May 14, 2019, by Mathilde

‘Hearing the Voice’ – Angela Woods Talk

Angela Woods, from Durham University came to the University of Nottingham on April 10, 2019, to discuss her project ‘Hearing the Voice’, an eight-year interdisciplinary study of voice-hearing currently funded by a Wellcome Trust Humanities and Social Sciences Collaborative Award.

On this occasion, Angela Woods presented a riveting account of the work she started in 2012 with a team of academics from anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, history, linguistics, literary studies, medical humanities, philosophy, psychology and theology.

She opened her talk on the central question of “what is it like to hear voices?” and the dozens of possible answers to this question, with descriptions ranging from ‘resonant voices,’ or ‘organ voices,’ to ‘voices of spirit.’ Some voice-hearers experience voices which speak softly, others without words; some voices express judgment, while others have an agency of their own.  

Making sense of these statements, which are taken from patients in clinical interviews, is what the academic community strives to do, focusing on the personification of the experience of hearing voices.

In her talk, Woods focused first on this question of personification, the possible attribution of human form to the voice heard, its specific traits, intentions, agency or emotions. Research also focuses on the cognitive approach and the perceived power of the voices over the patient, which often tell them what to do.

Woods furthermore talked about the therapeutic effect of making sense of the voices, to help patients to normalise their experience and to make it into something we accept.

The presentation then took a closer look at the project itself, which involves participants, aged between 16 and 85 years old, who have entered the services within the last nine months. Angela Woods stressed that very few participants have been diagnosed with any clinical mental health disorder.

The interdisciplinary study focuses on the trajectories of the experience, the different patterns that can be identified, but more importantly on the patient’s own impression of the experience. To make sense of the variety of experiences—some have visual, olfactory or tactile hallucinations associated with the voices, while others identify the voices as coming from specific parts of their bodies—the team uses corpus linguistics, a methodical approach relying on large data, in order to compare words used by patients to describe their experience.     

The presentation finally centered around one of the patients, Leah—a fictional name—whose personal experience had particularly struck Angela Woods. Leah had lead a particularly difficult life, struggling with family and financial difficulties, mental health troubles and instances of assault while living on the street. She started using the services after realising she was hearing voices, which sounded like “actual people,” or which were associated with the figure of the archangel Michael or that of the Demon. She identified the voices as coming from different parts of her body, but located them as coming from her heart during the most difficult and challenging moments of her life. The voices, she explained, acted as protective shadows, entreating her to move to a safer place when she was in danger.

Woods explained that using a corpus based approach helped the team identify what was most important, through the study of the language used to recount this story. This method showed the distinct features of Leah’s narrative, the different entities associated to the voices, and the different ways of describing them. This, Angela Woods explained, help us understand what happens when the voice speaks.

Hearing about Angela Woods’ project, and Leah’s incredible life story was a compelling experience, and we are extremely grateful to her for coming to Nottingham to tell us about the ‘Hearing the Voice’ project.


You can find more information about ‘Hearing the Voice’ here


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