In China, Psychosis Echoes Cultural Narratives: Voices can Comfort and Advise

Voice-hearers in Shanghai find positive messages and guidance in their experiences, challenging Western perceptions of psychosis.


Expanding on previous anthropological research, a new study suggests that voice-hearing experiences differ substantially across cultures, and non-Western voice-hearers have a more positive experience of their voices.

The cross-cultural differences in voice-hearing experiences were confirmed by a recent study published in Transcultural Psychiatry. This research project sought to continue Tanya Luhrmann and colleagues’ previous research on the cultural differences of voice-hearing. According to this new study, voice-hearers in Shanghai often hear the voices of family members or kin, spiritual or political leaders, or voices with religious or political messages, and – although they heard negative voices – they also often heard positive voices. For the authors, the results of their study provide additional information about this phenomenon:

It suggests that cultural context may shape not only the cognitive content but the emotional valence of commends and of voices more generally. That is, we suggest that cultural context may affect not only who speaks about what, but with what emotional tones they speak.

The study demonstrates how voice-hearers in Shanghai experience a range of voices, some of which are positive and even benevolent, differing significantly from the often negative and violent voices reported in Western contexts. The research underscores the idea that experiences frequently labeled as symptoms of disorders like schizophrenia may have different meanings and implications in various cultural settings. It challenges the conventional pathologizing narrative of voice-hearing and supports advocacy for more personalized, context-aware, and non-stigmatizing approaches to mental health care.

A typical burning of fake money and gold for ancestors during the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival — Stock Editorial Photography

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