I’ve been very scared and anxious about booking my first appointment with a therapist in almost 20 years today. So it was lovely to wake up to this news and once again hear that republicans are doing all they can to keep me from having to worry about such things.
Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann found that voice-hearing experiences of people with serious psychotic disorders are shaped by local culture – in the United States, the voices are harsh and threatening, in Africa and India, they are more benign and playful.
'Voices as bombardment'
"The striking difference was that while many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful – and evidence of a sick condition.
The Americans experienced voices as bombardment and as symptoms of a brain disease caused by genes or trauma.
One participant described the voices as “like torturing people, to take their eye out with a fork, or cut someone’s head and drink their blood, really nasty stuff.” Other Americans (five of them) even spoke of their voices as a call to battle or war – “‘the warfare of everyone just yelling.’”
Moreover, the Americans mostly did not report that they knew who spoke to them and they seemed to have less personal relationships with their voices, according to Luhrmann.
Among the Indians in Chennai, more than half (11) heard voices of kin or family members commanding them to do tasks. “They talk as if elder people advising younger people,” one subject said. That contrasts to the Americans, only two of whom heard family members. Also, the Indians heard fewer threatening voices than the Americans – several heard the voices as playful, as manifesting spirits or magic, and even as entertaining. Finally, not as many of them described the voices in terms of a medical or psychiatric problem, as all of the Americans did.
In Accra, Ghana, where the culture accepts that disembodied spirits can talk, few subjects described voices in brain disease terms. When people talked about their voices, 10 of them called the experience predominantly positive; 16 of them reported hearing God audibly. “‘Mostly, the voices are good,’” one participant remarked.
Individual self vs. the collective
Why the difference? Luhrmann offered an explanation: Europeans and Americans tend to see themselves as individuals motivated by a sense of self identity, whereas outside the West, people imagine the mind and self interwoven with others and defined through relationships.
"Actual people do not always follow social norms," the scholars noted. "Nonetheless, the more independent emphasis of what we typically call the ‘West’ and the more interdependent emphasis of other societies has been demonstrated ethnographically and experimentally in many places."
As a result, hearing voices in a specific context may differ significantly for the person involved, they wrote. In America, the voices were an intrusion and a threat to one’s private world – the voices could not be controlled.
However, in India and Africa, the subjects were not as troubled by the voices – they seemed on one level to make sense in a more relational world. Still, differences existed between the participants in India and Africa; the former’s voice-hearing experience emphasized playfulness and sex, whereas the latter more often involved the voice of God.
The religiosity or urban nature of the culture did not seem to be a factor in how the voices were viewed, Luhrmann said.
"Instead, the difference seems to be that the Chennai (India) and Accra (Ghana) participants were more comfortable interpreting their voices as relationships and not as the sign of a violated mind," the researchers wrote.”