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By Mike Mowbray

‘Clairaudience’ is defined by the OED as the “faculty of mentally perceiving sounds beyond the range of hearing, alleged to be induced under certain mesmeric conditions,”1  and its first appearance dated to 1864. Thus defined, it presents an auditory equivalent to then-current ideas about clairvoyance (often defined as an ability to ‘see’ objects or events ‘at a distance,’ though also associated with spiritual mediumship and fortune-telling) and implies an ability to pick up on sound or speech not available in any typically recognized perceptual range. As with the case of clairvoyance, the question of exactly what content is made available to the supplementary sense-ability, and the details of its operation, are subject to a variety of accounts. ‘Clairaudience,’ however, seems to be a term employed especially with regard to the apprehension of messages from divine or spiritual sources.

Some accounts (e.g. Guiley 1991) use the term to refer to the manifestations of an ‘inner voice’ (or voices) perceived by an individual. Such instances may be associated with direct communications from God or the Angels in the Abrahamic tradition. Prominent historical instances described include those of Paul, on the road to Damascus, arrested by a voice unheard by those around him, 2 and of the prophet Muhammad, receiving the text of the Qur’an (the word of Allah) through the archangel Gabriel, and, more recently, that of Joan of Arc, who claimed to hear the voices of the angels Michael, Margaret and Catherine providing her with guidance throughout her life. Socrates is similarly presented by Plato and Xenophon as yielding to the counsel of an ‘inner voice’; though, in the context of Greek antiquity, the implications of such a description may be different, the general idea appears to go back to the roots of Western culture. Such accounts of an ‘inner voice’ (or voices), as we shall shortly see, may also refer to messages arising from intercourse with the spirits or the souls of the dead (ibid: 110). “The silent voice socalled, which was long ago heard by Socrates and since by many seers and prophets,” (Hollen 1931: 140), in light of the historical permutations of the ostensive ‘clairaudient’ capacities which continue to be claimed by contemporary New Age psychics – and links to long-standing Christian ideas about the ‘spiritual senses’ – presents yet another avenue by which to pursue a possible ‘sixth sense.’

The notion of ‘spiritual senses’ implicates a varied history of thinking about sensuous elements in the Christian ritual and worldview. Cyril of Jerusalem (315-87 AD), a 4th century bishop, can be credited with an early take on the notion that a “deeper understanding” connected with initiation into the faith arose through means which are at once transcendent and sensuous, not abstract. For Cyril, “the physical senses took on new meaning following baptism.” Rather than addressing that which is perceived by the “eyes of the flesh,” his Mystegogical Catecheses address “another set of senses, those of the spirit, which were key to perceiving divine realities beyond the material world” (Frank 2001: 625). In his descriptions of the ritual of chrismation, the body of the initiate is anointed with scented oils, and each part assigned a biblical passage – for example, the ears, “to receive ears quick to hear the divine mysteries, the ears of which Isaiah said: ‘The Lord gave me also an ear to hear’,“ and nostrils “that, scenting the divine oil, you may say: ‘We are the incense offered by Christ to God’ ” (Cyril, cited in Frank 2001: 625) – thus “mapping a new body capable of perceiving supra-sensory realities. Such senses began at the body, but perceived what was beyond it” (ibid: 626).

Similarly, for the bishop Ambrose, it was important to address the doubts which might arise among new initiates underwhelmed by the rites of baptism and skeptical of the miracles of transubstantiation, seeing only wafer and wine where their host is proclaimed: “my bread is ordinary,” they might say under the sway of a skeptic’s senses, “I do not see the appearance of blood” (Ambrose, cited in Frank 2001: 620). The proposed solution was a process of training the “eyes of the heart,” what others referred to as “spiritual eyes,” “the eyes of faith,” or, more generally, “the spiritual senses” (ibid). The theological notion thus described proved persistent over time; indeed, it is remarked upon fourteen centuries late by Kant, in 1798, noting the role of the ‘spiritual senses’ in the Consecration of the Host, “which the faithful see with bodily eyes as a small disc of bread but which, after the formula has been pronounced, they are obliged to see with spiritual eyes as the body of a human being” (Kant 2006: 42, n. ‘f’). While this account of the Eucharist draws on a predominantly visual example, the notion, from its earliest proponents, extended also to other (supra-)sensory realms, including that of (‘inner’) hearing, which had particular significance for subsequent attempts to describe the nascent idea of ‘clairaudience’ in concert with the legacy of the ‘spiritual senses.’

