Hearing Voices

Posted: November 27, 2012 in Consciousness, History, Religion, Science
Tags: ,

Backtracking to something in The Master and His Emissary I read a more than two months ago, McGilchrist has a fairly involved discussion of Julian Jaynes’ book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. I read Jaynes more than a decade ago and was pretty excited by his thesis, which I couldn’t then evaluate or assess very well. (I’m probably not much better equipped now.) Amazon.com reveals that there are other reviews and updates of Jaynes’ work since its publication in 1979, but I was unaware of them until just now. I was pleased to find McGilchrist give so much attention to Jaynes — a discussion spanning 4 pp. with the benefit of several decades of further research. I will provide McGilchrist’s summary of Jaynes’ highly original and creative thesis rather than rely on memory more than a decade old:

… [C]onsciousness, in the sense of introspective self-awareness, first arose in Homeric Greece. He [Jaynes] posits that, when the heroes of the Iliad (and the Old Testament) are reported as having heard the voices of the gods (or God) giving them commands or advice, this is not a figurative expression: they literally heard voices. The voices were speaking their own intuitive thoughts, and arose from their own minds, but were perceived as external, because at this time man was becoming newly aware of his own (hitherto unconscious) intuitive thought processes.

If one accepts (as I believe one should) that the ancient mind was fundamentally different from the modern mind, the latter of which was just beginning to coalesce at the time of the ancient Greeks (ca. 8th century BCE), this explains why all the sword-and-sandal movie epics get characters fundamentally wrong by depicting heroes especially but others as well with the purposefulness and self-possession of modern thinkers well before such qualities were established in antiquity. Antiquity is not prehistory, however, so there’s no danger of ancients being depicted as cavemen grunting and gesticulating without the benefit of language (except perhaps when they’re presented in stylized fashion as voiceless barbarians). But in typical modern gloss on centuries long past, there is little consideration of a middle ground or extended transition between modern consciousness and protoconsciousness (not unlike the transition from protolanguage to myriad languages of amazing sophistication). This is why Jaynes was so exciting when I first read him: he mapped, provisionally perhaps, how we got here from there.

McGilchrist believes that while the description above is accurate, Jaynes’ supporting details stem from a faulty premise, borne of an unfortunate mischaracterization of schizophrenia that was current in the 1970s in psychology and psychiatry. Never mind that schizophrenia is an affliction only a couple centuries old; the misunderstanding is that schizophrenics suffer from accentuated emotionalism and withdrawal into the body or the sensorium when in fact they are hyperrational and alienated from the body. The principal point of comparison between ancients and modern schizophrenics is that they both hear voices, but that fact arises from substantially different contexts and conditions. For Jaynes, hearing voices in antiquity came about because the unified brain/mind broke down into hemispheric competition where failure to cooperate resulted in a sort of split mind. According to McGilchrist, there was indeed a split mind at work, but not the one Jaynes believed. Rather, the split mind is the subject/object or self/other distinction, something readers of this blog may remember I have cited repeatedly as having initially developed in the ancient world. (Whether this is my own intuition or a synthesis of lots of reading and inquiry into historical consciousness is impossible for me to know anymore and unimportant anyway.) McGilchrist describes the subject/object distinction as the ability to objectify and to hold an object or idea as a “necessary distance” in the mind to better apprehend it, which was then generalized to the self. Here is how McGilchrist describes Jaynes’ error:

Putting it at its simplest, where Jaynes interprets the voices of the gods as being due to the disconcerting effects of the opening of a door between the hemispheres, so that the voices could for the first time be heard, I seen them as being due to the closing of the door, so that the voices of intuition now appear distant, ‘other’; familiar but alien, wise but uncanny — in a word, divine.

What’s missing from McGilchrist’s reevaluation of Jaynes is how hearing voices in the ancient world may also account for the rise of polytheism and how the gradual disappearance of those same voices as modern consciousness solidified led to monotheism, an artifact of the transitional mind of antiquity that survived into modernity. I lack to anthropological wherewithal to survey ancient civilizations elsewhere in the Middle East (such as Egypt) or in Asia (such as China), but it seems significant to me that spiritual alternatives beyond the three Abrahamic religions are rooted in animism (e.g., sun, moon, other animals, Nature) or what could be called lifeways (e.g., Taoism and Buddhism) and lack father and mother figureheads. (Mother Nature doesn’t really compare to traditional personification of sky gods.) This omission is understandably outside the scope of The Master and His Emissary, but it would have been interesting to read that discussion had it been included. Another interesting omission is how habituation with these inner voices eventually became the ongoing self-narrative we all know: talking to ourselves inside our heads. Modern thinkers readily recognize the self talking to itself, which is the recursive nature of self-awareness, and loss of proper orientation and self-possession are considered aberrant — crazy unless one claims to hear the voice of god (which strangely no one believes even if they believe in god). In short, god (or the gods) once spoke directly to us, but no longer.

For me, these observations are among the pillars of modern consciousness, an ever-moving puzzle picture I’ve been trying to piece together for years. I don’t mean to suggest that there are three large bands of historical consciousness, but it should be clear that we were once in our evolutionary history nonconscious (not unconscious — that’s something else) but developed minds/selves over the eons. As with biology and language, there is no point of arrival where one could say we are now fully developed. We continue to change constantly, far more quickly with language and consciousness than with biology, but there are nonetheless several observable developmental thresholds. The subject/object distinction from antiquity is one that profoundly informs modern consciousness today. Indeed, the scientific method is based on objectification. This intellectual pose is so powerful and commonplace (but not ubiquitous) that immersion, union, and loss of self is scarcely conceivable outside of a few special circumstances that render us mostly nonthinking, such as being in the zone, flow, sexual congress, religious ecstasy, etc., where the self is obliterated and we become “mindless.”

  1. kulturcritic says:

    Oh, you ‘mindless’ one LOL

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