Scientists have identified the traits that may make a person more likely to claim they hear the voices of the dead.
According to research published in 2021, a predisposition to high levels of absorption in tasks, unusual auditory experiences in childhood, and a high susceptibility to auditory hallucinations all occur more strongly in self-described clairaudient mediums than the general population.
The finding could help us to better understand the upsetting auditory hallucinations that accompany mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, the researchers say.
The Spiritualist experiences of clairvoyance and clairaudience – the experience of seeing or hearing something in the absence of an external stimulus, and attributed to the spirits of the dead – is of great scientific interest, both for anthropologists studying religious and spiritual experiences, and scientists studying pathological hallucinatory experiences.
In particular, researchers would like to better understand why some people with auditory experiences report a Spiritualist experience, while others find them more distressing, and receive a mental health diagnosis.
"Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences which are positive, start early in life and which they are often then able to control," explained psychologist Peter Moseley of Northumbria University in the UK when the study first came out.
"Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too."
He and his colleague psychologist Adam Powell of Durham University in the UK recruited and surveyed 65 clairaudient mediums from the UK's Spiritualists' National Union, and 143 members of the general population recruited through social media, to determine what differentiated Spiritualists from the general public, who don't (usually) report hearing the voices of the dead.
Overall, 44.6 percent of the Spiritualists reported hearing voices daily, and 79 percent said the experiences were part of their daily lives. And while most reported hearing the voices inside their head, 31.7 percent reported that the voices were external, too.
The results of the survey were striking.
Compared to the general population, the Spiritualists reported much higher belief in the paranormal and were less likely to care what other people thought of them.
The Spiritualists on the whole had their first auditory experience young, at an average age of 21.7 years, and reported a high level of absorption. That's a term that describes total immersion in mental tasks and activities or altered states, and how effective the individual is at tuning out the world around them.
In addition, they reported that they were more prone to hallucination-like experiences. The researchers noted that they hadn't usually heard of Spiritualism prior to their experiences; rather, they had come across it while looking for answers.
In the general population, high levels of absorption were also strongly correlated with belief in the paranormal - but little or no susceptibility to auditory hallucinations. And in both groups, there were no differences in the levels of belief in the paranormal and susceptibility to visual hallucinations.
These results, the researchers say, suggest that experiencing the 'voices of the dead' is therefore unlikely to be a result of peer pressure, a positive social context, or suggestibility due to belief in the paranormal. Instead, these individuals adopt Spiritualism because it aligns with their experience and is personally meaningful to them.
"Our findings say a lot about 'learning and yearning'. For our participants, the tenets of Spiritualism seem to make sense of both extraordinary childhood experiences as well as the frequent auditory phenomena they experience as practicing mediums," Powell said when the study was published.
"But all of those experiences may result more from having certain tendencies or early abilities than from simply believing in the possibility of contacting the dead if one tries hard enough."
Future research, they concluded, should explore a variety of cultural contexts to better understand the relationship between absorption, belief, and the strange, spiritual experience of ghosts whispering in one's ear.
The research has been published in Mental Health, Religion and Culture.
A version of this article was first published in January 2021.