CBS Local — Hearing voices has never been considered a celebrated mental condition. However, a recent study is suggesting that people who hear strange patterns in sounds may just be suffering from a well-tuned brain.

According to researchers at Durham University in England, people experiencing auditory verbal hallucinations (hearing voices) but don’t have any signs of mental illness are actually displaying the ability to decode complex sound waves. “It suggests that the brains of people who hear voices are particularly tuned to meaning in sounds,” lead author Dr. Ben Alderson-Day said in a news release.

The scientists studied a group of 17 people with no history of hearing voices and a group of 12 individuals who had heard voices but had no other health issues. The study, published in the journal Brain, subjected each of the volunteers to hidden speech sounds, called sine-wave speech. To the untrained ear, the sound waves would seem like strange noises or a birdsong but they actually contained a simple sentence underneath the noise.

While less than half of the non-voice-hearing group reported hearing the sentence, 75 percent of the people hearing voices picked up the message during the test.

“We did not tell the participants that the ambiguous sounds could contain speech before they were scanned,” Dr. Cesar Lima of University College London said. “Nonetheless, these participants showed distinct neural responses to sounds containing disguised speech, as compared to sounds that were meaningless.”

Although hearing voices is commonly associated with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, the researchers say up to 15 percent of the population display this complex ability to decipher sound waves.

“These findings are a demonstration of what we can learn from people who hear voices that are not distressing or problematic,” Dr. Alderson-Day adds.


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