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Soundless voices, silenced selves: are auditory verbal hallucinations in schizophrenia truly perceptual?

Lancet Psychiatry 2024 April 13
In much contemporary psychiatric training and practice, there is a strong emphasis on the audible or perceptual quality and externality of auditory verbal hallucinations in clinical assessments. A typical question during clinical assessment is asking whether the voices that a person hears sound identical to the way the clinician's voice is heard. In this Personal View, we argue that the most important factor in auditory verbal hallucinations in schizophrenia spectrum psychoses is a loss of first-person authority, and that a perceptual quality is not required for it to be this kind of hallucination. We draw on evidence from cognitive neuroscience showing that the activation of brain networks retrieved during capture of auditory verbal hallucinations that were experienced when a patient was in a functional MRI scanner does not match activation of networks retrieved during auditory perception. We propose that, despite early writings by Esquirol and Schneider that defined auditory verbal hallucinations as beliefs in perception rather than true perception, cognitive neuroscience, psychiatric training and practice, and patients adopting clinical vocabulary have been strongly influenced by the progression of the diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia, which increasingly place emphasis on language, such as the "full force" of a true perception. We hold that this change has resulted in an unhelpful top-down influence on the field, imposing perceptual qualities on auditory verbal hallucinations, and leading to misunderstandings and inaccuracies in clinical practice and patients' self-reports, and misinterpretations in cognitive neuroscience. We encourage a revision of the definition of auditory verbal hallucinations to move away from the necessity for auditory perception, and towards beliefs in perception due to the loss of first-person authority.

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