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Hearing Voices

Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift.
                                                             -- Socrates

Tim was a street person who showed up at my church from time to time for Sunday services. Usually he was engaged in a furious conversation with himself that seemed to combine intense theological disputations with rants about the FBI and CIA. For all his weird intensity, he was a shy man, perhaps because on some level he must have known how strange he seemed. Tim was essentially harmless. But just try to follow the service whenever he had gone off his meds and was anywhere within earshot.

It is peculiarly appropriate that poor souls like Tim should seek refuge in church, since virtually all monotheistic religions were founded by people who heeded voices that no one else could hear. Abraham believed God had commanded him to make a burnt offering of his son Isaac. Moses came upon a burning bush in the wilderness and heard a voice sending him off to confront the pharaoh in Egypt. The prophets by definition were all on speaking terms with the Almighty. Jesus carried on a conversation with the devil, and Martin Luther reputedly threw an inkpot at him. Not to be outdone, Mohammed learned he was a prophet from the Archangel Gabriel, who subsequently dictated the entire text of the Koran over a period of years.

These prophets and patriarchs all came along well before it ever would have occurred to anyone to think they might simply be crazy. Yet there was always a risk to letting people know you could hear voices that they did not. Socrates, who had been listening to the voice of his daimon since he was a child, found that this admission was used as evidence against him at his trial. Joan of Arc ran into a similar problem when she fell into the hands of English clerics and was condemned as a witch. The medieval church reserved the right to judge whether hearing voices was a sign of sainthood, demon possession or witchcraft. Joan of Arc was ultimately vindicated when she was canonized – but only after she had already been burned at the stake.

Although Socrates long ago suggested that visions and voices might be a form of madness, albeit divinely inspired, such experiences were not routinely regarded as symptoms of mental disorder until relatively recent times. The 16th-century mystic and Carmelite abbess Teresa of Avila is credited with steering opinion in this direction to shield her nuns from unwanted scrutiny by the Inquisition. She attributed any abnormal behavior of this type to illness from natural causes, whether it be melancholy, drowsiness or a weak imagination. Eventually, of course, the medical profession replaced the clergy as arbiters of strange behavior. Since witchcraft had by now lost its hold over the popular imagination, what better way to stigmatize otherworldly visitations than to brand them as delusional?

Only recently have mental health professionals begun to recognize that people who hear voices are not necessarily crazy. The standard psychiatric diagnostic manual (DSM-V) acknowledges that hearing voices might be symptomatic of a spiritual breakthrough rather than a psychotic breakdown. The difficulty, of course, is that the symptoms are outwardly the same. And the DSM-V is still unable to get away from clinical terminology in describing these occurrences, labeling them as “auditory hallucinations.”

The psychologist Julian Jaynes proposed a novel theory in 1976 suggesting that modern human consciousness emerged from an earlier ”bicameral” mind in which thoughts originating in the right hemisphere of the brain were perceived as direct commands from the gods. The human brain was anatomically modern but not yet dominated by the cognitive centers in the left hemisphere, so there was minimal self-awareness. Until about 3,000 years ago, Jaynes argued, human beings functioned as virtual zombies, taking their orders from unseen masters lodged in the nether regions of their own brains.

Jaynes’s highly speculative theory of the bicameral mind has gained a certain cult following but not much traction in scientific circles. One of Jaynes’s few academic supporters is Daniel Dennett, a distinguished philosophy professor and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. Dennett does not defend the particulars of Jaynes’s theory but credits him with asking the right questions about human consciousness at a time when few others dared to tackle so vast and murky a subject.

As an atheist, Dennett may have had another reason for looking favorably upon Jaynes’s ideas. According to Jaynes, religions were founded by people who heard voices they assumed to be gods or ancestors. They did not realize the thoughts originated in their own heads because they did not as yet have a mental framework to take possession of them. In effect, the voices they heeded were nothing more than auditory hallucinations.

Hallucinations they may be, but how do they differ fundamentally from the interior voice that normally commands our attention? Both seem to occupy the same space between our ears, and neither can be heard by anyone else. The principal difference boils down to a matter of perceived ownership. Our normal thoughts are phrased in the first-person singular and apparently belong to “me,” whereas those other thoughts seem to belong to third parties and therefore must originate elsewhere. But when you come right down to it, there is really no way to tell which is “real” or where either one comes from. The only thing we can say for certain – at least for most of us -- is that the voice we regard as our own has all but drowned out the voice we think of as God.

Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
Daniel Dennett, “Julian Jaynes’s Software Archeology”

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