Why not?

Hearing voices. We all hear voices, both in and outside our heads. But obviously not all voice-hearing is the same.

Some people hear voices that others don’t hear. Children talk to imaginary friends who talk back to them. Schizophrenics hear all kinds of voices, from disembodied beings to the thoughts in other people’s heads. Even ordinary people, during periods of grief and stress, hear voices that can’t be explained (the Third Man Factor popularized by John Geiger). Studies show this is a lot more common than people realize, because few people talk about the voices they hear for fear of being called crazy.

These voices are as real to those hearing them as the voice of a physical person speaking before their eyes. According Julian Jaynes, entire ancient societies were based on this kind of experience, and he proposed that visual hallucinations often accompanied them. As such, it would have been the only reality the bicameral mind knew. Our sense of reality is nothing more than what we and those around us experience.

Some people dismiss Jaynes’ speculations. He hasn’t always been respectable, quite the opposite, although his intellectual currency has been rising. Over time, more and more people have taken him seriously, even when uncertain what to make of his theory. It’s such an intriguing possibility based on evidence that typically gets ignored and dismissed. But bicameralism or not, the evidence remains to be explained.

Indeed, it is challenging to make sense of it. As Tanya Lurhman, a Stanford anthropologist trained in psychology, simply stated it: “Julian Jaynes blew my mind.” It didn’t just blow her mind for it also set the course of her professional career. Research that she has done follows from the possibility that Jaynes first presented. In her work, she has looked at different cultures in how they relate to voice-hearing. She has compared cultural experiences and also religious experience, both among schizophrenics and the mentally healthy.

Her book on Evangelicals hearing God’s voice is what got my attention. I liked her approach. She treats her subjects with respect and tries to understand them on their own terms. It reminded me of Jaynes’ own approach to ancient people, to take them at their word and consider the possibility that they actually meant what they said.

What if we took all people seriously, not just those who confirm our biases? What if we tried to understand their stated experience, instead of rationalizing it away according to present social norms? Why not?

* * *

When God Talks Back
by T.M. Luhrmann

Our Most Troubling Madness
edited by T.M. Luhrmann & Jocelyn Marrow

Is That God Talking?
T. M. Luhrmann

My Take: If you hear God speak audibly, you (usually) aren’t crazy
by T.M. Luhrmann

Living With Voices
by T. M. Luhrmann

Toward an Anthropological Theory of Mind
by T. M. Luhrmann

Cognitive Science, Learning, and ‘Theory of Mind’
by Ann Taves

Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says
by Clifton B. Parker

The voices heard by people with schizophrenia are friendlier in India and Africa, than in the US
by Christian Jarrett

Tanya Luhrmann, hearing voices in Accra and Chenai
by Greg Downey

Hallucinated voices’ attitudes vary with culture
by Bruce Bower

Psychotic Voices In Your Head Depend On Culture You’re From: Friendly In Ghana, Evil In America
by Chris Weller

More Evidence for Vestigial Bicamerality
by Gary Williams

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.

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Survival and Persistence of Bicameralism

A favorite topic of mine, as anyone knows who regularly reads my blog, is that of Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind. It’s part of my general interest in social history, social science, social consciousness, social behavior, social change, and social constructs. A major frame to my thought is the social nature of humanity. Even our modern notions of individuality are a product of specific social conditions and cultural factors.

I just purchased and started perusing a new book: Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind edited by Marcel Kuijsten. It’s a collection of essays about the bicameral mind. All of those I’ve looked at so far are fascinating. In jumping around in the book, I came across a reference to an anthropological case study. There is a small section discussing a specific tribe, the Ugandan Ik, that up into recent times may have been a bicameral society or still carried strong elements of it. Examples like this are rare because most traditional societies are altered or destroyed before anyone gets a chance to study them, but in cases like this we are able to glimpse what a society once was before contact with modernity.

A central feature of bicameral societies were command voices, necessary as a way of organizing larger numbers of people that resulted from gardening and farming. These command voices were a repertoire of divine commandments, idioms, folk wisdom, and accumulated knowledge—primarily passed on in metric form for easy memorization.

Bicameral people didn’t think in the way we do. Instead, they acted according to habit, until a situation arose where habit didn’t apply and an external voice would be heard telling them what to do. They had no interior sense of self, but it didn’t stop them from being able to apply complex thought and calculations—from precise astrological measurements to building large pyramids. Their mental repertoire was vast since the mnemonic devices, maybe along with synaesthesia, allowed these mostly or entirely preliterate people to carry an immense library of knowledge in their minds (see Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies by Lynne Kelly). We don’t appreciate the achievements of these societies for, without being written down, their complex cultures mostly disappear when the society itself collapses and the knowledge systems disappear from living memory.

There are a few things to note. The Ik had an agricultural society. This is significant, as Jaynes’ theorized that bicameralism developed when societies began to permanently settle down, after having given up the nomadic lifestyle of hunting-gathering. Bicameralism was one of the first steps toward making possible what we refer to as ‘civilization’.

They had an extremely stable societies that was highly dependent on their environmental niche, so well adapted were they to a particular place and way of life. Their stability was also their weakness, as it would turn any major threat into an existential crisis. They couldn’t simply leave and start over elsewhere for, like the Australian Aboriginal songlines, their entire societies were place-based. To remove these people would be to destroy them and that is what happened to the Ik.

I shouldn’t overemphasize this weakness, though. Another example is given of enslaved Africans who revolted. They developed a society that appears to still be semi-bicameral, which one might presume was a rebuilding of the society they came from in Africa. Maybe enough priests had survived to allow the living tradition of command voices to continue uninterrupted. Also, maybe the new environment was similar enough to their old environment to allow much of their traditional knowledge to be applied.

Social orders are dependent on social conditions. This makes them precarious in a way we moderns don’t think too much about, as we live in societies that have come to dominate the world around us, not to mention as we live in an unusually stable period of earth’s existence (environmental changes may be what destroyed the early bicameral societies). So, given minimal levels of stability, it can be surprising how persistent cultures can be, results from centuries-old events still shaping social experience and behavior into the present.

Barring environmental catastrophe, maybe those bicameral societies weren’t entirely incapable of dealing with change. They may not have had individuality to fall back on when social disorder ensued, but they had other resources to rely upon. Protecting their elders and priests must have been of prime importance.

* * *

“Evolution and Inspiration” by Judith Weissman
From Gods, Voices and the Bicameral Mind ed. Marcel Kuijsten
pp. 118-119

Such voices are not the property of either the ancient world or the Western world. In The Mountain People, anthropologist Colin Turnbull describes the Ik, a Ugandan tribe who had lived peaceably when they could both hunt and garden, until they were forcibly removed from their ancestral lands and relocated to an area where they could no longer hunt. Along with their ancient home, they lost their economy, their religion, and their social bonds; they became the cruelest of individuals, neglecting to grow the crops they once raised, eating whatever they could find each day, snatching food from old people and babies. They had once been guided by the voices of their ancestral spirits, the abang, who came to priests in their sleep and told them what they wanted to know. 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. Isolated with the voices of the abang, “she was always off on her own, tending gardens that required care and hard work while everywhere else food grew wild.” The voices told her how to live by the old agricultural rules, even when no one else obeyed them.

A contemporary group of people who still hear commanding voices enforcing inherited codes are the Saramaka of South America, interviewed by Richard Price, who recorded their oral histories in Alabi’s World. Their ancestors were brought from Africa to Central America as slaves but soon rebelled against white domination and created a unique culture preserved n a heroic oral tradition. In one episode, the gods appeared to the Saramakas after the war against the whites and gave instructions on how to clear and burn three garden sites to renew agriculture. And even the present-day Saramakas, who are supposed to be Christians, call on the speaking apukas who helped their ancestors win the war of liberation. People “still have such gods in their heads, ‘calling’ them for purposes of divination and curing inside people’s houses.” Although I have not made any systematic search of the anthropological literature for speaking gods, I have found by accident enough to convince me that the voices Jaynes has found among several ancient cultures have existed in many more, both ancient and still living.