Researchers have investigated what characterizes people who say that they can hear the voices of the dead.

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Spiritualism is a movement whose adherents believe that the spirits of deceased people continue to live on after physical death.

Mediums claim that they have the ability to communicate with the spirits through seeing (“clairvoyant”), feeling (“clairsentient”), or hearing (“clairaudient”) them.

Studies from the Universities of Cardiff, Northampton, and Lancaster — all of which are in the United Kingdom — have argued that religious and spiritual experiences (RSEs), such as clairaudience, can be useful as a comparison to auditory hallucinations of people with certain mental health conditions.

A new study, which appears in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture, examined links between auditory spiritual communications experienced by mediums, beliefs, and personality.

The study was part of the Hearing the Voice project. Dr. Adam J. Powell, of the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Durham in the U.K, and Dr. Peter Moseley, of the Department of Psychology at Northumbria University, also in the U.K., carried out the study.

“Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences [that] are positive, start early in life, and [that] they are often then able to control,” explains Dr. Moseley. “Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too.”

The researchers recruited 65 spiritualist participants, as well as 143 other participants to act as a general population control group. Most came from the U.K., North America, Australasia, and Europe.

The team asked the participants to complete tailored versions of online questionnaires that are known to assess various traits consistently.

These questionnaires were:

  • The Tellegen Absorption Scale: This uses yes/no questions to measure how likely a person is to become fully immersed in internal and external stimuli-like movies, mental imagery, music, or thoughts. This is also called proneness to absorption.
  • The Revised Launay-Slade Hallucination Scale: This assesses a participant’s tendency to experience auditory and visual hallucinations.
  • The Revised Paranormal Beliefs Scale: This assesses participants’ perception of traditional religious beliefs, psi (extrasensory perception and ability to influence physical entities without interaction), witchcraft, superstition, extraordinary life forms, precognition (the ability to see the future), and Spiritualism.
  • The Aspects of Identity Questionnaire IV: This assesses the participants’ self-identified importance of personal identity, relational identity, social identity, and collective identity.

Participants in the spiritualist group also completed a questionnaire about how often, in what contexts, and for how long their experiences have been occurring.

The average age at which the spiritualist participants first had a clairaudient experience was 21.7 years, but most people experienced it either before the age of 20 or around the age of 40.

As many as 44.6% of the respondents said that they had clairaudient experiences daily, and 33.8% reported having had such an experience the day before.

In terms of where these experiences were taking place, 79% of the participants said that they had them both in spiritualist settings (such as in a church) and outside such settings.

A total of 12.9% of participants said that their experiences occurred only outside spiritualist contexts, while another 8.1% reported experiencing clairaudience only within spiritualist contexts.

Also, according to the reports, 65.1% of clairaudient experiences occurred inside the medium’s head, 31.7% manifested both internally and externally, and 3.2% were allegedly external experiences only.

As for the first occurrence of a clairaudient experience:

  • Of all the participants, 44.8% said that they experienced clairaudience before encountering Spiritualism.
  • Of all the participants, 29.3% said that they encountered Spiritualism before they experienced clairaudience.
  • Of all the participants, 25.9% said that their first experience of clairaudience occurred at the same time as their first encounter with Spiritualism.

Those in the Spiritualist group were more prone to absorption and both spiritual and non-spiritual auditory hallucination than the general population group.

Also, the higher the frequency the clairaudient experience was, the higher the proneness to absorption within the Spiritualist group.

The research suggests an association within the general population group between spiritual beliefs and absorption. In this group, the association between spiritual beliefs and hallucination-proneness was not significant.

The study also confirmed previous findings that suggest that people are more likely to become interested in the paranormal as a consequence of some unusual sensory experience, not the other way round.

“Our findings say a lot about ‘learning and yearning.’ For our participants, the tenets of Spiritualism seem to make sense of both extraordinary childhood experiences as well as the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practicing mediums. But all of those experiences may result more from having certain tendencies or early abilities than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough.”

– Dr. Adam Powell

Surprisingly, the researchers found that spiritualists were not more reliant on others’ views and perspectives in forming their sense of self than the general population. In fact, the spiritualist group scored higher in personal identity than the control group.

The participants in the spiritualist group had significantly fewer years of formal education. However, because no questionnaire measures had a significant association with education, this characteristic cannot explain differences between the two groups.

This is a centuries-old question, but this study did not examine the truthfulness of spiritual experiences. Instead, it compared the auditory hallucinations, beliefs, and identity traits of those who claim to be mediums with those of the general population.

Since the study relied on self-reports, there is doubt as to whether some of the associations might be a result of the methodology itself. For example, participants may not have fully grasped the difference between similarly worded items on the four scales and have chosen similar responses.

Further research is also necessary to assess whether absorption predisposes individuals to RSEs or believing that RSEs might be plausible.

The role of different cultures, philosophies, and belief systems in absorption and RSEs is another complex relationship that research is yet to examine.