Voices In Our Heads

I’m not sure who coined this quip but I love it. It came to mind, as my inner-voice ideas often do, while reading this excerpt from Oliver Sacks’ newest book (published yesterday), Hallucinations. Sacks has done us the great analytical service of pointing out that hallucinations are not simply the province of the insane. His work in this regard, and its obvious link to religious ideation, fits with that being done by Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann. In this post, I covered her work on hallucinations in some detail.

In Chapter 4, Sacks discusses auditory hallucinations:

Hearing voices occurs in every culture and has often been accorded great importance — the gods of Greek myth often spoke to mortals, and the gods of the great monotheistic traditions, too. Voices have been significant in this regard, perhaps more so than visions, for voices, language, can convey an explicit message or command as images alone cannot.

Until the eighteenth century, voices — like visions — were ascribed to supernatural agencies: gods or demons, angels or djinns. No doubt there was sometimes an overlap between such voices and those of psychosis or hysteria, but for the most part, voices were not regarded as pathological; if they stayed inconspicuous and private, they were simply accepted as part of human nature, part of the way it was with some people.

Around the middle of the eighteenth century, a new secular philosophy started to gain ground with the philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment, and hallucinatory visions and voices came to be seen as having a physiological basis in the overactivity of certain centers in the brain.

But the romantic idea of “inspiration” still held, too — the artist, especially the writer, was seen or saw himself as the transcriber, the amanuensis, of a Voice, and sometimes had to wait years (as Rilke did) for the Voice to speak.

Talking to oneself is basic to human beings, for we are a linguistic species; the great Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky thought that “inner speech” was a prerequisite of all voluntary activity. I talk to myself, as many of us do, for much of the day — admonishing myself (“You fool! Where did you leave your glasses?”), encouraging myself (“You can do it!”), complaining (“Why is that car in my lane?”), and, more rarely, congratulating myself (“It’s done!”). Those voices are not externalized; I would never mistake them for the voice of God, or anyone else.

We all have voices in our heads. Fortunately my voice is fairly regular and singular, but this isn’t always the case. There are times when my voice seems off-key or somehow different. While I never mistake this irregularity or difference for anything mystical, it’s easy for me to see (or hear) how this could happen, especially among those who are culturally primed for these sorts of experiences.

All this talk about inner voices also brings to mind Julian Jaynes, whose fascinating work I discussed in this post. Though it isn’t possible to do Jaynes justice in a short space, his most famous idea was that the ancient human mind was of two parts: it was “bicameral.” Inspired by research showing the brain is right-left specialized, Jaynes hypothesized that in the evolutionary past the left brain must have been completely separated from the right brain. The effect, according to Jaynes, would have been disquieting: language generated in the left brain would have been interpreted by the right brain as coming from outside or somewhere else. Ancient people, in other words, were functionally lobotomized and regularly experienced auditory hallucinations. These voices were called gods and this supposedly explains the origin of religion. For Jaynes, the bicameral mind lacked what he calls “consciousness.”

While I think Jaynes was largely mistaken about his evolution and history, he was a brilliant student of the human mind and correctly linked our mysterious inner voices to mysticism and religion.

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