2008-09-21: The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1990 ed.)

by Julian Jaynes (1920-1997)

This is a wildly ambitious work. As such, it probably attempts more than it can handle. Nonetheless, it is very interesting and provocative. I would have to reread it carefully to fully assess the degree to which I can accept its many ideas. Given the density of ideas in its 470 pages, this would not be an undertaking lightly undertaken.

The book was originally written in 1976, and revised in 1990. Apparently many of its ideas must have needed revision (and perhaps still do) in light of the work that has been done in cognitive science since 1976.

It’s arranged in three Books (of an originally planned five): The Mind of Man, The Witness of History, and Vestiges of the Bicameral Mind in the Modern World.

In Book I, Jaynes describes what he means by consciousness. He first eliminates the many aspects of mentality that are often intended by the word. For example, it is not a copy of experience, not necessary for concepts, not necessary for learning, not necessary for thinking, not necessary for reason. Addressing its location, he refers to its spatial character. We usually think it’s in our head, or in the head (behind the eyes) of the person we talk to. Yet, “there is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another”.

Before addressing directly what consciousness is, Jaynes looks at language, particularly at metaphor as a way of constructing new meanings from old. He uses an interesting approach, identifying two parts of a metaphor. The metaphrand is the thing being described. The metaphier is the thing or relation used to elucidate the metaphrand. (The words are analogous to multiplier and multiplicand for the parts of a multiplication.) The metaphier has associations or attributes that are relevant to the metaphor, which Jaynes calls paraphiers. Each paraphier projects some element of meaning to an aspect of the metaphrand, called its paraphrand. Example: Snow blankets the ground. Metaphrand: the completeness and evenness with which the ground is covered by snow. Metaphier: a blanket on a bed. Paraphiers: warmth, protection, slumber until some awakening. Paraphrands: the earth is sleeping; it is protected by the snow cover; it awakens in the spring when the snow is gone.

Jaynes suggests that consciousness is a result of the metaphor-building process. The paraphiers of experience are projected into paraphrands that have functional effects in the working of the mind. Further, the process is recursive, so that each new paraphrand can become a metaphrand of a new metaphor, and so on. This brief sketch doesn’t do the idea justice, which is elaborated in Book II, but could still be clarified.

Having established (if not justified) the framework he will work with, Jaynes identifies the features of consciousness.

Spatialization: the spatial relations in the world around us are metaphrands for many functions of consciousness. We’ve invented a mind-space, in our own heads and those of others. It is so fundamental, we don’t think of it as having been invented, we simply assume it without question. As an example of referring something to space, consider time. We commonly have mental impressions that place past, present and future in some spatial arrangement (or different arrangements for different purposes). For instance, thinking about the sweep of history, we might imagine the years spread out from left to right. Considering our future plans and past experience, we might imagine the past behind us, and the future in front (some people reverse this arrangement, since they can ‘see’ the past but not the future).

Excerption: We are never conscious of anything in its entirety. This kind of consciousness is analogous to ‘seeing’ and subject to similar constraints. We can’t see all of an object at once, only its near side. Similarly from moment to moment we can only attend to one part of a thing at a time. “We excerpt from the collection of possible attentions to a thing which comprises our knowledge of it. And this is all that it is possible to do since consciousness is a metaphor of our actual behavior.”

The Analog ‘I’: Perhaps the most important feature of the metaphor world is the metaphor we have or ourselves. The analog ‘I’ can ‘move about’ in our metaphor world, ‘doing’ things that we are not actually doing, and might never have done or never will do. Yet we ‘make’ decisions on the basis of imagined ‘outcomes’ of  these ‘actions’.

The Metaphor ‘Me’: As the analog ‘I’ does something in mind-space, ‘seeing’ imagined features of real space, among those features might be the analog ‘me’ interacting with other people or other features of the imagined world. The analog ‘I’ can observe the results of these actions of the analog ‘me’ and make judgments of the consequences of such actions.

Narratization: “In consciousness, we are always seeing our vicarial selves as the main figures in the stories of our lives.” This story includes not only our analog ‘I’, but everything else in consciousness. Indeed it is its inclusion in a narrative that makes it conscious.

Conciliation: We constantly assimilate new perceptions into the learned schema we have of some feature of the world. This happens unconsciously, and is simply part of the process of making sense of the otherwise ambiguous perceptions, creating a stable internal model of the world in which for instance, things maintain their color even though changing lighting conditions result in different sense impressions. Jaynes calls the conscious analog to assimilation conciliation. We make excerpts or narratizations compatible with one another through conciliation. “If I ask you to think of a mountain meadow and a tower at the same time, you automatically conciliate them by having the tower rising from the meadow. But if I ask you to think of the mountain meadow and the ocean at the same time, conciliation tends not to occur and you are likely to think of one and then the other. You can only bring them together by a narratization.”

