A few years ago, as I was beginning to hear voices again after a long time without hearing them, I started to think about what voices really are. It began to seem to me that we have a very strange relationship to voices, and that includes even one’s own internal voice. If you stop to think about it for a moment, you’ll see that your own internal voice isn’t really you, even if it usually feels like you. That may sound strange, but while you may listen to your own internal voice a lot, and probably feel that it’s you talking to yourself, in fact it really isn’t the same as talking to yourself. The real you, I would suggest, is the one who is listening to that voice, not the one who is speaking; that you are, in fact, only half of this equation.
And if you listen to that voice long enough and don’t buy into what it’s saying without question — that is, if you don’t simply assume that everything it’s saying is what you would want to say or what you actually believe — then you may even realize that the situation resembles some kind of strange theater performance, one in which you are the member of an audience who is merely listening to an actor who is giving a performance, and that all of this is happening as intensely as it is even though that performance is given solely for one person: you. You’re like someone who’s watching a television show and who gets so used to listening to the actor on the screen that you identify with their performance to the point where you can no longer really tell the difference between yourself and the strange creature who is actually giving the performance, and who, needless to say, isn’t you. And since I do happen to be pretty experienced with voice hearing (much to my regret, since I wouldn’t say it’s been a fun experience), as well as a bit of a student of evolution who just sort of thinks in biological terms, I started to call this creature (the one who is giving the performance) a parasite.
Now, I don’t say that to alarm anyone. But this creature that is talking is so intertwined with our mental lives that we don’t realize how truly pervasive it is. It is the source of much of our ego, which is then the cause of much of the human evil in the world, since it preys not only on the rest of the individual human being in whose head it’s talking (always egging you on to find love with that one, or maybe you could get money from that one, or maybe you’d have more power and authority and esteem if you got to know that one) but also, through the social-verbal matrix in which it exists, to any other human beings that it can bring under its sway. The power of this creature that talks inside us cannot be overestimated, and it behaves like a parasite, because what it wants for itself (money, love, pleasure) often comes at a price that is paid by the rest of the individual human being it lives inside or by other human beings that it finds and then exploits.
If you read on just a bit further, I think I will be able to explain not only why I’ve come to consider this creature — the voice of the prefrontal cortex — a parasite, but also how it developed the role that it has, which is both verbally based and socially structured, and how in a deceptively strange way it is not only part of us but entirely separate from us at the same time.
Think of it this way: why, after all, does one actually need to talk to oneself? Seriously. Why talk to oneself? A really efficient machine (we are biological machines, after all) wouldn’t need to talk to itself. It would just go about its day, its parts quietly in sync with each other, and not speaking in a rhetorical, performance-oriented way to itself at all. And so, when I really, really noticed what I was doing with myself — one thing talking to me, and me listening to it — I began to question what was going on, and I happened to recall something I had heard recently about how the social development of human beings (as we moved into larger groups that needed more complex communication so we could perform more complex social tasks such as hunting together in teams where different members of the group had different roles) had all taken place at around the same time that language developed, which struck me as a very interesting developmental path.
As I considered the voice I heard talking to me in my own head, it suddenly occurred to me that what was happening was, more or less, a later development of the brain talking to a more basic and earlier level of consciousness, one which was not verbal itself but which was capable of understanding ideas that either did or didn’t use a verbal form, and which was, in fact, the actual seat and locus of my real awareness. In other words: the prefrontal cortex was like a separate being, communicating by speech with my more basic self as though it were another person, one which had to rhetorically persuade me to believe what it wanted me to believe and to do as it wanted me to do. The voice talking in my head, in other words, was giving a verbal performance in the same style as a social communication between different people to the rest of my mind, much as earlier humans had learned to speak to each other to persuade and influence each other, and the way it was capable of transfixing my attention had almost the same power as watching a snake, swaying in front of me and hissing for my attention. It was, in other words, a different person than the rest of me. And that thought was profoundly unsettling.
And as I thought of all the various things that that voice had wanted from me and other people over the years — money, love, sex, and shelter, of course, but also fame, glamor, admiration, power and control over other human beings, and the ability to control other people’s money and resources, and so forth — it struck me that that little hissing snake inside was such a vicious beast, in fact, that it made you understand why, in the Book of Genesis (I don’t pound on the Bible a whole lot, but I really do like Genesis and Revelation), the serpent is described as “the cleverest beast” in Creation. And when you realize that what they were talking about was that serpent-like power of speech that lies in the tongue, you realize what an evil creature this thing really is — under the right circumstances.
Now, at the same time, you have to give that creature its due. We are able to deal with complex problems, communicate with each other, and even create new ideas because of that snake. It is there, after all, because it serves a function. But the prefrontal cortex has taken its role as the vehicle for communication and turned it into a way to make all communication serve itself. It is basically a separate part of the brain, serving itself and using social-verbal communication to do so. It is not inherently evil. But it most certainly has become a parasite — and by that I mean an actual, physical parasite that is built right into our brains, and until we understand what it’s doing, we are prey to every evil that can be imagined. The prefrontal cortex provides benefits, but at the same time it turns the rest of the human being, and as many other human beings as it can bring under its spell, into servants of its own agenda for pleasure, self-regard, and power-seeking. And I think it’s time we finally recognized it for what it is: a parasite, separate from the rest of us. Until we recognize what it is and its power, we will never be truly free to make our own unhampered decisions.
As I said earlier, it wasn’t until I’d started to hear some voices again that I really started to examine what was going on with what I had, up til then, thought of as my own internal voice. As it happens, I was also meditating quite a bit at the time. Now, I’m not a sit-on-the-cushion-and-close-your-eyes-and-try-to-feel-peaceful kind of meditator. I’m a get-out-in-the-world kind of meditator. I like to walk, and look around, and see the world, at the same time that I’m maintaining the kind of awareness that meditation brings. In fact, I have some doubts about the value of the sitting-on-the-cushion kind of meditation. If that kind of meditation really worked, there would be millions of Buddhist monks all over the world who were enlightened already, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. What I believe in is our ability to maintain mindfulness, no matter what’s happening, when that’s appropriate for the situation, and to drop the meditative awareness and just get things done in the world when that’s appropriate.
Instead of trying to sit on a cushion and feel peaceful, which is just about impossible in actual practice (your mind doesn’t ever stop feeding you thoughts, feelings and ideas, no matter what you do) real meditation is about engaging with what’s really there: listening to your thoughts — without engaging with them, yes, but still watching what they’re doing, without judgment, but simply being aware of them, letting them pass through you. Or you listen to your body: the sense of tension in your back or your neck, or the tingling on your hand, or whatever. The thing is to just be there and let it happen. Meditation is not about feeling peaceful. It is about simply observing what is really happening, with the result (not a goal that you are trying to force yourself to achieve, but simply the result) that you come to be detached from it all at the same time that you are genuinely engaged with it — involved without ever being caught up in it. You see it all without being captured.
And in dealing with my own internal voice, the voice of the parasite, what I have done is to simply let it talk, talk, talk, just as Buddhism says, and I listen without really ever believing what it has to say — at least not until I have let myself just look at it, then let it sink into my heart and be tested by my own deeper sense of what is real. That sense of what is real seems to come from that earlier-existing part of the brain, the one that was there before we developed the power of speech. That is the voice that I can really trust, even if it is always silent.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.