While I think we’ve come a long way in terms of the stigma attached to brain disorders, we still have so far to go. Case in point: How many of us would actually admit to hearing voices? My guess is not too many. What would others think?

The truth, however, is that it is not uncommon for people to have this experience at one time or another. Heard someone call your name, but nobody is around? Maybe you’ve heard the voice of a loved one who has died? There have certainly been a few times in my life where I’ve heard voices that aren’t there and have attributed it to my mind “playing tricks on me” (whatever that actually means).

So here’s a question. Do people with obsessive-compulsive disorder hear voices more than those who don’t have OCD? Judging by some past conversations I’ve had with my son Dan, you might think so:

“Dan, is that what you really want to do, or is it your OCD talking?”

“It’s my OCD talking.”

“My OCD insists I do this.”

“I really don’t want to listen to my OCD.”

Was Dan actually hearing voices? In his case, as far as I understand, the answer is, “No.” He, like many of those with OCD, was referring to what is often described as an internal voice, a constant nagging one that gives orders — a bully who assures the person with OCD of impending doom if certain compulsions aren’t carried out. I think many of us without OCD can relate somewhat to this internal voice. I know I can. The voice in my head is always asking “What if?”

Of course, no discussion about hearing voices is complete without bringing up schizophrenia, a debilitating brain disorder that is typically associated with hearing voices. If you hear voices, does that mean you have, or are on your way to developing, schizophrenia? Not necessarily.

First, the auditory hallucinations (hearing voices outside of your head) associated with schizophrenia differ from the “inner voices” that many of us are familiar with. Additionally, there are currently many theories to explain why people hear voices, though the bottom line is we really don’t know why these experiences occur. Extreme stress and trauma, physical health problems, and spiritual experiences are just a few of the possible explanations given by The Hearing Voices Network, an excellent resource for information and support.

Surprisingly (or maybe not?), it is not uncommon for those with OCD to obsess over hearing voices, and they might worry in particular about developing schizophrenia. Perhaps they fear they might already have the disorder, and then turn to their trusty computer to check out information and symptoms. This compulsion only feeds their growing obsession, and before you know it, OCD is off to the races.

There are many unanswered questions about the voices in our heads; so much we don’t yet understand. The good news, I believe, is that we are slowly but surely starting to talk more about this phenomenon. This is so important, as I believe the more individuals talk about the voices they hear, the better we all can begin to understand their meaning.

Hearing photo available from Shutterstock