One contemporary of Kant, Emmanuel Swedenborg, previously known primarily as an anatomist and inventor, from the mid-1740s, came to extend the notion of ‘spiritual senses’ well beyond the borders likely envisioned by figures such as Ambrose or Cyril. Beginning at about that time, Swedenborg came, by his own account, to “speak with angels and spirits in the same manner that I speak to men” (cited in Schmidt 2009: 154). Swedenborg claimed, through the opening up and effective cultivation of the ‘spiritual senses,’ to have attained access to the realm of angels, “understood to be the spirits of people who had once lived on earth and who were now arrayed in various habitations, kingdoms and spheres of heaven” (Schmidt 2009: 154).

Leigh Eric Schmidt, in “Swedenborg’s Celestial Sensorium: Angelic Authenticity, Religious Authority, and the American New Church Movement,” suggests that Swedenborg’s experiences and ideas follow up on a tradition of ‘hermetic philosophy.’ Iconic of the late 17th century movement, the Englishman John Aubrey, for example, drew “observations on, among other things, astrology, omens, dreams, apparitions, visions, oracles, crystal gazing and ecstasies,” and sought to present an historical overview of instances of otherwordly “voices,” “ranging from Augustine’s ‘Take, read,’ to a personal acquaintance of his own who had twice heard an ethereal command to translate Luther’s Tisschreden into English” (Schmidt 2009: 151). The hermetic tradition, taking inspiration from the Egyptian magus Hermes Trismegistus, came “to embrace a loose combination of Christian, neoplatonist, biblical and kabbalistic elements,” and implied, among other elements, “a desire to know the hidden speech of angels and spirits, to enter the sensorium of the celestial world” (ibid).  As Schmidt puts it (ibid: 152): “Interested less in the management of the senses than in their transformation,” the Hermetic tradition “emphasized the supreme reality of the celestial world and practices by which that realm was penetrated, its influence attracted, or its inhabitants invoked.”

Following up on such desires to “know the hidden speech of angels” with some gusto, Swedenborg described, in detail, his regular commiserations with such celestial beings. Interestingly, he asserts that a single language, riven by no divisions of incomprehension, reigned throughout the heavenly Kingdom (as did a strict regime of intolerance for conniving, deception or insincerity), and that “the speech of angels is equally divided into words with ours, and alike sonorous and audible, for they have mouths, tongues and ears as we have” (cited in Schmidt 2009: 157). While the former contention suggests a sort of communicative utopia, the latter was in direct opposition to Aquinas’ contention that “Angels commune through a noiseless rustle of intelligence without the ministry of mind or matter” (Peters 1999: 76). His description of the speech of angels as within the reach of human understanding, accessible on individual terms, was in a sense a democratizing move, bridging some part of the gulf separating human beings and their celestial betters.

The inspired possibilities offered by a Swedenborgian outlook presented a ready extension of much older notions of the ‘spiritual senses’ into a form resonant with what came to be described as ‘clairaudience.’ And Swedenborg’s ideas drew their fair share of followers and re-interpreters, cresting up to the middle of the 19th century; according to Schmidt, “Swedenborg became one of the era’s consummate bearers of immediate revelation.” Sparking the New Church movement in the  United States, he eventually “even became for some an angelic spirit-guide, a dead-yet-living contact for heavenly wisdom” (2009: 152).

