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Why do we talk to ourselves? A new book investigates the voices in our heads

The Voices Within by Charles Fernyhough is an ear-opening book – and an important corrective to myths about schizophrenia, the brain and even our self of sense.

You’re going to be late for that meeting; you haven’t even left the house. But where’s your wallet? It’s not in your pocket, it’s not in your bag – come on, come on, you’ve got to find it. Where on Earth could it be? If you’re like me, that “come on, come on” will be sounding vividly in your head as you stomp from room to room. You’re issuing a silent instruction to yourself. But how does this inner voice really work? What purpose does it serve? Does everyone hear something similar? These are some of the questions that Charles Fernyhough sets out to investigate in The Voices Within.

Fernyhough is an interesting fellow. A professor at Durham University, he began his career in developmental psychology, with a focus on social, emotional and cognitive development. But in recent years he has shifted his attention to the study of psychosis – particularly the phenomenon of voice-hearing, in which the inner voice is not the speaker’s own, helpfully assisting in the search for a lost wallet, but seemingly external, often frightening, dismissive or commanding.

People who experience this are often simply labelled “schizophrenic” – a “highly misunderstood term”, Fernyhough writes. The word, coined in 1908 by the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, invokes alarm: “The sound of its sibilant label triggers fear and prejudice.” One of the aims of this book is to question that prejudice and to consider other ways of thinking about these “external” voices, setting them on a continuum with the dialogue we all conduct with ourselves.

But it is more than merely science that informs the author’s attention to how the sound of a word can influence its effect on its hearers. Fernyhough is also a novelist and not a little of this book is concerned
with another expression of the inner voice – the creation and consumption of fiction. When Fernyhough asked 1,500 people whether they heard the voices of fictional characters in their heads, 80 per cent said that they did; one in seven “said that those voices were as vivid as hearing an actual person speaking”. Many novelists report the experience of building their characters as being observational as much as it is creative. Fernyhough quotes David Mitchell describing his occupation as a kind of “controlled personality disorder . . . To make it work, you have to concentrate on the voices and get them talking to each other.” Fernyhough’s fine description of how it feels to read fiction is an expert blend of the scientific and artistic:

The voices we encounter in a novel can express our desires, threaten our safety, challenge our morals and speak of what cannot be said. They take us into a place of expanded possibilities where we can try on other identities. Through their expert control of these fictional voices, novelists lead us into a controlled dissolution of the self, and then bring us back safely to who we are.

What happens when that dissolution of the self is not controlled? Fernyhough introduces us to Jay, who hears the voices in his head as having different accents, pitches and tones. There is Adam, who lives with a voice he knows as the Captain; the Captain is a hard taskmaster, ordering Adam around, berating him, letting him know who’s boss. And yet, while Adam struggles with the Captain, he doesn’t long for his disappearance. “It feels like you’ve got a mate looking out for you as well,” Adam says.

The Dutch psychiatrist Marius Romme is a pioneer of the Hearing Voices Movement, which aims to remove the stigma often attached to the phenomenon of voice-hearing and instead pays attention to the information (about childhood trauma, for example) that those voices bring to the surface. Fernyhough discusses this approach with sensitivity and warmth.

The trouble is, as the author demonstrates, that discovering what is going on in the individual’s brain isn’t simple. Although voices, as he writes, can give us clues to “the fragmentary constitution of an ordinary human self”, the nature of that self – how my self makes itself distinct from your self, whether the voices in my head “sound” different to the ones in yours – is one of the central problems of both philosophy and science. Fernyhough doesn’t skimp on the science when demonstrating the difficulties that arise from “self-reporting”: inner voices must, by necessity, always be described by the person experiencing them.

The book traces in detail (the footnotes are just as interesting as the text) the various attempts to pin down inner voices, whether those involve MRI scans or something called “Descriptive Experience Sampling” (DES), by which volunteers describe exactly what they are thinking when a beeper goes off in their ears. Yet there is still a fascinating gap between science and experience: it remains impossible to express what those voices really sound like to each person who hears them.

The voices within have always been with us and this is a book of history as well as one concerned with science and art. In centuries past, our ancestors seemed rather more certain of the source of the voices that rang inside them. Fernyhough doesn’t neglect those who knew that what they heard was the voice of God – or the gods.

His discussion of Margery Kempe, the 14th-century English mystic whose recounting of her spiritual life lays claim to being the first autobiography written in the language, is particularly sensitive. And he is careful of the retrospective “reductionist dishing-out of diagnoses” when it comes to figures such as Kempe, or Julian of Norwich, or Joan of Arc. His role as a scientist does not prevent him from recognising Kempe’s experience as what it must have been for her – “an inner conversation with a very special substance: the relationship between a woman and her God”. The brain’s conversation was once perceived as mystic. Even if that is no longer wholly the case, much mystery remains.

The Voices Within: the History and Science of How We Talk to Ourselves by Charles Fernyhough is published by Profile Books/Wellcome Collection (319pp, £16.99)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear