Stanford study finds auditory hallucinations affected by local culture

FROM STANFORD REPORT, July 16, 2014, Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says, by Clifton B. Parker. People suffering from schizophrenia may hear “voices” – auditory hallucinations – differently depending on their cultural context, according to new Stanford research.

Tanya Luhrmann, professor of anthropology, studies how culture affects the experiences of people who experience auditory hallucinations, specifically in India, Ghana and the United States.

In the United States, the voices are harsher, and in Africa and India, more benign, said Tanya Luhrmann, a Stanford professor of anthropologyand first author of the article in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

The experience of hearing voices is complex and varies from person to person, according to Luhrmann. The new research suggests that the voice-hearing experiences are influenced by one’s particular social and cultural environment – and this may have consequences for treatment.

The striking difference was that while many of the African and Indian subjects registered predominantly positive experiences with their voices, not one American did. Rather, the U.S. subjects were more likely to report experiences as violent and hateful – and evidence of a sick condition. The Americans experienced voices as bombardment and as symptoms of a brain disease caused by genes or trauma.

Why the difference? Luhrmann offered an explanation: Europeans and Americans tend to see themselves as individuals motivated by a sense of self identity, whereas outside the West, people imagine the mind and self interwoven with others and defined through relationships.

Luhrmann said the role of culture in understanding psychiatric illnesses in depth has been overlooked.

“The work by anthropologists who work on psychiatric illness teaches us that these illnesses shift in small but important ways in different social worlds. Psychiatric scientists tend not to look at cultural variation. Someone should, because it’s important, and it can teach us something about psychiatric illness,” said Luhrmann, an anthropologist trained in psychology. She is the Watkins University Professor at Stanford.

See the full Stanford News article HERE.

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