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Hearing spiritually significant voices: A phenomenological survey and taxonomy

Cook, Christopher C.H.; Powell, Adam; Alderson-Day, Ben; Woods, Angela

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Ben Alderson-Day


Whereas previous research in the medical humanities has tended to neglect theology and religious studies, these disciplines sometimes have a very important contribution to make. The hearing of spiritually significant voices provides a case in point. The context, content and identity of these voices, all of which have typically not been seen as important in the assessment of auditory–verbal hallucinations (AVHs) within psychiatry, are key to understanding their spiritual significance. A taxonomy of spiritually significant voices is proposed, which takes into account frequency, context, affect and identity of the voice. In a predominantly Christian sample of 58 people who reported having heard spiritually significant voices, most began in adult life and were infrequent experiences. Almost 90% reported that the voice was divine in identity and approximately one-third were heard in the context of prayer. The phenomenological characteristics of these voices were different from those in previous studies of voice hearing (AVHs). Most comprised a single voice; half were auditory; and a quarter were more thought-like (the rest being a mixture). Only half were characterful, and one-third included commands or prompts. The voices were experienced positively and as meaningful. The survey has implications for both clinical and pastoral work. The phenomenology of spiritually significant voices may be confused with that of psychopathology, thus potentially leading to misdiagnosis of normal religious experiences. The finding of meaning in content and context may be important in voice hearing more widely, and especially in coping with negative or distressing voices.


Cook, C. C., Powell, A., Alderson-Day, B., & Woods, A. (2022). Hearing spiritually significant voices: A phenomenological survey and taxonomy. Medical Humanities, 48(3), 273-284.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Sep 29, 2020
Online Publication Date Dec 7, 2020
Publication Date 2022-09
Deposit Date Sep 29, 2020
Publicly Available Date Dec 8, 2020
Journal Medical humanities.
Print ISSN 1468-215X
Electronic ISSN 1473-4265
Publisher BMJ Publishing Group
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 48
Issue 3
Pages 273-284
Public URL


Published Journal Article (Advance online version) (423 Kb)

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Copyright Statement
Advance online version This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

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