On Being Strange

The human mind is fascinating. Did you know that? I thought I should mention it, just in case.

The capacity of the human mind leads in various directions. Many have wondered what psychiatric conditions say not just about those who are ‘afflicted’ but for human nature in general.

Take schizophrenia, which is always a popular topic, as it is fairly common. Schizophrenia includes several types of experience that get me thinking.

There is the oceanic feeling that is typical, something they share with many mystics, meditation practitioners and anyone who has imbibed psychedelics. It is a loss of boundaries or rather a fluidity between self and other.

This is part of a generally fluid way of experiencing reality. Schizophrenics often think others can hear their thoughts and that they can hear the thoughts of others. It also goes along with hearing voices, especially command hallucinations. Instead of thinking ‘I will do such and such,’ they hear ‘You will do such and such’.

This is where we touch upon the theories of Julian Jaynes and Iain McGilchrist. If we take the ancients at their word, we have to conclude that command hallucinations were considered a normal experience. Even today normal people hear command hallucinations when under extreme duress and stress. What if we all possess immense potential in how we can experience reality and identity? What might this mean for societies, in the ancient world and maybe in the future?

A different aspect is how schizophrenics view the world. People, objects, and concepts aren’t perceived as being individual. Rather, they are experienced as inseparable members of ever larger subclasses. This emphasizes a sense of larger wholeness beyond individuality.

Related to this, Iain McGilchrist explains this in terms of hemisphere functioning (p. 51):

“At the same time it is the right hemisphere that has the capacity to distinguish specific examples within a category, rather than categories alone: it stores details to distinguish specific instances. 148 The right hemisphere presents individual, unique instances of things and individual, familiar, objects, where the left hemisphere re-presents categories of things, and generic, non-specific objects. 149 In keeping with this, the right hemisphere uses unique referents, where the left hemisphere uses non-unique referents. 150 It is with the right hemisphere that we distinguish individuals of all kinds, places as well as faces. 151 In fact it is precisely its capacity for holistic processing that enables the right hemisphere to recognise individuals. 152 Individuals are, after all, Gestalt wholes: that face, that voice, that gait, that sheer ‘quiddity’ of the person or thing, defying analysis into parts.”

This isn’t just about schizophrenics. This difference between hemispheres exists in everyone, even if it doesn’t normally show so starkly as in psychiatric conditions.

In terms of bicameral societies, this makes me think that it isn’t an issue of there being no boundaries. It simply would be different and larger boundaries. Society itself, instead of the individual, would define self and reality. Individuality wouldn’t be the locus of experience and so individual perspective wouldn’t necessarily be understood as such, much less privileged as the basis of all else. This is shown in the odd examples throughout ancient literature where body parts are spoken of as if they had their own minds, their own thoughts and emotions.

This brings to mind a book I’ve been reading. It’s Evolution and Empathy by Milton E. Brener. He doesn’t reference either Jaynes or McGilchrist, but his thinking is in line with theirs. Brener discusses how the ancients apparently didn’t see spatial relationship between things as we moderns do. Closer and further objects lacked perspective, both being shown the same size. And multiple sides to a person or object would be shown simultaneously (e.g., all wheels of a wagon shown equally or different body parts shown from different angles).

Why did the ancients portray their world in such strange ways? And why do some people even today experience the world in strange ways that seem to match aspects of what the ancients portrayed? Maybe we are all a bit stranger than we realize.

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Here are a few previous posts of mine:

Radical Human Mind: From Animism to Bicameralism and Beyond
Making Gods, Making Individuals
Synesthesia, and Psychedelics, and Civilization! Oh My!
Developmental Differences: Preliminary Thoughts

Also, if this kind of thing fascinates you as it fascinates me, you might want to check out another blog:

Gary Williams’s Minds and Brains