Voices in Our Heads


Somewhere, out on the plains in Africa, just shortly after humans had learned to talk, a tribe got into some sort of trouble and all seemed bleak. Suddenly a man in the tribe heard the voice of his father, who had died years before, instructing him on what to do. He got everyone’s attention and commanded that they do exactly what he told them and by following the instructions he heard, saved his people from certain annihilation. When everyone was safe, he turned his eyes to the sky and said, “Thank you, father!” 

From then on he became the tribe’s counselor and every time the tribe was in trouble, he heard the same voice speaking to him. Sometimes he heard his mother’s voice, soothing him as she’d done when he was a child. As the tribe grew, others began hearing voices which sometimes led them in different directions from the rest. Over time, humans began to realize the voices weren’t coming from outside, but from inside their own heads. Combined with our capacity for memory, they formed the basis of our conscious minds.

I saw an experiment once where researchers were testing to see how much flight was ingrained in the instincts of birds. They placed food at the top of a ramp and a parrot at the bottom. The easiest thing the parrot could have done was fly up to get the food but the parrot walked instead. This led researchers to conclude flight was a recent innovation by birds that was not totally instinctive yet. Of course, this could vary from species to species. In the same way, conscious thought seems to be a recent acquisition by humans, and we’re still learning how best to utilize it.

In his work, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes theorizes that early individuals heard auditory hallucinations originating from the developing cerebral cortex which they mistook for the voices of gods. They seemed to come during times of stress and frequently gave innovative solutions to problems encountered by those who heard them. Schizophrenics are a throwback to these early individuals, being unable to recognize the voices as products of their own minds.

The advantage humans have over other creatures is the ability to rationalize thought, to visualize potential outcomes, and to combine information from many different sources to create innovative solutions. Given this, many people still fall into rote patterns of behavior, acting as though their response to whatever the world throws at them is conditioned and beyond their control. Everyone has had a moment when he or she has reacted to a situation in an instinctive manner and quickly regretted doing so. Equally, people recognize certain patterns in their behavior which come into play in stressful or uncertain situations, even though they can often conceive other ways to respond. Creativity often involves listening to the voices in one’s head, sorting out inspiration from noise and acting upon whatever seems most promising, whether writing a paragraph, composing a song, or devising a plan for a more efficient workplace. 

Our intellects are constantly at odds with our instincts, which have the advantage of several billion years head start. We are aware of our instincts, but do not fully understand how they influence our day to day decision making as deeply rooted as they are into our behavior. Humans have shown they have the ability to override the instincts at times, such as when a person’s curiosity causes him or her to investigate some unusual phenomenon, without taking into account the potential danger involved. Unique situations often involve overcoming one’s fears or anxieties and often the reward is worth the risk. Still, despite the creative potential within each person, the number of truly innovative people seems relatively small, and frequently, the most creative are also the most ostracized in society.

The development of conscious thought is what ultimately separated humans from other species on the planet, and the ability to visualize unique solutions to life situations is our greatest strength. While there are other creatures, such as apes and some birds who have demonstrated self-awareness and are adept at creating and using tools, we’ve yet to encounter another species which displays the ability to conceptualize the future in the way we do. With this ability comes responsibility, however, and we should not ignore those voices in our heads which prompt us to follow our better nature. 


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