A Recent Interview with Me

I was recently interviewed by Mathieu Frerejouan for the annually published Alius Bulletin.

ALIUS is an international and interdisciplinary research group dedicated to the investigation of all aspects of consciousness, with a specific focus on nonordinary or understudied conscious states traditionally classified as altered states of consciousness

Should you be interested, you can read it here: McCarthy-Jones Interview

The full Bulletin can be accessed here, which includes great interviews with others such as Tanya Luhrmann and Jakob Hohwy.

Thanks to Mathieu for taking the time to read my work, and for coming up with some great questions!


McCarthy-Jones, S., & Frerejouan, M. (2017). The phenomenon of voice-hearing: an interdisciplinary approach. An interview with Simon McCarthy-Jones. ALIUS Bulletin, 1, 37-45


Silence of the Ancients

I’d found a Narnian door for adults…

assyrian-sectionIt led from a ordered, public gallery in the British Museum to a sprawling and private unseen back-world of crates, dust and straw. Here, history peeped out one corner at a time and raging mummies rampaged freely. Well, maybe not the mummies. As I crossed the threshold, I felt as if I was encountering real history. These were not explicated exhibits safe for consumption, but representatives of a fragmented, unclassified and perhaps unclassifiable past. I walked meters but travelled millennia, back to Sumer, Babylon and Assyria.


Dr Irving Finkel

Dr Irving Finkel was my guide, the British Museum’s Assistant Keeper of Ancient Mesopotamian script, languages and cultures. Finkel is a cross between Harry Potter and Professor Dumbledore. His huge, tumbling white beard spews tirelessly downwards, a boyish twinkle lurks in his bespectacled eyes, and a PhD in Ancient Mesopotamian Exorcistic Magic sits in his back pocket. I felt like Ron.

mammothI had come to visit Dr Finkel to find out if voice-hearing was present in the earliest written records we possess. Although spoken language is thought to have begun around 50,000 years ago, no-one got around to writing anything down for the next 45,000 years.

Whilst this could have been due to arguments over how words like ‘cognac’ should be spelt, the consensus is that there was a mammoth stationary problem (a lack of materials to write on, not mammoths eating all the pens).

It was only around 3,000BCE that the Sumerians discovered writing on clay and then baking it produced texts which stood the test of time, despite (or perhaps due to) being largely inedible.

Theirs was a world where ghosts (spirits of the dead) and demons were real. A person’s spirit (Sumerian = “gidim”, Akkadian = “etemmu”) was believed to separate from their body at death, being potentially visible and audible. There are accounts of these spirits returning to persecute the living, entering through their ears. Nevertheless, after talking with Dr Finkel, and later with other Mesopotamian scholars around the world, specific examples of voice-hearing remained elusive. Only whispers reach us, and the telephone line from the past crackles with distortion.

In 1965 Kinnier Wilson claimed to have identified a voice-hearing experience in the Maqlu series of tablets, which discuss witchcraft. In a discussion of witches’ persecutors, Kinnier Wilson argues that one of them, a bel egirri was “probably not seen at all, being doubtless that “voice” which may issue short commands or comments, sometimes feared, sometimes respected, in auditory hallucinations”. Yet the noun ‘bel’ literally means owner of a certain characteristic or property, and the compound bel egirri can be translated broadly as a slanderer who gives you a negative reputation. A bel-egirri is a Lord of Slander, if you will. Yet it is unclear whether this refers to a hallucinated voice or a real person who is acting in a persecutory manner. Dr Finkel suggests to me that it is likely that these are not auditory hallucinations.

We could claim a potential account of voice-hearing in a story involving a Babylonian demon called “the croucher”, who had the face or form of a goat. However, any sentence starting “Babylonian goat demons teach us…” is going to be a hard sell, not helped by images coming to mind of Dan Ackroyd and Tom Hanks doing the goat dance in the film Dragnet.

Another possibility is that what ancient physicians referred to as “confusion of self”, in which a patient “can see the illness that afflicts him, he talks with it and continually changes his self” may refer to voice-hearing. But we are stretching here. Instead of voices being the means of contacting the divine, in Ancient Mesopotamian civilisations dreams were the primary method of contact with the gods.

