What are those voices in my head?

I recently watched a 2013 TED talk by Eleanor Longden, ‘The Voices in my Head’ (which I highly recommend) and it stimulated me to think about inner voices. The talk is about Eleanor’s experience hearing voices as a young adult and student, which grows steadily worse over a period of years, starting as an undergrad. I started thinking about how we might analyse the voice, and that was the starting point for this post. In her talk, Eleanor talks about the steady transformation of the inner voice (though there was often more than one), moving from quite indifferent, independent third person observations, to expressing much darker thoughts. At one point she mentions a situation which led to her masking her frustration externally which resulted in the voice taking on a frustrated tonality, suggesting a counteractive quality to the voice. In a sense then the voice appears to be serving a function much like that we see in dream psychology whereby dreams serve to counteract repressed drives. With Eleanor’s voices, the manifest and latent content are evident in very much the same way: the manifest content appears in the form of speech, whereas the latency seems to be evident in the way it is expressed, the tonality. This could suggest that where dream psychology is a simulated visual medium, the voices are a simulated vocal equivalent (she does mention something of this at 8.15 when she talks of ‘metaphorical meaning to her voices’)

It is only at the point when she herself starts associating the voices with a certain menace (she recalls the point when she first confided to a friend, which led to her seeing a psychiatrist), and begins perceiving them as being a threat to her sanity, that they take a more malicious turn. When she views the voices ‘not as an experience, but as a symptom, my fear and resistance towards it intensified’ (4.00). So the counterbalance function here is resurging based on her repression of certain thoughts and drives, many of which began in childhood. We must consider this as the early stages of psychosis, and we see here the psyche performing a healing, rehabilitatory function to counter these traumatic inner forces: unless the source of the trauma is found, this intervention of the psyche (the psychosis itself) acts as a kind of catalyst. For Lacan psychosis is something like the psychical equivalent of the immune system sending out white blood cells to fight infection – the problem is that there is a point at which the only way to combat these delusions and episodes is to fully submit to them. What’s important to consider here is that the onset of schizophrenia begins with speech – thus mirroring the formation of the psyche and the movement from the imaginary into the symbolic order.

What is perhaps most amazing to take away from all this, and from Eleanor’s speech, is that this re-enforces that the psyche is always attempting to find a means of tranquility/serenity, a means of survival. As Eleanor elucidates, the central means by which she was able to deter her schizophrenia was in finding ‘a source of insight into solvable emotional problems… particularly [those instigated during] childhood’. Always remember: whilst it is possible to lose yourself in the dark, some part of you, whether you like it or not, will always strive to move you towards the light.


NB: image is Dali’s sketch of Freud from his autobiography, The Secret Life of Salvador Dali.


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