The voices in your head are culturally specific


Everyone has “intrusive thoughts” at some point. Traditionally they fall into three categories: Violent, sexual, and blasphemous. The last one cracked me because I’ve never considered blasphemous thoughts to be a “problem.” However, many religious people are tormented by them.

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I remember getting voices in my head as a reaction to a drug. Not to diminish the plight of schizophrenics abroad, but it sure would have been nice if they had been telling me to clean the apartment.


There was a recent article in the New Yorker regarding culturally based schizophrenic observations over time. (It is locked, but here it is Essentially, they found that years ago patients believed that the CIA was viewing them. Now they believe they are the star of some sort of entertainment similar to the Truman Show.

A good place for schizophrenic delusions is the Alex Jones show and right wing militia sites where they have all these theories about mind control (it comes in several different flavors), vast conspiracies, and how Obama completely hypnotizes people with his voice. But now people with classic schizoid delusions are being told that they need guns, lots and lots of guns, for protection from “them.”

Also, historically more people saw them as demons. I recognised mine as “voices in my head” almost straight away. Didn’t make them any less scary.

I was fascinated by the previous article which discussed the disparity in the voices occurring temporally within the confines of a similar cultural background when this subject was last engaged with, but this is perhaps more interesting.

I would argue that one important factor in what types of voices and commands or implications you hear is the conditioning of liminality by one’s environment. (what gets past the threshold of consciousness (so-to-speak)).
Any previous memory may be thrust into the light of consciousness as suddenly relevant to one’s environment if the conditions dictate; so the important questions seems to be ‘what is your cultural environment, as modelled by the memetic structures in your mind, currently reacting to as important?’

I’ve previously run afoul of this topic by brazenly stating that ‘all thinking is magical’ and paid for the comment with a lot of ‘woo woo’ noises.
Again, I’ll state: The base operation of all thought is association, close-ness in phase space, of the mental structure, to other, similar mental structures.

The fact that one can build atop of this associative substrate, systems of logic, language, scientific analysis, classical physics etc should be of no surprise to any one who’s even heard the term ‘complex systems’.

I’d love to hear about the findings for people who are dual-citizens or multi-lingual. If you are truly fluent in another language, surely you would have to have inculcated a large portion of the biases and cultural implications you are assumed to have mastered in order to understand turns-of-phrase and the like.

Would that conditioning process affect the types of voice and command one’s mind is dredging up?

I have some reading to do.

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Sometimes I wonder how possible it really is for our brains to parallel-process. “Voices” that occasionally intrude demonstrate the low end, and full-blown schitzophrenia and post-injury “alien hand” and like-syndromes at the high end. It also makes me wonder what information such forked processes have access to, especially in the case of alien hand patients with some form of traumatic brain injury.

At the same time that I wonder, I hope to never have first-hand experience with the phenomenon either…

Once I recognized that the voices in my head were just my own dark thoughts stuck in a really bad OCD feedback loop, they really weren’t such a problem any more. After that, I was able to get a grip on them, because I knew they were mine in the first place.


True story about cultural differences and unique problems with extra voices in people’s heads. A woman originally from the Caribbean phoned the Cult Hotline and said that she was hearing voices.

I’m afraid that we don’t hand cases like that ma’am. I can refer you to either a psychiatrist or an exorcist who would be happy to assist you though.

Ah, you white people are always so scared of spiritual matters like this. Where I come from hearing voices is considered to be a spiritual gift. The voices I hear have been my friends since childhood and not some sort of problem to be gotten rid of.

Oh, I’m sorry to have assumed they were the problem. What did you want to talk to us about then.

Well, a friend of mine took me to a meeting last week which turned out to be a cult recruiting thing. I saw right through it but one of my voices joined the cult and now won’t stop talking about it!


A therapist once told me of a client who had been hearing voices telling him to get up in the middle of the night and kill his family, which upset him. Eventually, with treatment, he said the voices were different. “What do the voices say?” “They tell me to get up in the middle of the night and raid the fridge”.

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There are non-religious blasphemous thoughts: “Maybe we should practice eugenics,” comes to mind. It’s only blasphemous if you don’t believe it, or consider it reprehensible to your worldview. There’s no rule that blasphemy refer to the supernatural. I’m not schizophrenic or religious, but I do have a fairly robust moral streak. My intrusive thoughts can be blasphemous, without having anything to do with religion, they simply have to cut across my value-system the wrong way. What’s interesting is that I’ve never really been the type of person who likes or espouses moral certitude- hence the conflict I suppose.

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Pot does a fine job of that one.

Or, er, so I’m told.

What if I can hear the voices in other people’s heads?

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That’s the most interesting thing I’ve read today. It never occurred to me that “blasphemy” could be used in a secular context. I wonder if cannibalism would qualify?

There’s a really interesting book about the cultural dependency of mental illness called “Crazy Like Us.” The upshot is that many mental illnesses that are, implicitly or explicitly, assumed by psychiatrists and clinical psychologists to be inherent and universal, are actually specific to our culture, until we start exporting western-trained psychiatrists, whereupon people start exhibiting the symptoms they are looking for. In other words, they are not discovering mental illness, but creating it.

Years ago, I read The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes. From time to time, I meet someone else who’s read it, and everyone seems to have the same reaction: it seemed like a crackpot theory, it has lots of obvious shortcomings, and yet it remains compelling.

The theory, roughly, was that self-consciousness, our continuous self-narration, was a relatively recent development, that it began to emerge at the beginning of recorded history, and was likely associated with the invention of writing. Prior to that, something close to schizophrenia was a human’s natural state; any sort of long-term planning or goal-directed thinking took the form of a voice or voices telling you what to do. These voices were often identified as departed ancestors – i.e., people who in your childhood told you what to do.

Pretty much everything I’ve heard about schizophrenia seems to fit this: I imagine it as a sort of partial reversion to a state of being we’re trained away from, from birth.

Anyway, it would make also fit the theory that the nature of the voices you hear would reflect the received priorities (or repressed priorities) of the culture you live in.

So what? I hear voices telling me to take out the trash and clean the cats’ litterboxes and I ignore them just fine.


Well, “creating it” in a sense. We are exporting symptom sets but not underlying mental and emotional dysfunction (okay, in some cases we are causing that too, but we can’t blame that entirely on the psychiatrists). Of course since apparently our symptoms sets are very violent, we aren’t doing anyone any favours by exporting them.

Even if blasphemy isn’t necessarily religious, it isn’t for everyone. It makes me think of Moral Foundation Theory and the idea of sanctity. Things that run contrary to your concept of sanctity are blasphemous. But since many people don’t give a toss about sanctity, I think for a lot of us blasphemy isn’t a thing at all.