stranger than fiction

20 Percent of Readers Still ‘Hear’ the Characters When the Book Is Over

Photo: Naila Ruechel/Getty Images

For weeks after I read The Catcher in the Rye for the first time, it was like my middle school life was suddenly being narrated by Holden Caulfield. Everything and everyone was phony; every glimpse of school-bathroom wall scribblings reminded me how “you can’t ever find a place that’s nice and peaceful, because there isn’t any.” A similar thing happened last spring after a Jane Austen binge, when I noticed myself accidentally slipping into 19th-century-tinged language. (Just as Emma Woodhouse might confess that she did not “feel equal” to a particular task, neither, in May, did I.)

The voices of some of literature’s more memorable characters have a way of staying with you, long after their stories are over. Many readers — every reader? — could’ve told you that. For some people, though, this idea is a little more literal. According to a new (and truly delightful) psychology study — published in the March edition of the journal Cognition and Consciousness — about a fifth of readers “hear” the voices of fictional characters in their heads, long after they’ve closed the books. It’s like having your own personal, portable Atticus Finch or Albus Dumbledore, at your service for insightful commentary on the modern Muggle world.

The researchers coined the term “experiential crossing” to describe the phenomenon of a literary character leaping from the page and into the reader’s everyday life. (Or, to be more precise, here is their definition: “instances of voices and characters being experienced beyond the immediate context of reading.”) One of those researchers is Charles Fernyhough, an author himself, most recently of The Voices Within: The History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves. Fernyhough is a psychologist at Durham University, where he directs Hearing the Voice, a study of auditory hallucinations. The point of that research, largely, is this: “Hearing voices in your head” tends to be something we associate with psychosis, such as schizophrenia; at the very least, it’s thought to be an unpleasant, eerie experience. But that’s not always the case. Some people, in fact, quite like the voices in their heads.

A recent study, for example, found that among people who said they regularly heard voices (but were not under psychiatric treatment), just 4 percent heard only negative voices. In comparison, 25 percent said they sometimes heard negative voices, but sometimes heard positive voices. And a striking 71 percent said they only heard positive or neutral voices. “The assumption that voice-hearing is inevitably a feature of psychiatric disorders, notably schizophrenia, is now changing,” wrote Patricia Waugh, co-investigator at Hearing the Voice, in a 2015 paper published in The Lancet. “[V]oice-hearing can be a feature of grief, spiritual insight, and voluntarily dissociated states such as meditation; it might follow traumatic events, disrupted processes of memory, abusive experiences, prolonged stress, or sensory deprivation.” In that paper, Waugh posited that the process of writing a novel could also be an example of auditory hallucinations, pointing out that the novelist David Mitchell has compared writing literature to a “controlled personality disorder … to make it work you have to concentrate on the voices in your head and get them talking to each other.”

Likewise, reading literature also turns out to be a good way to study benign voice-hearing. In partnership with The Guardian, Fernyhough and his colleagues — Ben Alderson-Day and Marco Bernini, both of Durham University — surveyed 1,500 attendees of the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival, 400 of which gave detailed reports of the sensory experiences they had during and after reading a good book. If you are also a reader, you will love some of the responses the researchers got from your fellow bookworms. Like this one:

Last February and March, when I was reading “Mrs. Dalloway” and writing a paper on it, I was feeling enveloped by Clarissa Dalloway. I heard her voice or imagined what her reactions to different situations. I’d walk into a Starbucks and feel her reaction to it based on what I was writing in my essay on the different selves of this character.

Or this:

The character Hannah Fowler, from the book of the same name, was the voice I heard while walking with my family in the area of Kentucky (USA) where the book took place. I loved the book and heard her dialogue as I walked through the woods.[…]

And then there’s this:

If the ‘voice’ of a good book gets into my head, it can seep into my own experience of the world and I find myself thinking in that voice, as that character, while carrying out normal activities.

Beyond these “experiential crossings,” the researchers were also interested in people who heard the characters’ voices only while they were reading, even if the character didn’t then follow them around in their real lives. One study participant, for example, described “Lyra whispering to Will in Pullman’s His Dark Materials. He describes the loud, busy closeness of her whisper, and I could hear it and feel it on my neck,” this person told the researchers. “It feels like I’m sharing the surroundings with the characters or simply experience the landscape, weather, smells, touch, sounds etc.”

It’s not clear why this sensory immersion happens, or whom it is more likely to happen to, or which sorts of books are more likely to evoke it. The researchers can’t yet answer these questions definitively, but they did observe a few things that those who copped to hearing characters’ voices in their heads tended to have in common. For one: They talk to themselves. This is important, the researchers argue, because previous studies have linked this sort of “inner speech” to anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. Like voice-hearing, talking to yourself sounds a little batty. But it doesn’t have to be.

Or it could be more down to earth than that. Maybe the character simply reminds you of someone you know in real life, and that’s why you can hear them so clearly in your head. “The voice of Zooey in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey always sounds like a friend of mine who shares many of Zooey’s character traits, including a resonant voice,” one participant told the researchers. Similarly, maybe the character reminds you of, well, you. “I think the voice is a version of mine usually,” another participant said. “I probably overlay class, accent, etc. Howard Roark in The Fountainhead spoke very calmly and coolly but it was not very different from my own.”

People Still ‘Hear’ Fictional Voices When the Book Is Over