tried to understand where they were coming from, the voices became kinder and more supportive.

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

(Marvi Lacar/KQED)

This last one is Andrea Vallejo (left), who works for a program in San Diego called Kickstart, which treats kids in the very earliest stages of schizophrenia. I met her when she and other Kickstart staff had taken a bunch of clients, between 10 and 25 years old, to fly kites at San Diego’s Seaport Village.

Vallejo’s job is to help kids stay in school, connected to friends and family. The slide into isolation can make everything, including auditory and visual hallucinations, much worse.


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Category: Audio, Health, News, Radio

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About the Author ()

Amy Standen is a radio reporter for KQED Science. Her email is and you can follow her on Twitter at @amystanden.
  • QE

    There is no “science of schizophrenia”. Schizophrenia is a pseudoscientific label applied to people’s disparate troubling mental experiences. Psychiatry, a pseudoscience, has never once in 100 years of slapping this label on people, discovered a single replicable biomarker. Therefore there are no objective tests for this alleged “disease”. If you become overwhelmed in life, you will get this label slapped on you by these quacks. You will lose your human rights and be forcibly drugged and brutalized in the system. Psychiatry has absolutely nothing to offer but a lifetime on heavy, toxic tranquilizer drugs, and a quackery based belief system of “blaming brains” it never examines. I wish these kids that are being tageted as “pre schizophrenic” and drugged based on guesswork, all the luck in the world, they are going to need it, being dragged into the dragnet of psychiatry’s quackery at such a young age. But what’s new huh? Psychiatry drugging kids and destroying the health and biology of innocent kids. It’s what psychiatry does best. I saw the apologia for lobotomy in the other story “what else did we have” she says… ah how about not ripping apart people’s living brain tissue without their consent? Psychiatry is a vicious pseudo-science, hiding amidst respectable medicine. It has earned none of its prestige and credibility, that it stole, by hitching its wagon to that of real doctors in other specialties. No profession has caused more harm to more innocent, downtrodden people, than psychiatry. They see “brain disease” everywhere they look, but discover none. They are essentially a cult. It’s a scientism religion.

    • Hyde

      I still don’t understand the pre diagnosis part, but to completely cast aside schizophrenia is foolish. It is real, it does affect people. Everybody’s different. I have a friend that I think is schizo. He’s been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but he mutters under his breath all the time and the mood swings seem too extreme for bipolar. There are times when he gets vulnerable like a child and then there are times when he feels like god.

      All I’m saying is be around the people that aren’t taking meds. It’s really eye opening.

    • Christian Stiehl

      Let me guess…Scientology is the answer, right?

  • Mike Rundell

    I apologize for being off-topic here, I will be brief. I am intrigued by QE’s comment. Please state your credentials or authority to make such statements? If this is your personal opinion, please preface your response indicating such.

    Thank you.

    Mike, Mechanic.

    • Yolanda Alcantar

      I agree with QE’s comments the pharmaceutical companies make millions off the drugs which are give to out mentally ill, and resulting in worsening of their condition time and time again, you will find people who as a result of the side effects of these drugs end up worse I know my son has developed tardive dyskinesia which there is no cure for, now he has to live his life in a constant struggle I’ve read Abraham Hoffer”s books

      • Diego Hermosillo Hanon

        But the pharmaceutical industry is separated from the pharmacology and neurology sciences. Wether they make millions out of over-diagnoses is different from if they work on people that actually have the condition

  • Monika Eckfield, RN, PhD

    Thank you for this terrific series, KQED and Amy Standen! I’m a professor of psychiatric mental health nursing in the Bay Area and plan to have my undergraduate nursing students listen to and read the series as part of their coursework. Bravo, well done!

  • Lindsey Hoshaw

    Great series and really interesting new research.