Uncommon senses

Neurodivergence – or neurodiversity – are words that get bandied about a lot right now, and not everyone knows what they mean.  

Adopted first by those on the Autism spectrum, the terms have now expanded to describe almost anyone whose thought processes don’t conform to what’s considered the standard (or ‘neurotypical’) model. 

That means everything from commonly experienced conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive–Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or learning difficulties like dyslexia, to rarer conditions like Tourette’s Syndrome, which can cause people to make involuntary tics or sounds. For some, even calling these conditions ‘disorders’ implies an inherent deficit or disability, rather than a difference in processing the world around us in a way that can be creative and positive.

Billie Eilish

Awareness of these conditions has spread in recent years as celebrities have increasingly told the world about the challenges they face due to neurodivergence. Singer Billie Eilish, whose song ‘No Time To Die’ adorned the most recent Bond movie, has been candid about how she manages her Tourette’s, which gets worse when she’s under any kind of stress. ‘I’ve taught myself techniques to help reduce [the tics] when I don’t want to be distracting in certain situations,’ she told her fans on social media, ‘but again, suppressing them only makes things worse after the moment is over. Actress Keira Knightley has been frank about her struggle to learn to read and write after a dyslexia diagnosis at age six. 

Not every creative sees neurodivergence as a problem, though. Inspirational environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg has Asperger’s Syndrome, one of the conditions on the autism spectrum (a term whose use is also debated), and famously described it as her ‘superpower’, helping her to focus on what’s most important to her. Singer Lorde – once described by David Bowie as ‘the future of music’ – says her synaesthesia helps her write her songs. 

Synaesthesia is a condition in which different physical senses are mixed or ‘rewired’ – so that someone with the condition may ‘hear’ a colour or perceive a sound as a texture or a smell. Lorde says she can manipulate her music by changing the colours she perceives in it, for example turning a song that’s ‘too tan’ to a more satisfactory green: ‘From the moment I start something, I can see the finished song, even if it’s far-off and foggy,’ she told The New York Times. ‘It’s about getting the actual thing to sound like what I’ve been seeing.’  

Synaesthesia is seven times more common in visual artists and writers than in the general public, although musicians often talk about their perception of key signatures or specific musical instruments in terms of their ‘colour’. There are more than sixty types, depending on which senses are unusually linked; Lorde’s is sound-to-colour synaesthesia.  

I’m also a mild synaesthete, but for me sounds don’t so much relate to colour as they do to texture, smell or taste. The voice of one of my favourite singers always seems to smell of hyacinths; another singer’s voice feels like tree bark and tastes of butterscotch. The sound of lightning feels like a needle in a vein. A plane engine smells like coconuts. Synaesthesia is useful for evoking the kind of off-kilter imagery that often makes for original writing.

Auditory hallucination (‘hearing voices’) has long been considered one of the symptoms of the darker sides of neurodiversity, primarily schizophrenia – perhaps because in many case the voices can be hostile, abusing the hearer or instructing them to harm themselves or others.  Famous creatives such as the composer Robert Schumann or Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys both experienced unfriendly inner voices as a symptom of worsening mental illness.

I’m now 64, and I’ve heard voices all my life. As a child I assumed everyone did, and only gradually came to realise that this wasn’t entirely true. The voices I hear are entirely benign.  They never abuse or instruct me in any way – in fact they seem entirely unconcerned with me, as though I were tuning into a frequency carrying random scraps of radio plays or other people’s telephone conversations. I hear them inside my head rather than with my ears, like ordinary sound, although occasionally they seem to come from a particular direction – to my right or left, behind me, or above my head. They have gender, age, regional accent, tone of voice, just like real people. 

What’s particularly odd about the voices is that they speak a strangely skewed form of English. They tend to speak in short sentences or phrases and all the words are recognisable. What’s odd is the way they use language; sometimes playful (it’s an egg and two short blankets!’), sometimes using wordplay (‘my nose is overblown’) sometimes oddly old-fashioned (‘beautifully planted out as neat as ninepence’), sometimes nonsensical (‘put a canker on bank slices.’) 

