17 comments March 26th, 2007at 05:51pm Posted by Eli
(Before I get started, just so no-one gets alarmed, I do not hear voices. And even if I did, I would probably only pay attention to the ones that told me to slack off – killing people is waaaay too much hassle, and I’d rather just sleep in.)
This week’s NYT Magazine has an intriguing article about people who hear voices in their heads, but who aren’t necessarily psychotic or schizophrenic, and the ways in which they try to cope with them. The nature of the voices seems to vary widely from person to person: Some are companionable, some are adversarial. Some people view them as having potential insight to be heeded, some view them solely as tormentors. No-one really seems to know where they come from, or what cerebral mechanism creates them. I found one theory particularly intriguing:
In his 2003 book, “Madness Explained,” [psychology professor Richard] Bentall draws on the theory that auditory hallucinations may have their roots in what psychologists call “inner speech.” All of us, every day, produce a steady stream of silent, inward-directed speech: plans, thoughts, quotations, memories. People hear voices, Bentall argues, when they make faulty judgments about whether this inner speech is the product of their own consciousness or of something alien to their consciousness. Lapses in what researchers call “source monitoring” may occur for a number of reasons – because an individual is primed to expect a perception to occur, because the level of background noise makes it difficult to separate what is internal from what is external, because he or she is in a state of emotional arousal. But whatever the cause, Bentall writes, there is evidence to suggest that hallucinating “can be explained in terms of the same kinds of mental processes that affect normal perceptual judgments.”
This actually sounds pretty plausible to me – I can imagine my own internal monologue being rather alarming if I thought it was coming from someone else. It also reminds me of a mental version of this phenomenon, where people can actually lose track of their own body’s location, and perceive themselves as a ghost. I’m really talking out of my ass now, but I also wonder if in some cases it might be a milder variant of multiple personality disorder, where the extra personalities don’t have the strength to assume control, and can only howl at the primary personality through the bars of their cages.
This in turn reminded me of a fascinating science-fiction book by Greg Bear, titled Queen Of Angels. It’s primarily about the attempt to find the reasons for a famous writer’s psychotic break, during which he invited all of his students to his apartment and slit their throats one by one as they entered. What made this book so intriguing to me was its depiction of the way the mind works. Instead of being a single consciousness in charge of everything, the mind is split up into a complex hierarchy of subpersonalities and utility modules.
This conception really resonated for me, as it explained some quirks of my own mental functioning, aside from the obvious compartmentalization of personality, where I act differently depending on who I’m interacting with and where. My confidence in my abilities has always been rather shaky – people seem to think I’m good at stuff, and sometimes I’ll look back on papers or posts I’ve written or photos I’ve taken and think, “Hey, that was actually pretty good,” but most of the time when I sit down at the keyboard or pick up the camera, I don’t have high hopes.
I think the theory of mind in Queen Of Angels may actually explain this phenomenon, and it matches my internal perceptions perfectly: I have a central consciousness through which I perceive and interact with the world and maintain my internal narrative, and which is essentially “me,” but it can’t really do anything – it has no skills whatsoever. All of my skills and abilities are locked away in black-box modules which are only active when my central consciousness invokes them to carry out the task that they were designed for. The rest of the time, they’re tucked away and dormant. And since I can’t perceive anything outside my central consciousness when these modules are not active, I have a hard time believing that these skills really exist, and that I didn’t just get lucky somehow, or that they’ll be there the next time I call upon them.
Over time, my confidence has improved, simply because I have enough of a body of work that I’ve grown to trust in my abilities, even if I still can’t feel their presence. I’ve described this to other people, and for the most part I think I may be something of an extreme case – most people are more integrated and confident than I am, and feel their abilities more acutely, even when they’re not active. This is probably a good topic for audience participation: How do you perceive your mental interiors? Are all your talents right there in plain sight all the time, or do they just switch on when you need them, and then switch right back off again? Do you feel you have more or less confidence in yourself as a result? Inquiring subpersonalities want to know.
UPDATE: I should add, in case I don’t sound desperate-for-therapy enough already, that even when one of my various submodules is active, I still tend to perceive it as external to my central consciousness. Still within myself, certainly, but it’s coming from… somewhere else, feeding data into my somewhat-surprised central consciousness. My central consciousness is basically mask, narrator, and traffic cop.