Acclaimed cultural anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann has a new paper out in the British Journal of Psychiatry: “Differences in voice-hearing experiences of people with psychosis in the USA, India and Ghana: interview-based study“.
The paper further corroborates the theoretical framework of Julian Jaynes and his idea of bicamerality. The bicameral paradigm is quintessentially a hallucinatory voice guiding or command you to do everyday tasks. Consider this summary of the interviews from patients in Chennai, India
These voices behaved as relatives do: they gave guidance, but they also scolded. They often gave commands to do domestic tasks. Although people did not always like them, they spoke about them as relationships. One man explained, ‘They talk as if elder people advising younger people’. A woman heard seven or eight of her female relatives scold her constantly. They told her that she should die; but they also told her to bathe, to shop, and to go into the kitchen and prepare food.
Now consider Jaynes’ hypothetical description of the Egyptian concept of “ka” or “spirit double”:
It is obvious from the preceding chapters that the ka requires a reinterpretation as a bicameral voice. It is, I believe, what the ili or personal god was in Mesopotamia. A man’s ka was his articulate directing voice which he heard inwardly, perhaps in a parental or authoritative accents, but which when heard by his friends or relatives even after his own death, was, of course, hallucinated as his own voice…
The ka of the god-king is of particular interest. It was heard, I suggest, by the king in the accents of his own father…
[In early civilizations]…each person had a part of his nervous system which was divine, by which he was ordered about like any slave, a voice or voices which indeed were what we call volition and empowered what they commanded and were related to the hallucinated voices of others in a carefully established hierarchy.
Going back to the Luhrmann interviews, we can see the essential social-hierarchical component of bicamerality still at work today in voice-hearers:
They made comments that suggested that these voices were both social relationships and entertainment: ‘I like my mother’s voice’; later, this woman added ‘I have a companion to talk [to] . . . [laughs] I need not go out to speak. I can talk within myself!’
Jaynes’ other suggestion about bicamerality is that the voices served a behavioral function: they weren’t just echoes of a broken nervous system, but were a way for the human nervous system to guide itself adaptively. They are a channel for what Jaynes called “stored-up admonitory wisdom”. Luhrmann cites one man as saying ‘[the voices] just tell me to do the right thing. If I hadn’t had these voices I would have been dead long ago.”
Now imagine an entire city where the majority of people are voice-hearers and there is an elaborate cultural mythology for interpreting the voices as “personal gods”, where hearing divine or special voices talk to you is perfectly normal in every way. Can you imagine it? Jaynes could. But it stretches the imagination. But that’s no reason to think it wasn’t the case. Just because modern people with modern minds not hearing voices find that situation “psychotic” or “crazy” doesn’t mean that bicamerality has always been limited to 1-2% of the population. It was likely spread throughout the population in much greater proportion than it is today. It is in fact part of the human gene pool, which is why schizophrenia today has such a large genetic component. Complicated cognitive mechanisms such as voice hearing don’t just stay in the gene pool for no reason. It suggests that it was adaptive in the not too distant past. And for some people in some cultures, as Luhrmann indicates, it still serves an adaptive function. John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor also talks about the adaptive function of vestigial bicamerality in the context of extreme survival, where people on the verge of life and death have been guided to safety by following the instructions of hallucinated voices.