Hearing Voices: Culture and Mental Experience

One of the anthropologists outside the research field of Islam and Muslims I admire very much is Tanya Luhrmann. In her research she is concerned with the social construction of psychological experiences and how people experience their world. More in particular her research is concerned with what some in more popular discussions call the “irrational”. How do particular ideas in your head come to seem real and how do particular ideas about your own mind influence your mental experiences? She wrote several books such as Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft; The Good Parsi; Of Two Minds and (my favorite) When God Talks Back. The last book has been an inspiration for me in my work on Muslim youth and Salafi Islam. In that book she describes how people find God and how they actually come to experience that it is God who speaks back at them. See the article in the New Yorker and at NPR. See also the excerpt where she in fact asks the basic questions. These questions appear to be so basic (and they are) but open up a whole range of experiences and perspectives of the people she is working with:
When God Talks Back : NPR

How does God become real for people? How are sensible people able to believe in an invisible being who has a demonstrable effect on their lives? And how can they sustain that belief in the face of what skeptical observers think must be inevitable disconfirmation? This book answers these questions by taking an outsider’s perspective into the heart of faith through an anthropological exploration of American evangelical Christianity.

A recent project of her compares the experience of hearing distressing voices in India, Ghana and in the United States. Last week she was to speak at the ‘Culture, Mind and Brain‘ conference in the US. Although she couldn’t be there, she prerecorded her lecture Hearing Voices in Accra and Chennai: How Culture Makes a Difference to Psychiatric Experience. In this lecture she talks how particular cultural dispositions relate to the voices people with psychotic disorder experience. This lecture was based upon her fieldwork in the US, Accra (Ghana) and Chennai. She shows that there is a variation in the voices people have in Chennai and Accra constituted by and also producing different experiences of hearing voices. She asked patients what kind of voices they hear, how they experienced their relationship with voices, if and how they identified the voices and the type of control they had, if at all.

In the US people identified themselves as schizophrenic and ‘knew’ that hearing voices meant that you are crazy leading to denial and hating the voices because it was related to stigmas of having mental illness. In Accra, Ghana, it did not by definition mean that someone was crazy but that he/she was under attack by spirits or witches. They did not talk about ‘schizophrenia’ and expressed the positive experiences of hearing voices. The people in Chennai, India, heard voices of relatives who told them ‘to get dressed and clean up’. These voices of people (who were diagnosed with schizophrenia) were at times supportive, consoling and experienced as companions.

The three cases show, according to Luhrmann, that people have different avenues of meaning-making when they start hearing the voices that also influences the way the experience the voices. In her talk she referred to a (controversial) Dutch movement (Hearing Voices movement established by Marius Romme, a psychiatrist from the Netherlands, and his wife Sandra Escher, with their patients) that encourages people to have a stronger positive relationship with the voices they hear. It in fact encourages them not to perceive and experience schizophrenia as life sentence that will scar them for life. If we are able to radically redefine our understanding of mental experiences we may be able to change them. (Read Luhrmann’s article Living with Voices for a more elaborate account). I think this overestimates our ability to ‘change culture’. The medical model is very dominant in the West (not only with regard to mental experiences but also in other areas) and maybe related to neo-liberal capitalism that needs ‘sane’ people who are able to work in the pace and other conditions set by neo-liberalism. Or to profound changes in the West over the last 30 or so years such as the idea to reduce risk (for individuals, for society). This is somewhat speculative but if one looks at the actual stigma psychiatric patients have it is often twofold: they are a risk to security of society and they are a nuisance because they cannot function in the ‘normal’ labor market. Changing how people perceive their mental experiences is thus more then only changing their perceptions; it is changing society in many ways.

You can watch Luhrmann’s lecture here:

Hearing Voices in Accra and Chennai from Constance Cummings on Vimeo.

A much more elaborate post on this lecture is written by Greg Downey: Tanya Luhrmann, hearing voices in Accra and Chenai. Together with Daniel Lende he maintains the Neuranthropology blog. If you did not bookmark this yet, you should. It is one of the best anthropology blogs around combining academic work, societal debates and a love for anthropology and that in an accessible and understandable language.

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