Hearing voices after reading? Study says you aren’t alone

Andre Morin

People often “dive headfirst” into a book they are reading; but a 2014 study conducted by Durham University suggests that, for some readers, book characters are diving back out of the books into readers’ everyday lives.

The study focused on the experience of readers hearing voices of characters during and outside of reading; an experience that has been likened to hallucination. Data for the study was collected from a survey made up of two parts: Section 1 featuring questions on the vivid experiences of readers hearing voices and characters; and Section 2 featuring questions on inner speech and auditory hallucination proneness.

The results of the study, which was carried out at the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival and included over 1500 participants, found that over 50% of people claim they hear voices of fictional characters in their head when they’re reading, and 19% reported hearing these voices in situations other than reading.

This second statistic was interesting to researchers, who found that certain participants characterized their experience with characters by way of “experiential crossing”, a term coined by researchers that “refer[s] to instances of characters and voices being experienced outside of the context of reading.” This pointed towards these voices and characters going beyond the act of reading and crossing into the thought process of people.

Certain participants’ accounts highlighted changes in their style and manner based on a character, as shown in this response:

“Last February and March, when I was reading “Mrs. Dalloway” and writing a paper on it, I was feeling enveloped by Clarissa Dalloway. I heard her voice or imagined what her reactions to different situations. I’d walk into a Starbucks and feel her reaction to it based on what I was writing in my essay on the different selves of this character.”

In some cases, such as the one above, the experiential crossing came at random times during the daily routine of the reader. Other times the crossing was a product of the reader being in a similar setting to where a character would be, such as in this account:

“The character Hannah Fowler, from the book of the same name was the voice I heard while walking with my family in the area of Kentucky (USA) where the book took place. I loved the book and heard her dialogue as I walked through the woods.”

According to researchers, this indicates that readers are often able to take fictional characters and create a “consciousness frame” that blurs the line between the self and the other. This could potentially be seen as a way in which reading helps comprehend the mind of another person. A database is formed of characters and their style and manner, and in real-life situations this can be used to understand other people and/or empathize with them.

Experiential crossing can thus be seen as “a counterpart to the more widely studied relationship between mental simulation and reader’s previous experience.” In this equivalency, readers take their experiences from the fictional and move them into reality, creating the previously described database.

Researchers also pointed out the limitations of the study and it’s conclusions. Since the survey took place at a literary festival, the sample surveyed was mostly composed of highly literate people who are passionate about literature, which potentially skews the data. An argument can also be made that since most experiential crossings were described more along the lines of a habit where people think of what a character would do in a scenario versus a controlled simulation of the character’s mind, experiential crossing would thus be related to the creation of personalities and agents in one’s head than an act of understanding or empathizing with another person.

Despite these limitations, the overwhelming positive response to the survey regarding hearing voices and characters points to a need for further study in order to better understand this common phenomenon.

So if you’re nervous about characters and voices from fiction popping up in your daily life, don’t worry, you aren’t alone; in fact, you’re most likely part of a large percentage of readers. These voices and characters are potentially helping you empathize with the people around you, and create bonds with them.

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