Non-Auditory Voices and Other Quirks of the Brain

March, in Chicago. I’m on my way to the Art Institute, and already late. Music in, coat up around my ears–it’s March in Chicago, after all. I rush by a panhandler sitting on cardboard under a doorway.




I’d attended a class with a friend and had been trying to teach myself sign language for a few weeks. I was pretty sure I’d just recognized some signs from the woman in the doorway. Like me, everyone was hurrying by, avoiding eye contact. But she was signing…pausing…signing again. It was a pattern that looked a little familiar–a memory from working in schizophrenia research. The woman seemed to be talking–quite animatedly–to someone invisible.

Was she signing to voices? How would that even work? Would seeing someone signing to you be an auditory hallucination or a visual one? Would signing-hallucinations be entirely separate from other visual hallucinations (such as hallucinating animals or people following you)?

Which brings me to this research, months later: Exploring how deaf people ‘hear’ voice-hallucinations.

Participants born profoundly deaf reported non-auditory, clear and easy to understand voices. They were all confident that they did not hear any sounds, but knew the gender and identity of the voice. They reported seeing an image of the voice signing or lips moving in their mind.
Individuals with severe language deprivation and incomplete acquisition of either speech or sign, were remarkable in that they did not experience either auditory characteristics or perception of subvisual imagery of voice articulation, suggesting that language acquisition within a critical period may be necessary for voice-hallucinations that are organised in terms of how spoken or signed utterances are articulated.

Among other fascinating discoveries, people with acquired deafness could have auditory hallucinations, even if they did not currently have the ability to hear. Those born profoundly deaf and who had grasp of a communication method also could hallucinate voices, but in non-auditory ways. Those hallucinations would be organized, with genders and actual identities that could be distinguished from one another.

Incredible on its own, but even better, it gives us more information about schizophrenia. If both hearing and d/Deaf people with schizophrenia can experience similar hallucinations of people communicating information, where variance is found simply in the presentation of the information, it suggests an underlying structure of the disease that is independent of the communication system of the afflicted. It matters less how you do it–schizophrenia doesn’t appear to distinguish. Something is changing within language processing. 

Science is cool, y’all.

Update: I forgot to include a link to Charles Bonnet Syndrome, the condition of having visual hallucinations when visually impaired.


  1. CaitieCat says


    Mind=blown. That is seriously cool, and I’m only coming at it from a linguistics end. I really wanted to study second-language acquisition (mostly, why are some people so good at it, and some others not good at all?). This would have so been in any biblio I ever published.

  2. M Milligan says

    My father-in-law has Charles Bonnet Syndrome. He finds it infuriating, because he knows that what he sees isn’t what is there. In fact, he’s had to accept that if he can see something clearly, it MUST be a hallucination. When he visits us, we have a lot of conversations like, “I see a large, ornate, bronze door behind you. What am I looking at?” (Answer: a wooden china cabinet with a glass front)

    His hallucinations generally seem to take the form of building on some small detail that he really can see. For instance, if he can see a large, vertical bright patch on a darker background, he’ll have a clear vision of a window or a TV. A dark patch on a light background might turn into a doorway or a tunnel.

    It can be dangerous, because if he hallucinates something, that’s what he reacts to, rather than what’s there. Once we were in a parking lot that had some waist-high bollards with lights on them to provide ground illumination – those points of light turned into car headlights for him. He instinctively wanted to avoid the cars, which made it harder to keep him from walking into the bollards.

  3. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Update: I forgot to include a link to Charles Bonnet Syndrome, the condition of having visual hallucinations when visually impaired.

    Video: Oliver Sacks at TED – What hallucination reveals about our minds

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