While Kant and Swedenborg may have been contemporaries, they certainly diverged sharply in their judgment of the range of access available to the senses, ‘spiritual’ or otherwise. In his Lectures on Ethics, Kant captures a common position  – and does not mince words – in declaring that “Spirits may exist or they may not. We do not know them and have no intercourse with them” (cited in Hollen 1931: 172). In many quarters, Swedenborg, his followers, and would-be successors were derided as prey to grand delusions, with Dr. Benjamin Rush (the father of contemporary notions of ‘addiction’) going so far to include those who “see and converse with angels” (cited in Schmidt 2009: 154) as victims of a unique pathology in his Medical Inquiries and Observations upon the Diseases of the Mind. Yet, in an age often sweepingly described in terms of the ascendancy of Enlightenment reason, naturalism, and empiricism, the notion of a spiritually profound (or transcendent) range of perception unaccounted for in these movements held its own, not insignificant, allure. The visions accorded the ‘spiritual eye’ and communication with inhabitants of celestial realms made possible by opening up of the ‘spiritual ear’ proved intriguing, carrying forward their resonance – along with that of other influences including Mesmerism and popular spiritualism – in ways which pave the way for the more contemporary notion of ‘clairaudience’.

Hollen (1931), writing three decades into the 20th century (several decades after the term ‘clairaudience’ made its first appearance), sets out an elaborate re-interpretation of the supra-sensory capacity to pick up on ‘audible’ messages from a higher plane – one which in many ways resembles a bridge between Swedenborg’s 18th century and what would follow as the 20th edged towards the present day. Hollen suggests that clairaudience is “the mode equivalent” to hearing (as clairvoyance is to seeing), though not proceeding via the same physical mechanisms; its operation depends on a “finer, subtler organization known to occultists,” invisible and without the obvious physicality of the nervous or endocrine systems. At times invoking Swedenborg directly, he develops the notion of the ‘spiritual ear’ into that of ‘clairaudient transmission.’ For Hollen, “Although our ordinary senses tell us of but one, there is another or super-physical world or state of life and being” (138). That “super-physical world,” he suggests, is a stratified plane on which the souls of the physically living and dead co-exist (the location of the soul in this plane, whether “on the heights or in the nether-parts,” correlating to moral and spiritual strength and intelligence), and where thought – “the truly real,” which drives and determines the “facsimile of the real, primary and enduring” which is material reality – exists in excess of bio-physical processes, rational calculation or chance. Of ‘man’ he says:

At every stage invisible beings attend him, mediating suasions, prompting, giving in accordance with their means. It is thus, while manifesting in his turn upon a physical plane, that he at length achieves maturity of soul, enlightenment; when in the upper atmosphere of light and love, near the Source of all, soul becomes possessed or repossessed of unsuspected powers, which in part are transferred to its human counterpart as supernormal understanding, lucidity, prevision, clairaudience, and so forth (139-140).

In his book Clairaudient Transmission: A metaphysical interpretation of genius, inspiration and the creative act, in the basis of a singular experience (1931), Henry Hollen seeks to explore a particular conception of clairaudience which combines, like the ideas which followed Swedenborg and stirred many in the American New Church movement, heterodox theology (here seeming to depart markedly from basic Christian doctrine vis-à-vis the notion reincarnation), neo-Platonism (insisting, after Plato, on the primacy of the Idea, of which mere things were imperfect instantiations), popular Spiritualism, and an admixture of alternative scientific and philosophical perspectives and points. Ultimately, as the mention of “a singular experience” in the title indicates, the impetus for (and particularity of) Hollen’s book is furnished by the case of his wife, Aura May Hollen.          By the account provided, on a midsummer’s day in 1928 (amidst a tremendous bustle at a Vichy garden-café) Mrs. Hollen took, without apparent precedent, to “writing verse with astonishing facility, as though informed and supported by an intelligence alien to herself, as prompter behind the scenes as it were, who not only encouraged her to write but gave her the subject-matter even to the captions” (29). Indeed, Hollen dwells at some length on the “superlative craftsmanship” of his wife’s poetry and prose, informing us that the former is “metrically […] well-nigh flawless” and the latter (which instructs the reader concerning the pre-existence of the human soul, “the continuity of Life on many planes and planets,” and “relativity beyond the ken of Einstein”) characterized by “a metaphysics made attractive, if not always palatable, by a lucid reasonableness” (135).

