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What Is Auditory Imagery?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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Auditory imagery is a term which describes reports of hearing and experiencing sounds when nothing is actually making a noise. According to studies conducted by researchers interested in this phenomenon, there is a neural basis for this phenomenon, with sound association areas of the brain activating during experiences of it. The study of this occurrence can provide interesting information about how the brain works, and it can also be informative when dealing with individual patients.

Many people have had the experience of having a song suddenly stuck on the brain, which is an example of auditory imagery. Sometimes something acts as a trigger, with someone hearing part of the song, hearing the song name mentioned, or having an experience which evokes the song, and at other times, the music may seem to randomly appear. In all cases, people have the sensation of hearing the song, but no auditory stimulus is actually happening.

Another common example of auditory imagery can be demonstrated when someone looks up a phone number and tries to remember it. Some people recite the phone number out loud, while others may repeat it silently in their heads, but they may feel as though they are listening to someone vocalize the phone number. The auditory cortex is active, in this case, but it's not actually receiving input. Researchers have also noted that people can experience this phenomenon when they are listening to familiar sounds and the sound cuts out; for example, someone may “hear” a rumbling engine after an idling truck has departed, or someone listening to a familiar song might fill in a gap if the sound momentarily drops out.

Auditory hallucination can be distracting or unsettling. The sudden occurrence of auditory imagery or other types of imagery can be a sign that there is a neurological problem, and it may be a good idea to consult a doctor for an evaluation. At other times, it appears to be benign and totally random. This mental imagery is also involuntary; people do not make an effort to experience auditory imagery, their brains just do it for them.

In literature, people may also use the term “auditory imagery,” but in a slightly different sense. In this context, it refers to evocative passages which are designed to reference sounds. Sometimes a person reading an evocative passage in a book may experience auditory imagery as the brain converts the flat words onto the page into a sensory experience. For example, someone reading about a character “crunching through the autumn leaves” might “hear” the leaves being crushed underfoot.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By healthy4life — On Oct 01, 2012

I thought I was having an auditory hallucination a few weeks ago, but it turned out that my mind was just interpreting one noise as another. I sleep with a box fan on to create a soothing sound, but I discovered that it sometimes creates disturbing sounds, as well.

I have a puppy that lives outside, and several times during the night, I thought I heard him yelping in pain. Each time, I got up to check on him, and he was fine. I knew that I could hear a puppy yelping, though.

After the third time this happened, I turned off the fan so that I could hear better. As soon as I turned it off, the noise stopped, and I realized that my mind and the fan had gotten together to play an awful trick on me. I had been picturing something attacking my poor puppy, but it was all in my head.

By Perdido — On Sep 30, 2012

@feasting – I think that auditory imagery manifests itself in different ways, depending on the traits of the person. I tend to combine both auditory and visual imagery, so when I'm reading a book that describes a scene, I actually see and hear what is going on in great detail.

As I read the words, I experience the sounds and sights of the scene. If it's near a city, I can hear cars going by and people talking. If it's out in the country, I can hear birds chirping in the background as the characters are conversing.

Not everyone can do this, just as not everyone can keep a song in their head and control the volume of it like you do. I believe that auditory imagery is subjective.

By Kristee — On Sep 29, 2012

I've always been better at auditory learning than learning through reading. If I hear something spoken aloud, I can remember it better than if I read it.

I do repeat things to myself in order to memorize them. After I've said something a few times, I can just say it in my head and hear it perfectly clear.

I feel like I'm capturing the sound and bringing it inside. I trap the words in my head and replay them for only myself to hear, and this works well for me.

By feasting — On Sep 29, 2012

I experience all of these things! To me, auditory imagery is completely normal.

All of my friends get songs stuck in their heads from time to time, but I keep one playing in my head constantly. However, I'm very musically inclined, since I sing, play the piano by ear, and play the guitar.

There is never a moment of total silence for me. The only strange thing is that sometimes, the volume of the song in my head is louder than others. I can mentally turn it down, and no one else I know has experienced this.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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