Some professional authors can become so immersed in their own writings, they say they can actually 'hear' their characters' voices in their head, new research shows.

Famous novelists like Alice Walker, David Nicholls, and Enid Blyton are known to have admitted to watching, listening, and chatting with their imaginary creations, and now, a comprehensive survey examining this phenomenon suggests many other writers do the same thing. 

In partnership with The Guardian, researchers at Durham University studied 181 professional writers who attended the Edinburgh International Book Festival in either 2014 or 2018.

The findings reveal 63 percent of authors could 'hear' their characters speak while they were writing, and 15 percent could enter into the dialogue themselves.

"I hear them in my mind," one respondent wrote.

"They have distinct voice patterns and tones, and I can make them carry on conversations with each other in which I can always tell who is 'talking'."

Not everyone had the same experiences, but the authors say there was a "noticeable degree" of overlapping ideas that should be investigated further.

While some authors were able to control and dictate their imaginary conversations, almost as if they were playing director in a play, over 60 percent of those surveyed said their characters were capable of acting independently.

"They sometimes tell me that what I have in mind for them isn't right," explained one author, "that they would never behave or speak that way."

"They do their own thing!" another exclaimed. "I am often astonished by what takes place and it can often be as if I am watching scenes take place and hear their speech despite the fact I am creating it.'" 

In one of the few previous studies to investigate this tendency, researchers found 92 percent of writers experienced the illusion of independent agency in their creations. At the time, experts argued this was because imaginary companions become almost 'automised' in our brains.

The authors of this new study think the explanation might have more to do with our internal monologues.

"Whether or not we're always aware of it, most of us are trying to anticipate what other people are going to say and do in everyday interactions," English literature researcher John Foxwell told The Guardian.

"For some of these writers, it might be the case that after a while their characters start to feel independent because the writers developed the same kinds of personality 'models' as they'd develop for real people, and these were generating the same kinds of predictions."

To investigate the phenomenon, researchers conducted an online survey of writers who attended the prestigious literary festival in Scotland.

Via email, the cohort answered questions about their writing experience, such as, 'Do you ever hear your characters' voices?', 'Can you enter into a dialogue with your characters?', and 'Do you feel that your characters always do what you tell them to do, or do they act of their own accord?'. 

Respondents were also asked about childhood imaginary companions, a measure of everyday inner speech experiences, and about their auditory hallucination-proneness.

"Based on the proposed associations between these concepts and hearing characters' voices, we anticipated that writers who reported hearing their characters' voices would display elevated rates of vivid inner speech and hallucination-proneness, and be more likely to have had an imaginary companion during childhood," the authors explain in their paper.

Interestingly, the survey revealed no association between having an imaginary friend as a kid and experiencing characters' voices later on.

Plus, these voices were usually described as being 'in a person's head'. Only some professional writers said they had hallucination-like experiences, where 'voices' were actually heard, and most of these happened as the author was falling asleep or waking up.

"These have mostly been aural in character and it's a lot like eavesdropping in on conversations (the voices are never talking directly to me) […]" explained one author.

"I do actually hear them vividly, which is why I can be so emphatic about not hearing my characters at all. I have never heard them in this same physical way."

While many characters seem to 'talk back', not all do, it seems.

Of course, the survey is limited to self-reported observations too, so it can't really tell us much other than that this phenomenon is quite common among writers, and while experiences vary, there are clear patterns and tendencies that keep popping up.

"Hearing voices and other unusual experiences are not in themselves a symptom of a mental health problem," the researchers clarify.

"This shows that vivid imaginative states – including losing control of one's own imagination – [are] a healthy and safe thing which is important for how some people create fiction."

Readers and writers seem particularly good at just that.

The study was published in Consciousness and Cognition.