Date: 21 January 2014
Speaker: Professor Charles Fernyhough
Title: Hearing the voice
What is it like to hear a voice when no one is speaking? Hearing the Voice is an interdisciplinary project, based at Durham University and funded by the Wellcome Trust, investigating this fascinating and often debilitating experience. Usually associated with severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, voice-hearing is also an important aspect of many ordinary people’s lives. The experience has been richly described across cultures and historical eras, and raises profound questions about the neural foundations of language, the nature of thought and the unity of the self. I will describe how the project exemplifies our approach to the medical humanities, and some of the specific work we are doing at the interfaces of psychology, philosophy, cognitive neuroscience and the humanities.
My background is in developmental psychology, with a particular focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. Through theoretical and empirical work, I have contributed to the understanding of how language and thought are related in child development and beyond. The focus of my recent scientific work has been in applying ideas from mainstream developmental psychology to the study of psychosis, particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing (in which individuals hear voices in the absence of any speaker). I have developed a new model of voice-hearing and inner speech, and conducted empirical studies testing aspects of the model in clinical and healthy samples. This work culminated in 2012 with the award of a £1m Wellcome Trust Strategic Award to the interdisciplinary Hearing the Voice project, on which I am PI.
I am very active in outreach and public engagement work on themes relating to my research, and in recent years have taken up several exciting engagement challenges, such as lecturing twice at the Royal Institution (March 2010 and July 2012), and writing features for New Scientist and Focus Magazine. I contribute regularly to newspapers in the UK and beyond, with credits including the Guardian, TIME Ideas, Daily Beast, Observer, Literary Review, Sunday Telegraph, Scotland on Sunday, Financial Times, Sydney Morning Herald and Nature. My broadcast media appearances include writing and presenting an essay for New Generation Thinkers (Radio 3, 2008), three appearances on NPR’s Radiolab, interviews on NPR’s Weekend Edition and Brian Lehrer show, local radio (BBC London, Newcastle, Manchester, Kent, Tees), three appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, interviews on Radio 4’s All in the Mind and The Digital Human and BBC World Service’s The Forum, and several other radio appearances in the US, Ireland and elsewhere. I have been involved in a consultancy role in two West End theatre productions (‘The River’, Royal Court, 2012; ‘Old Times’, Harold Pinter Theatre, 2013), numerous TV (BBC1 and Channel 4) and radio documentaries and several other artistic projects. I have produced two popular science books on psychology: The Baby in the Mirror: A child’s world from birth to three (Granta, 2008) and Pieces of Light: Memory and its stories (Profile, 2012). I am also the author of two novels: The Auctioneer (Fourth Estate, 1999) and A Box of Birds (Unbound, 2013). I am a part-time (0.5) Professor of Psychology at Durham University.