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9:21am on Thursday, 18th October, 2018:

Hearing Voices


When I'm thinking, I can hear my thoughts in my head as words. I believe most people have such an internal monologue, so this isn't unusual. Some people don't subvocalise while reading, but the majority seem to do so.

I can also pull up sounds, such as music. I get the whole piece (which is great for orchestral works), but it's editable: I can take out the vocals, or just listen to the violins, or change the brass to woodwind, or overlay elements of my own. I don't think this is unusual either.

Normally, when I hear words in my head, they're in my own voice. They don't have to be, though. I can change what they sound like, just as I can change what music sounds like. I can put on accents and so on, just as I can when speaking. I can also mimic other people's voices, though, which I can't do while speaking as I don't have a universal voicebox.

Now the thing is, although the voices I hear when I do this are accurate, I control them. If I'm thinking, those are my thoughts; if I'm thinking in my grandfather's voice, those are my thoughts being said in his voice. I don't get to hear him, I just get to hear me being him. This is a little bitter-sweet, in that if I want to remember my grandfather speak I can, but I'm putting words in his mouth; I'm therefore not so much remembering him as reconstructing him.

There's an exception to this.

Sometimes, when I'm going to sleep, I'll hear voices of people I know or knew well, saying sentences exactly as they would say or would have said them. These are like short snatches of recordings. The sentences aren't apropos anything in particular, but they do make sense. To me, they come across as very authentic — much better than when I reconstruct them with my own words. It doesn't happen very often, and (unlike with dreams) I can't cause it to happen, but when it does it can be a joy: it's wonderful to hear my grandparents or my brother or my great-aunts exactly as they were when they were alive, even in short, few-second bursts.

The reason this seems much more real than when I use their voices under conscious control is, I believe, because when I'm this close to going to sleep I'm no longer using my own internal monologue the whole time. There's space for memories to slip in and use the system. I only ever get one voice at a time, not a chorus, so this does fit the evidence. As for why memories might come through like that, I've no idea. I'm not gullible enough to believe I'm actually communicating with the dead or with the subconsciousnesses of the living. Something just bubbles up and for once it gets through to the part of the brain where sounds go when I've just heard someone say something.

I mention this now because it happened last night with a different effect. Instead of hearing a voice, I heard the sound of one of the machines in the amusement arcade I used to work in when I was in my teens: Galaxian. It's the first time I've had a sound come through, rather than a voice. I don't know why it was Galaxian, either, as I was at university when it came out and so knew some of the other machines much better. Still, it was a pleasant surprise.

I've tried in the past to set up a process to summon voices when I'm close to sleeping, but it's never worked. I apparently have neither conscious nor subconscious control over them: they just happen. This would explain why they never say anything relevant to anything, they're basically just sophisticated recollections of sounds, like music. If they did say something relevant (or started issuing commands!) I'd be able to shut them down in an instant.

I don't think I'm alone in having this kind of weird thing happen when I'm on the point of dropping asleep; it has a name (hypnagogia), so it's probably quite common, although for me I only get sounds, not any other special effects. There is one thing about it that does seem strange, though: although I may hear the voices of my wife, my parents, my children and other people I know well, I never hear my own voice.

I suppose this is because when I'm awake, I never hear myself speak.

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Copyright © 2018 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).