Why some people believe they can hear the dead, according to scientists

Alexandra Thompson
·3-min read
A witches den, fortune teller and black magic concept with a talking spirit board lit by a candle surrounded by a deck of cards, three books and a skull engulfed in mysterious and murky smoke
Some mediums report hearing voices in their head at a young age. (Stock, Getty Images)

Scientists may have uncovered why some people believe they can communicate with the dead in macabre new research.

While there is no evidence supporting clairvoyance, many claim they can hear, feel or even talk to lost loved ones.

To better understand the root of these beliefs, scientists from Durham University had 65 “clairaudient spiritualist mediums” – who claim to hear spirits – and 143 members of the general population complete a survey.

Results reveal the self-professed mediums were more likely to have a “proclivity for absorption” – defined as becoming immersed in mental or imaginative activities – or experience altered states of consciousness.

Read more: What it’s like to be a medium

They were also more likely to have heard voices in their head as children.

People may look for meaning behind these voices or proclivity for absorption, leading them to think they are having a supernatural experience, according to the scientists.

The Fox sisters (pictured) are considered the originators of spiritualism. In 1848, siblings Maggie and Kate reported hearing 'rappings' and 'knocks' that they interpreted as a spirit communicating with them within their upstate New York home. (Supplied: Durham University)
The Fox sisters (pictured) are considered the originators of spiritualism. In 1848, siblings Maggie and Kate reported hearing 'rappings' and 'knocks' that they interpreted as a spirit communicating with them within their upstate New York home. (Supplied: Durham University)

“Our findings say a lot about ‘learning and yearning’,” said lead author Dr Adam Powell.

“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 practising mediums.

Read more: Psychic-medium shares his secrets

“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.”

Watch: Business booming for psychics amid pandemic

The survey was completed by members of the Spiritualists’ National Union, an organisation made up of more than 11,000 individuals via its training college, churches and centres.

Spiritualism is considered a religious movement based on the idea human souls continue to exist after death and communicate with the living through a medium or psychic.

Clairaudient spiritualist mediums differ from other members in that they claim to “hear” spirits, rather than seeing or feeling them.

The results of the survey – published in the journal Mental Health, Religion and Culturefound more than two in five (44%) of the mediums claimed to hear dead people every day, while a third (33%) reported doing so within the last 24 hours.

Read more: Psychic-medium helped mother heal after death of her son

Nearly four in five (79%) said hearing the dead was part of their everyday life, taking place both when they were alone and when they were working as a medium or attending a spiritualist church.

Almost two-thirds (65%) said the spirits mainly spoke to them from inside their head, however, 31% claimed the voices also came from the outside.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the mediums were much more likely to believe in the paranormal than the general public.

They were also less likely to care about what others thought of them and more prone to unusual hallucination-like experiences.

The mediums reported first hearing the dead at an average age of 21.

Just under one in five (18%), however, reported having the experiences “for as long as they could remember”.

“Communicating with the dead” does not therefore appear to be the result of a medium giving into societal pressure, learning the behaviour or strongly believing in the paranormal, according to the scientists.

These individuals may instead be “uniquely predisposed to absorption and are more likely to report unusual auditory experiences occurring early in life”.

“For many of these individuals, spiritualist beliefs are embraced because they align meaningfully with those unique personal experiences,” wrote the scientists.

Co-author Dr Peter Moseley added: “Spiritualists tend to report unusual auditory experiences which are positive, start early in life and which they are often then able to control.

“Understanding how these develop is important because it could help us understand more about distressing or non-controllable experiences of hearing voices too.”

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