The process of inspired creative enterprise, especially the writing of poetry of sublime beauty (he seems partial to Keats and Wordsworth), leads Hollen to conclude that what is variously termed inspiration, genius, or the influence of the Muse 3 can be attributed to the action of a “prompter behind and above” (156). Disincarnate spirits are the purported source of such promptings, which may be received in vague form as no more than a theme or nebulous idea; conversely, they may be so clearly discerned as to take on the appearance of dictation or conversation – or fall somewhere in between. In the latter type of case, clairaudience finds its clearest expression.

Rather than conceive of the workings of genius or inspiration as “imagination,” which suggests an idea’s origin with the self (and contra the psychologists’ notion of the subconscious), we are told, they should be considered as ‘intuition,’ implying an origin in the “super-physical” world. In considering the action of this mechanism in creative production, Hollen sees evidence in a passage from a description of the writing process by an unnamed ”minor poet, yet one whom many loved”:

I seldom, said she in effect, premeditate. My poems come and somehow in some subtle manner I am made aware of their approach; when, it matters not what I may be doing at the moment, I take up my pencil to record each one. I do not really hear a voice but I hear the words pronounced. No one seems to speak and yet, within my head, the words I speak are clearly audible (136).

For Aura May Hollen, the experience was all the more directly discerned as an incoming transmission from spiritual others; rather than merely a “thought, or thought-form,” she would record “the actual words” (177)4 – though not without some occasional interference. In her experience:

Every syllable is practically pronounced for her and to that extent also is the word spelled out for her beforehand; so that she is able to receive words phonetically unknown to her. Theoretically, she should receive all perfectly. But, owing to difficulties which are at times more subversive than usual, a word or two may fail to register, when it is as if such word or words dropped from the line in the same way as a printer’s stick becomes disarranged. […] At times she “hears” the thought before the communicant has given it words. This seldom occurs but when it does she may express it in her own language only to be halted and provided with the words intended (178).

The unusual discernment of Aura May Hollen’s “interior auditory sense,” which Mr. Hollen asserts to be “dormant in the average individual” denotes a high level of development in the faculty, a state he compares explicitly with Swedenborg. The latter, he writes, “not only ‘conversed with angels’ but also, while still on a physical plane, ‘heard conversations in heaven.’ Hence it is possible for a few to function at times on both planes simultaneously when the requisite development has been attained” (142).

Hollen’s articulation of ‘clairaudient’ possibilities, itself indebted to Swedenborg and a lengthier legacy of those presented with an ‘inner voice’ or intent on the development of ‘spiritual senses,’ in turn brings us closer to contemporary instantiations of the idea of a clairaudient faculty. The specific terminology and configuration of elements pertaining to the notion of clairaudience among the advocates New Age practices and beliefs, for example, varies significantly, but not without continuities linking back to earlier interpretations (though adding assertions and accoutrements, and at times gaining significant popular resonance as either entertainment or aid along the way). According to the website <healing-crystals-for-you.com>, “Labradorite earings are said to help you ‘hear the voice of spirit’.” 5  The stone, apparently, “is very effective at stimulating psychic hearing if worn at the ears.” ‘Liz,’ the face behind the extensive website, claims that clairaudience is her “strongest psychic gift,” and writes that no fewer than 11 different stones and crystals can aid in the “natural evolution” of clairaudient abilities. A combination of the notion of chakras (adopted into Hindi from Sanskrit, the word refers to certain centres or intersections of spiritual energy in the human body, and is commonly associated with yoga and meditation practices) and an admixture of psychic-spiritualist and medico-scientific tidbits characterize this particular New Age take on clairaudience: On the one hand, it is asserted that the effect of meditation (aided by these crystals) lies in “changing your brain waves […] from your normal day to day beta wave to the slower alpha wave.” The amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex are identified as playing a key role in the process. On the other hand, the result of inducing these changes is that, ultimately, “… you will find that the flow of information from the Divine source will grow.”

