Ghosts in the Mind

This is written in connection with two ghost stories I have seen on stage recently: The Turn of the Screw and The Woman in Black.

In his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, Julian Jaynes argues that three thousand years ago human beings had bicameral minds, meaning that one half of the brain communicated to the other half, which transmuted what it received into visual and auditory images. He used this to explain auditory and visual hallucinations, and to argue that consciousness, in its introspective sense, only emerged from the breakdown of bicameralism in the modern brain. He argues that in ancient times the voices heard by the participants in Homer’s Iliad, or indeed by Biblical heroes such as Abraham and Moses, were a consequence of bicameralism. Vestiges of this in our modern brains may give a partial explanation for seeing ghosts and hearing strange noises. What sets this off is mysterious, but I know from my own experience as a mathematician that my best ideas have always arisen intuitively rather than rationally. This is how creativity works, and a trained mind is able to put a sudden insight into a rational framework, using for instance mathematical symbols, musical notation or simply words.

In the context of our modern minds, creating a rational output from an intuitive feeling uses a combination of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which is vital for mathematical and musical creativity. But when our brains function in a bicameral way, an intuitive idea may give rise to something that appears to come from outside us. A suitable environment, such as a mysterious house with a history of being haunted, or feelings of which we might not be conscious, could combine with small perceptions that do not fit an expected pattern to produce a sudden insight that is transmitted from one half of the brain to the other. This may then be interpreted as a visual or auditory image — a ghost, a disembodied voice, or simply an unexpected sound. If the ghost seems to cause a disaster to happen, as in the story of The Woman in Black, it might well be that a presentiment of the disaster causes the hallucination.

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