Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given to us by divine gift. — Socrates
Statistically, you’re more likely to hear voices in your head than to be left-handed. If you do hear voices, before submitting yourself to psychiatric care, you might want to check in with your local chapter of the Hearing Voices Network. An international community of people who experience auditory hallucinations, the HVN was founded in 1988 by the Dutch social psychiatrist Marius Romme, who had a hunch that far more people were hearing voices than was generally believed — and that for most of them, this wasn’t a problem.
Not all the voices are saying the same things. When psychologist Tanya Luhrmann compared the reports of voice-hearers in Ghana, the United States, and India, she discovered that while most Americans felt “bombarded” by unfamiliar, hostile voices urging them to harm themselves or others, the Indians and Ghanaians generally believed the voices to be family members or divine figures, who often made helpful suggestions, such as “you should comb your hair” or “it’s time to clean the house.”
Luhrmann believes her research demonstrates that the harsh, violent voices so common in the West are not an inevitable feature of schizophrenia. Rather, cultural expectations shape the quality and content of our auditory hallucinations:
The way people think about thinking changes the way they pay attention to the unusual experiences associated with sleep and awareness, and as a result, people will have different spiritual experiences, as well as different patterns of psychiatric experience. It’s time to rethink the tendency to treat these voices as if they are the uninteresting neurological byproducts of disease which should be ignored.
For our forager ancestors, such voices were often seen as a form of divine madness of potentially lifesaving importance and power. A young person who experienced the sorts of hallucinations we associate with severe mental illness would have been considered a potential shaman — someone with the ability to move between the conventional world and other, less tangible realities. Early manifestations of this ability were typically terrifying and dangerous, but represented “the call to shamanize.” This call cannot be ignored, as the alternative to learning to harness and direct this capacity could be madness or death.
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