Francis Hosein, a Trinidad-born New York psychic, defines clairaudience as the “clear hearing of voices subconsciously generated below the normally audible vibratory scale and externalized in auditory perception.” 6 As with ‘Liz’ and some other contemporary psychics, the clairaudient transmission is seen as a path to receiving information from one’s ‘spirit guide,’ who can be asked questions and help to solve personal problems. The confluence of ‘self-help’ or ‘personal development’ and the realm of psychic ability and spiritual contact and connection (often invoking a holistic view of life and universe) seems typical, though different sources make more and less eclectic or detailed efforts at explaining the operations of this super-normal faculty.

Another contemporary New Age psychic, Astoria Brown, suggests that the ‘voice’ at the other end of clairaudient experience need not be, strictly speaking, an entity unwedded to (“above and behind”?) the self; rather, the mental perception of a voice or phrase may be a mark of contact with one’s “higher self,” which “assists this body that you reside in daily,” but is “just as much a part of you as your ego.” The same writer counsels her readers to allow themselves to be “led by your intuitive self, rather than the carnal mind,” 7  returning to a theme and a term familiar from Hollen, and (variously defined) employed by many contemporary writers on the subject (e.g. Williams 2003). ‘Intuition’ stands in as a signifier for that which comes into consciousness from without, ‘heard’ within, and reflective of some connection either with spiritual or divine others or with a some grand transcendent truth beyond the individual or the material universe.

All of the New Age figures just cited suggest that there exist a multiplicity of disincarnate spirits, and similarly entertain the notion that it may be possible to hear or converse with the spirits or souls of the dead via some clairaudient faculty or facility. For some, this is the primary (or only) function of clairaudience: as one writer puts it, “the ability to hear with the Spiritual ear the whisperings of those who have made the change called death-soul hearing” (Barnes 1996: 14). Indeed, the most prominent ostensible clairaudients in contemporary North America occupy themselves primarily with this kind of communication. John Edward, whose nightly show ‘Crossing Over’ was the highest-rated on the Sci-Fi channel early in the past decade, employs the method of ‘cold-reading,’ in which a series of questions are posed to a given subject wishing to communicate with a departed loved one. Believers consider the process a means of ‘tuning in,’ though skeptics insist that that the information presented as the product of dealings with the dead comes not from another realm but from the subject themselves, under the skillful influence of the questioner (Jaroff 2001).8

James Van Praagh similarly describes an ability to pick up on messages from the dead; his best-selling books, television appearances (including Larry King Live, though he was also the first American medium to perform readings on air and helped develop the CBS series Ghost Whisperer) and thriving online community place him in an exclusive category of contemporary psychic superstars. His abilities, however, are not straightforwardly clairaudient, though the trope of ‘conversation’ is recurrent. According to an official description, Van Praagh’s “very natural, easy-going style would lead you to believe that [he] is chatting with a friend on the telephone, not communicating messages from the grave.” As well as claiming to furnish “evidential proof of life after death via detailed messages,” he offers some insight into the mode of communication which characterizes his experience, which is perhaps more suggestive of ‘clairsentience’ (‘clear feeling’ rather than seeing or hearing). In his own words, “spirits communicate by their emotions. No words exist in the English language, or any other for that matter, which can describe the intense sensations.”9

While Van Praagh’s case apparently deviates somewhat from a strict reliance on clairaudience, and the line between the various ‘claires’ is often blurred, the faculty of clairaudience is generally considered essential for the practice of many psychic mediums. As Wales (2009: 348) puts it, one of the predominant modes for contemporary psychics is that

where the medium claims to be able to hear in his or her mind, interpret and report the actual voices and message of the Departed or Discarnate spirits or ‘personalities’ in Ashby’s terms (1972): properly clairaudience. The trope of ‘listening’ is common: to maintain the impression of the normal communicative dyad of direct one-to-one conversation. […] Clairaudience is the most important of the medium’s skills, since, alongside definite ‘facts’ about the Deceased, their alleged actual utterances represent for the medium the most significant means of authentification or verification (Wales 2009:  348)