Sometimes there are questions, although they don’t seem to be addressed to me (‘Michael, is that the fuzzy eater?’) or exclamations (‘I was raised on invisible!’)

I’ve always rather liked them, to be honest. They tend to appear more often when my mind is idling – waiting in a queue, staring out of the window, lying in bed. They can be incredibly useful as a source of inspiration for my writing, especially poetry – I once wrote a poem entirely constructed from things the voices ‘said’, borrowing William Burroughs’ or David Bowie’s ‘cut-up’ technique.   

But because of the association with schizophrenia, I learned fairly early not to talk about them too much. People seemed to think it was strange, and I began to wonder whether they might be right! Then I saw an article in The Guardian appealing for subjects for a Durham University research project called ‘Hearing The Voice’. They were particularly interested in talking to people who heard voices but had not been diagnosed with any form of mental illness and who were not taking mind-altering drugs. I got in contact, was interviewed by psychologist Ben Alderson-Day, and subjected to a range of tests – from language and vocabulary assessments to an MRI scan. 

Dr Alderson-Day watched how my brain reacted while I answered questions and completed tests, including picking dialogue out of what at first seemed like distorted noise. I seemed to be good at that. Eventually, he explained that in my case – as with other verbal creatives – he felt that the voices I was perceiving as external characters were coming from my own brain as it filed away experiences and impressions. Although the process is usually hidden from our conscious minds, I was ‘hearing’ scrambled scraps of language and dialogue, in the same way as we might hear our computer’s hard drive buzzing as it distributes stored information across the surface of its disk.  

The study at Durham was wide-ranging, lasting eight years and involving hundreds of voice-hearers. I also learned that contrary to my earlier fears, I was very much not alone – creatives through the ages have experienced auditory hallucinations which have helped them create and flesh out characters and which inspired them in their work: Charles Dickens, Samuel Beckett, Henry James, Hilary Mantel.  

Some 5–15% of adults have occasional or fleeting experiences of hearing voices, and 1% of people have frequent voice-hearing experiences without any need for psychiatric care. As the website concludes, ‘voice-hearing is increasingly recognized as an important part of many people’s lives and experience, as well as a phenomenon that has had profound significance, not only for individuals, but across communities, cultures, and history.’ 

I certainly wouldn’t be without it!

Clare O’Brien

You can learn more about the Durham University research and its findings at https://hearingthevoice.org/

Our monthly flash theme for May is Walking or Chronic Illness

In May we celebrate National Walking Month with some blogs from keen walkers and ramblers aged 60+, accompanied, hopefully, by some of their photos. We also honour World MS Day with a blog focused on multiple sclerosis and looking generally at how chronic illness and creativity intersect. We would love to read your flash submissions in honour of either or both of these themes. Would you like to tell us something about your experience of being an older person who loves to hillwalk or ramble? Are you an older person managing a chronic illness which has had either a positive or adverse impact on your creativity? Send us your flash submissions! 


Entries will be accepted until midnight on May 31st and flash submissions can take the form of a poem, short story or flash memoir. The winning entry will be chosen by the Autumn Voices staff team and the winner will receive the books Walking For Creative Recovery, by Christina Reading and Jess Moriarty and Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.

4 thoughts on “Uncommon senses”

  1. Thanks, Clare. As a child, I thought my contemporaries were just being mean and trying to find grounds to exclude me. They insisted they did not hear what I heard, see what I saw or feel what I felt. Over time, I learned to ignore the differences between us. I shut up, they shut up and we just got on with life. I thought, maybe, it was being an only-child that did it. Now, I don’t know really what’s me, in my being, and how much of it others do not have. It doesn’t matter. I have mechanisms for dealing with some of the vaguely OCD insistencies: give in to the temptation, develop rituals etc.. Mostly, things remain positive. I enjoy the shapes of sounds, for example (are there people who DON’T see sound as a shape?). When I am very tired, or stressed, things get uncomfortable.

    1. Thanks Sheena! I was also an only child, which made me more self-reliant but also meant I as never sure what “normal” looked like (socially speaking) early on and so didn’t even develop the ability to copy it. I probably overstepped a lot of what others saw as boundaries. In fact at 64 I probably still do!

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