Writers’ Inner Voices
Foxwell, J., Alderson-Day, B., Fernyhough, C., & Woods, A. (2020). ‘I’ve learned I need to treat my characters like people’: Varieties of agency and interaction in Writers’ experiences of their Characters’ Voices. Consciousness and Cognition, 79, 102901.
Many writers report vivid experiences of ‘hearing’ the voices of the characters they create and having characters who talk back to them, rebel, and ‘do their own thing’. Here we present the results of the first large-scale empirical study of this phenomenon, run in collaboration with the Edinburgh International Book Festival. 181 writers who had been invited to the Festival completed an anonymous survey, which gathered detailed descriptions of the way they experience the ‘voices’, how some characters end up ‘acting for themselves’ and what role this plays in literary creativity. Key findings include:
- 63% said they could hear their characters’ voices.
- 56% also reported visual or other sensory experiences of their characters when writing, with 20% reporting a sense that the character was occupying the same physical space (20%).
- 61% said they had characters who acted independently, with 31% reporting that they could engage in dialogue with their creations.
Sometimes people think that there is a link between creativity and madness. However, these findings do not tell us anything about the mental health of writers and are more important for shedding light on the writing process than anything else. Even when the characters had a life of their own and were entirely independent, respondents were very clear that they did not believe that their characters were actually real. Moreover, when rated on scales of hallucination-proneness – how likely they were to experience hearing voices or seeing visions – the writers did not score differently from other population samples.
If you’re interested in hearing voices more generally, you can find plenty of information and support resources on Understanding Voices.
Readers’ Inner Voices
Alderson-Day, B., Bernini, M. and Fernyhough, C. (2017). Uncharted features and dynamics of reading: Voices, characters and crossings of experiences. Consciousness and Cognition, 49: 98-109
Systematic studies of experiences of reading are few and far between. In 2014, Hearing the Voice researchers collaborated with the Edinburgh International book Festival and The Guardian in order to investigate how readers hear (or don’t hear) the voices of characters when they read. Over 1560 people participated in the study, which involved completing an online survey probing their experience of characters’ voices, their inner speech and their proneness to hallucination-like experiences. Of these participants, 413 wrote us a more detailed description of their experiences when reading.
- Of the 1566 people who participated in the study, 1 in 7 reported having vivid auditory experiences of hearing voices while reading (similar to hearing someone talking in the same room).
- Of the 413 who provided more detailed information, 1 in 5 reported experiences (in different sensory modalities) of characters being present even outside the context of reading. We called these experiences ‘experiential crossings’.
The reading experience has sometimes been described as almost hallucinatory. (See for example Ruvanee Vilhauer’s recent study of ‘inner reading voices’ and this article in the BPS Research Digest.) Our results suggest that this is an oversimplification, but that many people have lots of involuntary and persistent experiences of characters when they get involved in a book.
For more information and resources from the Writers’ and Readers’ Inner Voices project, please see our media page.
Other relevant publications
Alderson-Day, B., Moffatt, J., Bernini, M., Mitrenga, K., Yao, B., Fernyhough, C. (2020). Processing speech and thoughts during silent reading: Direct reference effects for speech by fictional characters in voice-selective auditory cortex and a theory-of-mind network. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, [published online ahead of print].
In this paper, Hearing the Voice collaborated with neuroscientists Bo Yao to study how our brains respond to the voices of fictional characters when reading a text. The study shows that speech marks in a story activated voice-selective parts of the auditory cortex, plus areas linked to “Theory of Mind”, or the ability to track others’ mental states.
Waugh, P. (2015). The novelist as voice-hearer. The Lancet, 386.
Hearing the Voice’s Pat Waugh outlines how looking to writers can inform our understanding of voice-hearing, considering the role of voices in the works of Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Samuel Beckett.