The question Jaynes addresses in chapter 3 is: Should we date the origin of consciousness before or after the invention of writing? Prior to reading this I would have said the question is ridiculous. Of course it is prior, probably roughly at the same time as the development of human language itself, perhaps 50,000 years ago. Now I’m not so sure.

Jaynes uses the Iliad as an early written source, discounting a few passages that scholars usually assign to later editors. His conclusion is surprising, disturbing and interesting: “There is in general no consciousness in the Iliad.” He finds “no words for consciousness or mental acts. The words in the Iliad that in a later age come to mean mental things have different meanings, all of them more concrete.” He gives several examples of such words, then says, “Now this is all very peculiar. If there is no subjective consciousness, no mind, no soul, or will, in Iliadic men, what then initiates behavior?”

Jaynes points out the mistaken tradition that before the fourth century BC there was no true Greek religion, and that the gods were an invention of poets. The reason behind this mistake is the view that religion must be a system of ethics. Indeed people did not look to religion for ethics in that age. “The characters of the Iliad do not sit down and think about what to do. They have no conscious minds such as we have, and certainly no introspections. It is impossible for us with our subjectivity to appreciate what it was like. When Agamemnon, king of men, robs Achilles of his mistress, it is a god that grasps Achilles by his yellow hair and warns him not to strike Agamemnon. It is a god who then rises out of the gray sea and consoles him in his tears of wrath …, a god who whispers low to Helen to sweep her heart with homesick longing, a god who hides Priam in a mist in front of the attacking Memelaus, a god who tells Glaucus to take bronze for gold, a god who leads the armies into battle, who speaks to each soldier at the turning points, who debates and teaches Hector what he must do, who urges the soldiers on or defeats them by casting them in spells or drawing mists over their visual fields. It is the gods who start quarrels among men that really start the war, and then plan its strategy. It is one god who makes Achilles promise not to go into battle, another who urges him to go, and another who then clothes him in a golden fire reaching up to heaven and screams through his throat across a bloodied trench at the Trojans, rousing in them ungovernable panic. In fact, the gods take the place of consciousness.” This nutshell summary is not in itself convincing, but compresses a lot of analysis into a short stretch of words.

Jaynes goes on to say that people in this age relied on immediate instruction to know what to do, and on a rigid hierarchy to govern the affairs of rising states. Each person did what he or she was told by an appropriate authority. When the authority was not available, the memory of the voice of authority was manifested as a mental voice, originating in memory but interpreted as the actual disembodied voice of the authority. When the voice was that of a recently deceased person, either a relative or chief or priest (sometimes all three in one person), the voice was taken as a manifestation of the essence of the formerly living person, in a new state, still capable of influencing action in the world. As the dead were venerated in this way, they were elaborated into gods, and the voices were taken as unmistakable authorities. Jaynes makes some attempt (perhaps plausible but not particularly convincing) to relate this phenomenon with the different roles of Broca’s area in the left brain and the corresponding area in the right brain, but it isn’t crucial to his overall argument.

His notion of the bicameral mind is that people of this age had a normal mind that dealt with day-to-day routine activities, not needing decisions; they had another mind that reacted to a need for decision-making by invoking the voices of gods. The two ‘houses’ of the mind worked together to guide a person through every foreseeable circumstance. The notion is interesting, and the argument is too complex to repeat here.

The breakdown comes about in the failure of the word ‘foreseeable’ above. When new circumstances arise that aren’t covered by the remembered wisdom of the gods, even kings don’t always make the right decisions. In the face of invasion by foreigners, or abrupt climatic changes, crises can lead to failure of the old ways, and a breakdown of society. An example is the end of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The various rises and falls of Mesopotamian city-states and empires provide others.

Jaynes dates the origin of consciousness to the circumstances where people find they can no longer rely on the  advice provided by one half of their bicameral mind to the other. This leads to the rise of more explicit (as well as slower, more resource-intensive, and perhaps less reliable) techniques of understanding the world and predicting the future, the features of consciousness he has previously listed.

Once he has made clear the outline of his argument, Jaynes spends much effort in providing supporting evidence. Of course, much of the evidence he cites can’t be unambiguously interpreted, and so the argument can be doubted. Still I think the possibility that there is some truth in it makes it worth considering further.

While reading, I wondered how others who have written on consciousness might react. I’ve since found that Daniel Dennett doesn’t dismiss it outright (though he doesn’t endorse it, either). He even warns that those who do dismiss it probably don’t understand it.

A very interesting book, challenging to understand, as well as challenging the ideas most people hold. Religious people won’t care for it.


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