Egyptologists have not uncovered clear evidence of voice-hearing in Ancient Egyptian papyri either. This is strange, as Ancient Egyptian cosmology was perfectly configured to allow such experiences. As the Egyptologist Kasia Szpakowska (2009), who leads a fascinating Ancient Egyptian Demonology Project, describes, in Ancient Egypt the afterlife was populated by anonymous hordes of demons and deputised demons of darkness, the unjustified dead and the damned, hostile transfigured spirits, passers-by and messengers, as well as the gods. All were thought able to step through the permeable membrane between our two worlds and attack, causing both physical disease and emotional problems. Egyptians could fight back using spells, ritual actions, as well as substances such as garlic, beer, and spit. If garlic beer spit didn’t work, and one trembles to think what entity could withstand that combination, then Egyptians could resort to using the gall-bladder of a tortoise.

Not all inter-world communication was negative. Contact with the dead, achieved through dreams, which sleeping in certain temples was thought to facilitate, was used to help restore mental balance. The closest we get to voice-hearing is in a medical papyrus (Ebers Papyrus, ~1,550BC) that addresses ‘mental illness’ in a section on disease of the heart, an organ which the Egyptians viewed as doing the things which today we ascribe to the brain. A passage here refers to an experience in which a person’s “mind raves through something entering from above”. Again though, this is hardly convincing as an illustration of voice-hearing. As in Ancient Mesopotamia, dreams were the main way in which the divine was communicated with in Ancient Egypt.

ezekielIt is unclear why we can’t find voice-hearing at this early time. Was this experience genuinely not occurring at this time? Or is it just that we can’t find records? What is strange is that in the Hebrew Scriptures we have records of Ezekiel living in Babylon and hearing voices, and Moses hearing voices in the context of Ancient Egypt. Why are these experiences reported by early Jewish prophets living in these societies, but not in the writings of the societies themselves?

At present the answer is not at all clear. Such is history. There is an elephant in this ancient uncertainty though, and his name is Julian Jaynes.

jaynesIf Philip K. Dick thinks your work is stunning, you can take that to your headstone. One recipient of such praise was Julian Jaynes, whom Dick wrote to. In 1976 Jaynes published The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, a book which Richard Dawkins (2007) has argued to be one of those books that is either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius, nothing in between.


Jaynes argued that in the bicameral period, a term which he uses to refer to the period between 9,000–1,000BC, all humans automatically heard voices when they were faced by any tricky decision. This was because, claimed Jaynes, the brain is bicameral (literally ‘two-chambered’), with the left hemisphere involved in normal human speech production “the language of man” (sic) and the right hemisphere producing “the language of the gods”. Jaynes proposed that, in the bicameral period, speech was generated in the right hemisphere of the brain, and then passed across to the auditory areas of the left hemisphere and that, experientially, this resulted in people hearing the voice of ‘a god’ telling them what to do. He then claimed that in around 1400BCE in Ancient Mesopotamia, this bicameral mind broke down, for reasons such as writing replacing the oral/auditory mode of command giving. Self-consciousness then arose and the voices of the gods were replaced by the inner speech we all have today.

Some people who hear voices have found this interpretation of their experiences helpful and liberating; they are having an experience that was once entirely normal and have a link with a noble historical lineage. Utility is not my primary concern here though, and back in 2012, in my book Hearing Voices, I tried to establish if there is any truth in Jaynes’ theory.

One of Jaynes’ arguments is that characters in the Iliad (~1230 BCE) such as Agamemnon and Achilles, do not have conscious thoughts and that there is no word used in this text for consciousness. Instead characters’ actions begin “not in conscious plans, reasons, and motives… [but in] the actions and speeches of gods”. He goes on to argue that “voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic [sic] patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices”. One of the snappiest arguments against this comes from Richard Bentall who tells the story of a trip to a country where a philosopher informed him that in the local language they had no words for ‘he’ and ‘she’. The people of the country though, the philosopher noted, certainly knew the difference.

Another poetry-based argument of Jaynes’ is derived from the lines of the Mesopotamian poem Ludlul Bel Nemeqi (Poem of the Righteous Sufferer) which run, “My god has forsaken me and disappeared, My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance, The good angel who walked beside me has departed”. Jaynes argues this supports his thesis that the gods vanished, leaving people with just their own inner speech. For me though, this is like someone from the year 3,000 (click on the link at your peril) claiming the lines “I wandered lonely as a cloud” as evidence for their theory that the first jetpack was invented back in 1804 by Wordsworth.

alterIf poetry doesn’t convince you, perhaps sculpture will. Jaynes shows us a carving of a stone alter made about 1230BC made for the king of Assyria, Tukulti-Ninurta I. In this, Jaynes claims that the king is kneeling before an empty throne, where normally in previous carvings a god would have been shown. As Jaynes puts it “No scene before in history ever indicates an absent god. The bicameral mind had broken down”. However, as I have been informed, it appears that this throne is in fact an altar. And the altar isn’t empty. It has on it what is either a clay tablet with a stylus, or a hinged writing board; likely a symbol of Nabu, the god of writing. As I have discussed elsewhere, other arguments-from-sculpture of Jaynes similarly fail to hold water. Indeed, it is a simple matter to ask experts on Ancient Mesopotamia their opinion, and when you do, you hear back that there is no evidence that people routinely heard the voices of the gods.

We are hence left with an ancient uncertainty. Was there voice-hearing in Ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, outside of the Hebrew Prophets? If not, why not?

Today we can understand many experiences of voice-hearing as being reactions following traumatic life events. We already know that the form that post-traumatic reactions take is affected by culture. For example, as Watters (2010) has noted, shell shock after WWI typically took the form of bodily symptoms (tics, body movements), whereas after the American Civil War it took the form of an aching in the left side of the chest and a feeling of a week heart-beat. Maybe there genuinely wasn’t much voice-hearing in Mesopotamia, and this was because reactions to trauma took different forms. Such arguments are built on sand though, which is probably appropriate enough.


Lone, albeit not level, sands stretch far away


My new book Can’t You Hear Them? The Science and Significance of Hearing Voices will be available in April 2017.





Thanks to Irving Finkel and Jo Ann Scurlock for helping me understand the Ancient Mesopotamian period. This material is discussed in more depth in my previous book, Hearing Voices. McCarthy-Jones, S. (2012). Hearing voices: The Histories, Causes and Meanings of Auditory Verbal Hallucinations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



Dawkins, R. (2007). The God Delusion. London: Transworld.

Jaynes, J. (2000). The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind. New York, NY: Mariner Books.

Kinnier Wilson, J. V. (1965). An introduction to Babylonian Psychiatry. In Studies in honor of Benno Landsberger on his seventy-fifth birthday. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press (pp. 289–298).

Szpakowska, K. (2009). Demons in ancient Egypt. Religion Compass3(5), 799-805.

Watters, E. (2010). Crazy like us: The globalization of the American psyche. New York, NY: Free Press

They still bleed

A couple of weeks ago, I was at the Australian Museum in Sydney for a day out. Some time away from my research interests (hallucinations and child abuse), I thought.

Not likely.

The Museum had a special Aztecs exhibition on, so in we went for a quick look. I have to admit that I knew next to nothing about the Aztecs before this, other than that they were conquered by Cortés and the Spanish in the 1500s, that they were involved in human sacrifices on large pyramidal temples (and I wondered whether this had been a bit over-hyped and sensationalised), and, as with most topics, I had some vague recollection of Melvyn Bragg discussing it with an Oxbridge professor.

Let me take you inside the exhibition, and share some photos I took, so you can see what I saw.

First of all we come to a nice looking piece of stone.


So, what is this?

Well, it has feet sticking out of it, and in a culture that practiced human sacrifice, this is unlikely to be a good sign. But let’s not assume the worse, perhaps it’s an Aztec shoe box?

No. And the instinct that the pillar may have been for something not terribly nice was also wrong. In fact it was for something horrific. I’ll let the caption explain:


They groomed victims, and cut out their hearts.

And when they weren’t doing this, the priests were stoned out-of-their-minds?

Apparantly, the Aztec drugs of choice were ololiuqui, a chemical cousin of LSD, and teonanacatl, a form of magic mushroom (psilocybin), which was referred to as ‘flesh of the gods’.

Apparantly, they would drink a heap of chocolate, and then eat the mushrooms with honey.

There was even a word in the local language – monanacahuia which meant to “mushroom oneself” (I know what you’re thinking. Stop that).

Anyway, sugared and stoned, what did the Aztecs experience? What didn’t they! Fray Bernardino (a 16th century Spanish Franciscan missionary) gives us an account (Fray Bentos gives a more meaty account, but let’s stick with Bernardino’s):

Some saw themselves dying in a vision and wept; others saw themselves being eaten
by a wild beast; others imagined that they were capturing prisoners in battle, that
they were rich, that they possessed many slaves, that they had committed adultery
and were to have their heads crushed for the offense, that they were guilty of a
theft for which they were to be killed, and many other visions which they saw.
When the intoxication from the little mushrooms had passed, they talked over
among themselves the visions which they had seen” (source here).

As a hallucinations researcher, I find it interesting that many of these hallucinations, just like the voices that people hear today, include prominent themes of guilt, shame and punishment.

I also wonder what an Aztec priest’s diary would look like, if one were uncovered:


Anyway, to bring us back to horrifying reality with a bang, do you want to see the knives they used when cutting people open on stones such as the one above?

