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.