by Neil Bauman, Ph.D.
When a person describes hearing phantom sounds, how can you tell whether these sounds are non-psychiatric or psychiatric in nature? In other words, is the person hearing them sane or psychotic?
Following is an excerpt from an email I recently received.
My mother is 88 years old and has been hard of hearing for a number of years now. She told me that she heard a man and woman singing. She felt certain that they were her upstairs neighbors. Later, she spoke about the same man and woman speaking directly to her, swearing and saying unkind things to her. She also told me that she was trying to stay very quiet because if she rattled her dishes getting them out of the cupboard, they would comment.
Is this woman experiencing the “normal” phantom Musical Ear Syndrome sounds that many elderly hard of hearing people experience, or is she experiencing psychiatric auditory hallucinations that should be treated by a psychiatrist, and why?
Answer: This person is experiencing psychiatric auditory hallucinations and should be treated by a psychiatrist. The key is that the auditory hallucinations are personal in nature. The voices are either speaking to her (swearing at her and saying unkind things), or about her (commenting when she rattles the dishes).
In contrast, people experiencing Musical Ear Syndrome might have heard the same music and singing and similarily thought it was coming from the upstairs neighbors, but it would be completely impersonal in nature–as though it were coming from a radio, TV or stereo. They would not be interacting with the voices in any way.
For more on this fascinating (and at times disturbing) subject, point your browser to Phantom Voices, Ethereal Music & Other Spooky Sounds.