No, neither do I really, but here they are (and this is real):



Here’s the caption which accompanies the knives, just to show you that I’m not making this up:


The caption above gives us our first mention of Tlaloc, the Aztec God of Rain.

Here’s a container with a picture of him on:


Now at this point you probably don’t think things can get much worse than people being cut open with smiling knifes, their still beating hearts being ripped out, and their bodies thrown down pyramids.

It turns out things can get worse.

Here’s the caption explaining the above container.


And there’s more.

Wikipedia explains (and I can’t vouch for this information, as the source cited is in Spanish which I don’t read):

Archaeologists have found the remains of 42 children sacrificed to Tlaloc… in the offerings of the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlan. In every case, the 42 children, mostly males aged around six, were suffering from serious cavities, abscesses or bone infections that would have been painful enough to make them cry continually. Tlaloc required the tears of the young so their tears would wet the earth. As a result, if children did not cry, the priests would sometimes tear off the children’s nails before the ritual sacrifice.”

Kamp (2001) notes that the children were sometimes purchased from their mothers. Kerkhove goes further and argues that “the earliest accounts concur that virtually all children slain in these rites were locals of noble lineage, offered by their own parents.”

Kamp explains how the children were “kept by the priests for some weeks before their deaths (those kindergartens of doomed infants are difficult to contemplate). Then, as the appropriate festivals arrived, they were magnificently dressed, paraded in litters, and, as they wept, their throats were slit”

TempleThere was a shrine to Tlaloc on top of the ‘great’ Temple of Tenochtitlan.

As you can see from illustration below, next to Tlaloc’s shrine was another one.

This one was to Huitzilipochtli.

Here’s a caption from the museum telling us about Huitzilipochtli.



What the hell were these people thinking?

We could just say to ourselves that these were bloodthirsty savages, nothing like us, damn them with every name under the sun, and thank God that our society is so much better than theirs. I could then end my blog here. But I don’t think that would be terribly helpful or informative (though it would be much easier!)

Let’s see if we can try to understand all this (in an amateur way, for which I must apologise, this is not my specialist area)

TenoA lot of this sacrificing occurred in the capital city of Tenochtitlan (digital recreation, on the right). Wow.

This was a large, organised city, of perhaps 200,000 people, in an amazing location. It had beautiful buildings, and was by all accounts very clean (apart from the congealed blood). We are told that its inhabitants appreciated beauty, poetry and music, they’d created a written language and an incredibly accurate calendar. In many ways it was a lot nicer than many European cities of the time.

Furthermore, the Aztecs had strict laws against murder. Sacrificing priests had to be careful, helpful, never hurt anyone, and remain compassionate and loving towards others  (taken from Ray Kerkhove’s paper Dark Religion? Aztec Perspectives on Human Sacrifice, a paper which I draw on extensively below).

Just labelling these people as bloodthirsty savages, and thinking that this accounts for the killings, is clearly not hepful.

But why was there an abomination at the heart of this society?

The general practice of human blood sacrifice appears to have been driven by the belief that the God Huitzilopochtli drove back the stars and the moon each day, and in order for this Sun God to have the strength to do this every day, he needed to be fed with the most sacred of all substances, human blood. Children may have been sacrificed because they were seen as especially effective communicants with the gods. Or, in relation to the God Tlaloc, it may have been thought that “The earth (Tlaloc) physically sustained the human body through its wild resources and fruits of agriculture— fruits of the human body (children) sustained the earth.” (Arnold, 1991, p. 226). In this sense, as Kerkhove argues, there was the belief that people must pay the debt for the gods bringing rain, and that if things weren’t paid for then there would be a disastrous cosmic imbalance results. Kerkhove hence notes that, human sacrifice was perceived by the Aztecs as “a natural obligation and so part of a mechanical tit-for-tat”.

Kerkhove also describes that sacrificial death was also thought to provide ‘an opening’ (‘a crack between the worlds’), with heaven being portrayed as a solid block above the world, occasionally punctured by a ‘wound’ through which deities could descend. Such openings were needed because the gods were often ‘stony’, i.e., inexorable, silent. Perforating the body, even to the point of death, was a way to ‘perforate, penetrate’ the ‘mount’ of God.

NietAs an aside, one of my favourite stories which I came across whilst reading around this area was that when the Spanish friars demanded that the Aztecs destroy their gods, the priests replied, enigmatically, “our gods are already dead”. Boom! Take that Nietzsche!

Aside from religious reasons, other explanations have also been proposed for their use of human sacrifice:

  • killing and eating people had nutritional benefits
  • the Aztec elite did this to scare the masses, as well as enemy states
  • drug-induced confusion between hallucination and reality created sufficient hysteria for murder to be instituted as a sacred rite.