Such figures as Edward and Van Praagh attract the attention a tremendous number of people disinclined (as Hollen had hoped future generations might be) to scoff at clairaudient possibilities, and aspiring to experiences with spiritual or otherworldly significance. From one angle, it may seem as though both the New Age advocates intent on democratization of the development of the clairaudient faculty and its possibilities for self-help and transcendent connection, and the popular psychics who offer a murmur of acknowledgment from a plane of existence where the living and dead may both be present, speak to a common desire which appeals to much of what animated earlier conceptions of the ‘spiritual senses.’ These contemporary re-interpretations of the notion of clairaudience represent a range of practices and subcultural or popular ideas spun off from a diverse history of religious mysticism with sensuous overtones. Ultimately, the contours of belief are at times familiar in more recent instantiations of the notion of ‘clairaudience,’ seemingly presenting a secular or New Age inflection on their explicitly Christian predecessors. The movement from Swedenborg’s ‘spiritual ear’ through examples such as Hollen’s ‘clairaudient transmission’ and on to a selection of contemporary popular ideas about just what it is to possess this faculty of ‘clear hearing’ presents a clear study of how notions of a supplemental or ‘sixth’ sense tend to spark a range of experiences and speculative interpretations, and how such notions may appeal to a common attraction to a search which leads outside the boundaries enforced by the skeptical mavens of scientific orthodoxy.



1. Mesmeric conditions,’ after Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), refer to a state akin to what would now be referred to as hypnosis; Mesmer induced trance-states in patients as part of his approach to treating various ailments. See the entry on Mesmer in the ABCDERIUM

2. At least according to the King James translation, though there is some controversy as to the possibility that the texts on which English translations are based suggest that the ‘voice’ of God was audible (though perhaps not comprehensible) to Paul’s companions.

3. Attributing genius or inspiration to “spirit influence,” Hollen suggests, has some basis in ancient Greeks’ belief that figures such as Aeschylus wrote with prompting from the gods, though moderns have been “educated out” of the notion of “a human being becoming the organ of divinity” (141); while inspiration “from above” may have once been assumed of great art or literature, one now dares only to suggest that “Keats, for example, puzzles our science” (162).

4. Though not, her husband notes, in the fashion of ‘automatic writing,’ as she heard and could recite content, and address her interlocutors, rather than writing in an automatic state akin to the ‘possession’ of the hand, arm or the person.

5. http://www.healing-crystals-for-you.com/clairaudience.html

6. http://www.trans-formers.com/clairaudience.html

7. http://www.astoriabrown.com/Clairaudience.html

8. Jaroff (2001) also draws attention to accusations of ‘hot reading,’ in which information is surreptitiously collected in advance (e.g. by having audience members later selected for a session on the show record personal information in advance of the show or pre-show conversations monitored for the benefit of the performance).

9. http://vanpraagh.com/index.php?p=Abilities


Works cited

Frank, Georgia. 2001. “‘Taste and See’: The Eucharist and the Eyes of Faith in the Fourth Century.” Church History 70(4): 619-643

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen. 1991. Harper’s Encyclopedia of Mystical and Paranormal Experience. San Francisco: Harper.

Hollen, Henry. 1931. Clairaudient Transmission: A metaphysical interpretation of genius, inspiration and the creative act, in the basis of a singular experience. Hollywood, CA:  The Keats Publications.

Jefts, Lena Barnes. 1996. The Laws of Spirit Mediumship. Miami: School of Spiritual Truth.

Jaroff, Leon. 2001. “Talking to the dead.” Time 157(9): 52.

Kant, Immanuel. 2006. Anthropology from a Pragmatic Point of View, translated and edited by Robert B. Louden. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking Into the Air: A history of the idea of communication. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Schmidt, Leigh Eric. 2009. “Swedenborg’s Celestial Sensorium: Angelic Authenticity, Religious Authority, and the American New Church Movement.” In The Sixth Sense      Reader, edited by David Howes. Oxford: Berg.

Turvey, Victor. 1969. The beginnings of seership: astral projection, clairvoyance and prophecy. [?]: University Books.

Wales, Katie. 2009. “Unnatural conversations in unnatural conversations: speech reporting in the discourse of spiritual mediumship.” Language and Literature 18(4): 347-356.