Spiritualism and Bicameralism

In Spirit of Equality, Steve A. Wiggins discusses the recent Ghostbusters movie. His focus is on spiritualism and gender. He writes that,

“A thoughtful piece in by Colin Dickey in New Republic points out some of the unusual dynamics at play here. Looking at the history of Spiritualism as the basis for the modern interest in ghosts, Dickey suggests that women have been involved in the long-term fascination with the dead from the beginning. Their motive, however, was generally communication. Women wanted to relate with ghosts to make a connection. The original Ghostbusters movie represented a male, rationalistic approach to ghosts. As Dickey points out, instead of communicating, the men hunt and trap rather than trance and rap.”

I’m familiar with the spiritualist tradition. It’s part of the milieu that formed the kind of religion I was raised in, Science of Mind and New Thought Christianity.

The main church I grew up in, Unity Church, was heavily influenced by women from when it began in the late 1800s. Its founding was inspired by Myrtle Fillmore’s spiritual healing, women were leaders early on in the church, and ministers officiated same sex marriage ceremonies at least as far back as when I was a kid. It’s not patriarchal religion and emphasizes the idea of having a direct and personal connection to the divine, such that you can manifest it in your life.

The gender differences mentioned by Wiggins are the type of thing that always interest me. There are clear differences, whatever are the causes. Psychological research has found variations in cognition and behavior, on average between the genders. This is seen in personality research. And brain research shows at least some of these differences are based in biology, i.e., women having on average a larger corpus callosum.

I’m not sure how these kinds of differences relate to something like spiritualism and the fictional portrayal of human interaction with ghosts/spirits. The two Ghostbusters movies do offer a fun way to think about it.

Reading Wiggin’s piece, I thought about an essay I just read this past week. It offers a different perspective on a related topic, that of hearing voice commands and the traditions that go along with it. The essay is “Evolution and Inspiration” by Judith Weissman (from Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind ed. Marcel Kuijsten).

She notes, “that all over the world, throughout history, most of the poets who hear voices have been male, and their poems are usually about the laws of the fathers.” She considers this likely relevant, although she doesn’t offer any certain conclusions about what it might mean.

In the context of what Wiggins brings up, it makes one wonder what separates the tradition of voice-hearing poets and spiritualists. I can think of one thing, from that same essay.

Weissman mentioned that command voices often tell people what to do. A famous example was Daniel Paul Schreber who, when hearing a voice telling him to defend his manhood, punched in the face an attendant working at the psychiatric institute. Interestingly, Schreber was a well educated, rationalistic, and non-religious man before he began hearing voices.

Command voices tell people, often men, what to do. It leads to action, sometimes rather masculine action. Few people hear such voices these days and, when they do, they are considered schizophrenic—crazier than even a spiritualist.

From the New Republic article, The Spiritualist Origins of Ghostbusters, Colin Dickey offers an explanation about spiritualism in a gender-biased society.

“Spiritualism also celebrated precisely those aspects of femininity that the rest of culture was busy pathologizing. Nervousness, erratic behavior, uncontrolled outbursts, flagrant sexuality—doctors and psychiatrists saw these all as symptoms of hysteria, that ever-elusive disease that mostly boiled down to women acting out. But these same unruly behaviors were qualities prized in an excellent medium, and women who exhibited these traits were routinely praised for their psychic sensitivity. Women who might have otherwise been institutionalized found celebrity through Spiritualism instead.”

That makes me wonder. Which is cause and which effect? How does spiritualism and other forms of spirituality get expressed in other kinds of societies?

I’m reminded of two other things. First, there was an interesting passage on hysteria from a book on Galen, The Prince of Medicine by Susan P. Mattern. In bicameral fashion, the woman’s uterus (Greek hystera) literally had a mind of its own and was presumed to move around causing problems. The second thing is another part from the the Weissman essay:

“The last priests died shortly after the Ik were forcibly moved, and only one person was left who could still hear commanding voices, Nagoli, the daughter of a priest. Because she was not allowed to become a priest herself, she was called mad.”

Spirituality, when it was part of the social order, was respectable. But when that male-oriented society broke down, the spiritual ability of that woman was then seen as madness. The men (and the other women) couldn’t hear the voices she heard. The voices that once were guidance had become a threat. If that voice-hearing daughter of a priest had lived in 19th century United States, she might have been diagnosed with hysteria or else have become a popular spiritualist. Or if her culture hadn’t fallen into disarray, she would have been no one special at all, perfectly normal.

4 thoughts on “Spiritualism and Bicameralism

    • Well, thanks back at ya! I enjoy your blogging commentary.

      This particular post of yours was stuck on my mind. As I thought more about it, the more interesting the topic seemed. It connected to much of my recent readings and writings.

      I’ll tell you this much. I’d rather spend my time on something like this than attempting one more time to analyze the crazy state of politics. The commanding voices tell me to quit paying attention to MSM news reporting.

  1. In this post, I briefly mentioned schizophrenia. That is a topic that interests me and I’ve written about it before. I don’t personally have schizophrenia, but I have been diagnosed with thought disorder and used to be on an anti-psychotic (risperdal). I would note that risperdal is commonly prescribed to schizophrenics, among others such as those diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Disordered as my thoughts may be, I’m able to tell what are my own thoughts and I’ve never heard command voices. If I was going to show symptoms of schizophrenia, I would have seen them by now.

    I’ve also been diagnosed with depression. Interestingly, schizophrenia shares some traits with depression and I’m sure suffering from schizophrenic symptoms might lead one to becoming depressed. Both conditions can involve social withdrawal and apathy, although the causes are different for each. There is a gender disparity in this, as men are more likely to have problems with lack of will, directed energy, decision-making, inability to plan, failure to complete things, sense of inertia, etc. Going by what I’ve read, the relationship between schizophrenia and depression isn’t entirely clear, some research showing no gender disparity rates while other research actually showing more female schizophrenics with depressive symptoms, although one study found that depression contributed to the severity of negative symptoms related to motivation and pleasure in men but not women. Considering a different aspect, depression in its severest form can lead to a state of mind that is opposite of hearing voices—mental chatter can entirely shut down, at least in my experience. The world, instead of being alive with voices, is dead silent.

    There are many gender differences in both conditions. The simplest difference is that male schizophrenics and depressives have higher rates of substance abuse and tend to be more successful in killing themselves, in their using brutal means. In schizophrenia, its onset comes earlier for males or else, because its symptoms are worse and resilience weaker for males, they are hospitalized earlier. Male schizophrenics are less socially functional—lower rates of: marriage, employment, etc. There are more negative and disorganization symptoms in men and more affective symptoms in women, a pattern that might relate to the perception of hysteria. Female schizophrenics have better capacity for language usage, specifically verbal learning and memory.—I don’t know how that might relate to the experience of command voices and spiritual channeling. Related to Wiggins post, women with schizophrenia are more disposed to paranoia whereas men are prone to religious delusions and delusions of grandeur. Schreber fit the typical male profile, in his having had both religious delusions and delusions of grandeur, the command voices having contributed to this.

    The gender differences in schizophrenia are biological, whether as cause or effect. They are found in brain structures and hormone patterns. For example, levels of estrogen are higher in schizophrenic women and estrogen has an anti-psychotic effect. Post-menopausal women have changes in estrogen levels and this has been shown to negatively effect schizophrenics, resulting in a worsening of symptoms later in life (rather than earlier as with men).


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