But as Kerkhove notes, all these explanations have serious flaws. Instead, he argues that a seems sacrificial death was considered a glorious end, and notes that when the Spaniards criticised the rite, the Aztec were quick to ridicule the ‘weakness of the Christians’. He goes on to describe that:

The captive/victim was the Aztec equivalent of a celebrity or rock star; they were ‘sighed for’ and ‘longed for’ by the audience. Their deaths merited a public announcement and their names were immortalised in the local ‘roll of honour’.”


Mictlantecuhtli, Aztec God of Death. His liver hangs out as it was thought to be the seat of the soul.

There also seems to have been an element of atonement in some deaths. Kerkhove describes how tlatlacolli (‘sin’ or ‘insult’) was a deadly serious matter. “Tlatlacolli itself was viewed as an extremely dangerous force. Even a humble villager could, through an immoral act, unleash widespread natural disasters.” Kerkhove concludes that sacrificial death could sometimes blend capital punishment with personal atonement.

But of course, not everyone felt this way, these people were human like us. Kerkhove describes how:

Even Aztec accounts mention some who wept, ‘faltered…weakened’ or lost control of their bowels. Amazingly though, these were such a minority that they were viewed as a bad omen and a tetlazolmictiliztli (‘insult to the gods’). A ‘weak’ victim was hurriedly taken aside and slain amidst the congregation’s sarcastic jeers of’he quite acquitted himself as a man

WoodwardFrankly, I still find it slightly hard to believe that this was all consensual. It’s known that enemies captured in battle were also sacrified. Were they happy about this? Perhaps this inability to conceive of voluntary cardiocide is because I have the final scene from the Wickerman burned into my mind. And the unbelievably powerful “Oh God! Oh Jesus Christ!” moment, which still makes me feel ill.

And even if we do want to go along with Kerkhove’s ‘consenting adults’ theory, this still leaves us with children being tortured and killed. How were the Aztecs ok with that?

One explanation for why specifically children were killed, as this was seen as acceptable, can be found in the Aztecs beliefs about death and heaven. According to Kerkhove, “The Aztecs meticulously organised death into types and levels. Passing away at home constituted the lowest end of the scale. ‘A good death’ was braver or more torturous. Those who died sacrificially, or in war or childbirth, procured the second-highest heaven (death in infancy formed the highest).” This could have led the Aztecs to justify to themselves what they were doing to children was somehow good for them in the long-run. I still find it hard to conceive of parents ever behaving in this way though.

And one wonders why no-one thought to say, look, are you sure that the Sun won’t rise if we don’t kill anyone today, or that the crops will fail unless someone’s child has their throat slit? Perhaps we should hold off the killing and see what happens? Maybe? You know, just to be sure?

Either way, perhaps rather than simply wondering at, and condemning, the Aztecs, we should reflectively consider what, in our own ‘civilised’ society (which presumably the Aztecs thought they were too), may be viewed as almost inconcievable and a cancer at the heart of our society, in 500 years time? Fossil fuel usage? Inequality? Maybe, but we could start by looking at how children are currently treated in our society.

The Aztecs, although being a particularly salient example, obviously didn’t have a historical monopoly on child abuse. Dan Carlin’s always excellent podcast series, Hardcore History, has made this point in his Suffer the Children episode.

And we don’t need to go into a museum to encounter examples of child abuse:

  • Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse reports that “the best estimates are that one in three girls and one in seven boys in Australia have experienced some form of child sexual abuse in their lifetime” (interim report, volume 1, page 99).
  • I’d strongly recommend Nick Davies’ book, Dark Heart, for an account of what is happening to some children on our streets.
  • Then there is the physical and psychological abuse of children.
  • Plus, we still have ritual abuse going on in our society.

So, I guess what it all comes back to for me, is not to simply condemn figures from the past, such as the Aztecs, from an ivory pulpit. That doesn’t really get us anywhere. My first draft of this blog was indeed just a sweary rant about how awful these people were. And I think these emotions can be useful. For example, they can help reiterate the need for us to stop children being abused today, and tomorrow, rather than to just make us feel morally superior to dead people.

But the Aztecs are not ‘these people’. They are us. Or at least they are much more like us than we would maybe like to admit. We need to understand why they did what they did, and reflectively consider what beliefs we hold that may be doing untold damage to our fellow people and planet.

And, frankly, its not too hard to work out where many of the tell-tale hearts are in our society, we just need to listen more, and act.


Aztec Carved Greenstone Heart