Living Voices

The interest in 'social networks' has provided new evidence that several powerful ancient epics were based on real people. The Iliad, the Beowulf and the Tain Bo Cualinge, unlike many more modern stories, seem to capture real social dynamics. (Hat tip: Lars Walker.)

What about the gods, though? Were they real too? A new treatment for schizophrenia is based upon the idea that they were.
Jaynes was a psychology professor at Princeton, back in the days before psychologists had walled themselves off from literature, when he noticed that the gods in the Homeric epics took the place of the human mind. In the Iliad we do not see Achilles fretting over what to do, or even thinking much. Achilles is a man of action, and in general, he acts as the gods instruct him. When Agamemnon steals his mistress and Achilles seethes with anger, Athena shows up, grabs him by the hair, and holds him back. Jaynes argued that Athena popped up in this way because humans in archaic Greece attributed thought to the gods—that when the ancient kings were buried in those strange beehive Mycenaean tombs, when social worlds were small and preliterate, people did not conceptualize themselves as having inner speech.

Jaynes did not think that the role of the gods in the Iliad was a literary trope. He thought that people who did not refer to internal states used their brains differently and—the cognitive functions of speaking and obeying split across their unintegrated hemispheres—actually experienced some thoughts audibly. “Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips?” Jaynes asked. “They were voices whose speech and direction could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices.”
The treatment, by the way, is for people who experience these voices to talk back to them, and see if you can cut a deal with them. It turns out to be the case that, at least in some cases, you can: and when you try, instead of being destructive, the voices often become friendly and even helpful.

Now that makes for an interesting -- and rather daunting -- prospect. If Jaynes were right, you could learn to hear voices: you could meet the old gods. Or the old demons.

1 comment:

Texan99 said...

Oh, I remember that work: "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind."