Friday, November 23, 2012

Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

Julian Jaynes’s Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was first published in 1976.  In it, Jaynes advances his bold theory that ancient man was not conscious the way we are, that what we know today as human consciousness did not truly emerge until the 2nd millennium BC and that before then the human mind was organized along very different lines.


Before moving on to his explanation of the “bicameral mind,” Jaynes explains what he means by consciousness: what it does and what it doesn’t do.  


Consciousness does not work like a video camera that records everything we see and hear.  Consciousness is not perception.  Man takes in a manifold of perceptions through the senses, he also experiences emotions, he reacts to these stimuli and he performs other actions.  At any given time, these things may or may not be what the conscious mind is occupied with. 

Besides the fact that we often go about our routine on “autopilot” (you’re not sure whether or not you locked the front door because you weren’t paying attention), Jaynes identifies complex tasks in which consciousness plays a minimal role: when someone plays the piano their left hand is doing one thing, the right hand another, their eyes are scanning the notes on the page… where is consciousness in all this?  And perhaps the pianist is distracted and his mind is “elsewhere.”  Likewise, in learning to play a sport like tennis, the role of consciousness is unclear.  It seems as though the important thing is to build “muscle memory,” and indeed being “self-conscious” can hinder an athlete's performance-- his coach might tell him he’s “thinking too much.” 

Even the act of recalling a memory or solving a math problem or scientific conundrum is not truly a conscious process.  The conscious mind lays the groundwork-- the details necessary to come up with the solution (what Jaynes call the “struction”)-- and then an unconscious mental process kicks in which is truly responsible for generating the answer (“the gears start grinding in your head”). 

When talking about this process in regards to memory, the struction is comparable to the words you’d type into Google to generate the search.  And when talking about solving complex, cerebral problems, we are discussing the origin of “inspiration.”  Often when someone takes a break from consciously working on the problem (going for a walk, taking a nap…) it is as if some part of him is still mulling over the question “in the back of his mind,” and it is then that he is suddenly struck with a new insight.  A favorite example of mine is how Peter Higgs came up with the idea of the Higgs bosom while taking a hike in the Cairngorms. 

I think the evidence for unconscious learning and problem solving is probably even stronger today than it was when Origin was first published.  Studies have shown that “in humans, the formation of motor skill memories essentially benefits from sleep” (see also Current Biology 2004).


A distinguishing feature of human consciousness is that it allows us to “look” back at the past and project into the future.  Thus, in the Afterword, Jaynes discusses how animal fear of a present danger became human anxiety about potential future dangers.  And the sense of shame felt by early man and other social primates when they were humiliated, shunned or chastised grew into a human sense of “guilt” about actions we do not want others to find out about.  

One of the claims essential to Jaynes’ theory is that human consciousness relies heavily on metaphor and thus that it could not have developed before man reached a certain level of linguistic sophistication.  This then would rule out the idea of early hominids, higher-order mammals or even babies being “conscious” (i.e. they do not experience the world as we do). 

According to Jaynes, we cannot discuss or comprehend the mind without relying on metaphors that conjure up the idea of a “mental space.”  Furthermore, the functions of the mind are often compared to the actions of external objects in space.  One can see this supra where I wrote about ideas in the back of one’s mind, gears grinding, and being struck by insight.  This mental space does not exist, and yet we use these metaphors or projections when discussing our own minds and the minds of others because (basically) we can only picture objects existing in space. 

Thus, the conscious mind also “spatializes” time: when one thinks about the passage of time or a sequence of events in time one often thinks of the chronological as spatial.  Thus a series of historical events is often represented by a timeline.  Besides thinking of the mind and time in spatial terms, we also seek to understand and internalize (“wrap our brain around”) new concepts by drawing analogies to something we are already familiar with

Another important aspect of consciousness is narratization.  We create a story for ourselves when we look back on past experiences and when we imagine what may happen in the future.  We also create stories to explain things we perceive in the outside world (e.g. we hear barking and imagine the neighbors’ dog got out of the yard; we imagine what might be going on in a co-worker’s mind based on something she says to us).  Whenever it creates a narrative of our past, the mind leaves out details that are unimportant or that don’t mesh well with the story it’s spinning. 

This last point suggests other activities performed by the conscious mind such as “conciliation” (making experiences compatible with one another) and creating a mental self-image.  We use our mental projection of the self to imagine/picture ourselves in hypothetical situations (e.g. what would have happened if we chose another path, what may happen in the future).  Sometimes when we think back to things we did in the past (e.g. getting out of bed this morning) we even picture ourselves performing these actions as if from a third person’s point of view.

These assertions do not seem particularly controversial: between philosophers, psychologists and dharma teachers, I think I have heard almost all these ideas expressed before.  Even Jaynes’ claims about the conscious mind’s dependence on metaphor made me think of Wittgenstein’s declaration that language disguises thought.


The first piece of evidence we are given to support the claim that the evolution of consciousness is a recent phenomenon, and to suggest what preceded, it is the Iliad.  Jaynes sees it as the earliest work of Western literature: historians think the Trojan War may have been fought around 1200-1100 BC and the epic was sung by bards for several hundred years before it was written down circa 850-700 BC. 

The written version we know contains almost no indications of the characters’ psychology or internal conflicts.  Instead, people’s actions are all motivated by the influence of the gods.  The example that “springs” immediately to my mind comes not from the Iliad itself but from the mythical story of the war’s origins.  The only explanation we are given for Helen sailing away with Paris was that the young prince had won Aphrodite’s favor and thus she delivered to him the most beautiful woman in the world. 

Jaynes also points to the language used in the Iliad where scant references to the “spirit” being fortified by food and drink or stirred before combat or departing the body when a warrior dies on the battlefield confound the concept of an intangible spirit with the blood, the breath, etc.

Getting back to the gods, it may be worth noting that, in addition to manipulating men and women, they also participate in the war themselves-- fighting alongside the mortals.  Thus, Diomedes (inspired by Athena) manages to attack and wound several of them on the battlefield.  

Most literary scholars interpret the role of the gods in the Iliad as a dramatization or embodiment of the characters’ internal motives and struggles.  Jaynes, however, vehemently rejects this as imposing modern sensibilities on a text to which they are entirely alien.  To the Hellenes, this was the sunset of the age of heroes when the gods walked the earth beside mortal man.  Under Jaynes’ theory, the Trojan war was fought towards the end of the bicameral era.


As the name suggests, the mind of bicameral man is divided in two.  One half (we can call it the “lower chamber” for now) is responsible for carrying out all the functions we listed above which do not require consciousness.  These probably include everything a man would need to finish his day’s work (whether he was a manual laborer or a bean counter)-- as well as foraging for food, fighting a battle and even learning some new skills.  Meanwhile the “upper chamber” of the mind takes care of higher-level decision making, determining what to do when a man is confronted with something new or unexpected, and also keeping him on task.

To the extent that bicameral man can be said to have a sense of self, his self is located in the lower chamber.  In contrast, the upper chamber, which issues admonishments and orders which must be obeyed, is perceived as something external.  Indeed, Jaynes writes, bicameral man experienced the utterances of the upper chamber as aural hallucinations (sometimes accompanied by visual hallucinations).  These then were identified as the voices of the gods or ancestral spirits and even as the voice of the ruler.

To support this extraordinary theory, Jaynes examines some of the historical and archaeological traces of the earliest civilizations.  Focusing particularly on Mesopotamia, Jaynes tells how in the nations’ own histories it is made clear that the land belongs to the gods: men are just their serfs and the king is their steward/overseer.  Stelae talk about the god deciding to conquer a province through his servant king X.

The palace-temples that looked down on the cities, then, were literally houses of god: they contained idols which were ritually bathed, dressed, carted around and provided with food!  We also see in cultures across the world how the dead were buried with valuables, prized possessions and items of daily necessity.  They too were often fed, with foodstuffs interred in the tomb or meal offerings made by their descendants-- there are even records of kings setting aside resources so the dead would be provided with regular rations.  Jaynes’ theory would provide a new explanation for this behavior: men treated the gods and spirits as if they were living beings because they could hear their voices.  He suggests the carved idols acted as focal points for people’s hallucinations.  If this were all true, those stelea that speak of the gods acting through their servant kings would be imbued with new meaning given that the king received orders from the voice of his god.

Jaynes explains that there was a compatibility and relative uniformity in regards to the voices hallucinated by the people of a nation.  This is due to the influence of culture and religious beliefs and what Jaynes refers to in a later section as the “collective cognitive imperative.”  According to Jaynes, there were no police states in the bicameral era: rather great nations were held together by a consensus based on the people’s absolute respect for the gods and the god-given social order (reinforced, he would add, by perception of the gods through hallucination).  This is probably true on the whole, but then there were empires with subjugated peoples even before Jaynes’ age of consciousness.

As further proof of ancient man’s lack of consciousness, Jaynes points our attention to the alien and vacant sounding nature of writings from the bicameral age.  He mentions the missives of the renowned King Hammurabi, which all began with the formula

“Say unto [x], thus says Hammurabi…”

It almost sounds as though the letter itself is expected to “speak” the message to its recipient, and Jaynes interprets the tone as coming from a man who cannot imagine the possibility his orders would not be obeyed.  This same tone can be found in parts of the Hebrew Bible such as the books attributed to the early prophets who began their monologues with “Thus says the Lord….”  Jaynes asks the reader to compare the Book of Amos (believed to be one of the earliest books of the Bible) with Ecclesiastes whose pensive, philosophical verses are clearly the work of thinking man.  

If true, Jaynes theory could explain several mysteries: it might, for instance, shed light on the nature of the enigmatic Egyptian “ka.”  Some scholars hypothesize that the ka is akin to the psyche or to a guiding spirit (i.e. “genius”), but then there are puzzling inscriptions showing the creation of the pharaoh and his ka where the two look like twins.  Jaynes suggests the ka is related to the hallucinated voices and that perhaps the ka of the pharaoh represents the voice of the god-king as it was heard in the heads of his people.  Jaynes also suggests the voices of the gods (or the fading thereof) might explain episodes where-- as he tells it-- peoples in Meso-American abandoned their cities and retreated into the wilderness, only to return-- or build new cities-- centuries later.  There is also a suggestion that the encounters between the Spanish conquistadores and the Incas and Aztecs might represent a confrontation between a bicameral civilization and a conscious one.  Jaynes rejects the idea that American peoples like the Incas could have been purely bicameral, but he says that this could help explain how a few hundred conquistadores were able to topple an entire empire.  I am curious as to what present day experts in pre-Columbian civilizations would say about Jayne’s characterization of these events, let alone the idea that the minds of the Americans were less evolved.

Although it denies ancient man had consciousness, Jaynes’ theory is in a way more respectful of ancient cultures and their beliefs than are most academics.  Anthropologists normally report the beliefs and practices of an ancient people in the neutral, manner-of-fact language of science.  One suspects that beneath this veneer is a tacit understanding that it is all clearly fiction.  Jaynes, on the other hand, takes the ancients at their word when they say they heard the voices of gods although he locates the ultimate source of the divine word in the human brain.


So what happened in the Eastern Mediterranean/Near East c.1000 BC that brought about the “breakdown of the bicameral mind” and the genesis of human consciousness?  Jaynes point to a number of possible factors: (1) As great nations spread out over ever-larger territory the uniformity of the voices heard by its people may have cracked. (2) When traders interacted with people from other cultures they may have sensed, due to disparities in norms and mindsets, that the voices these people heard were different from theirs; questioning what was going on in the minds of strangers might then have led to self-reflection.  (3) The development of writing, where the voices of authority were memorialized in stone or in ink, gradually came to replace aural hallucinations.  (4) People conquered by brutal new empires such as that of the Neo-Assyrians became duplicitous: gaining the ability to follow orders and act subservient while inwardly harboring rebellious feelings. The resulting cognitive dissonance then destroyed the system in which man unquestioningly followed the orders of the voices in his head.  And (5) a large number of upheavals, wars, culture clashes, and migrations presented man more frequently with unfamiliar situations which required his mind to exercise the facilities of its “upper chamber.”

Thus conscious, self-reflecting man was born.  Jaynes tells us that-- far from a revelation or a new dawn-- the breakdown of the bicameral mind was experienced as a loss.  The voices of the gods had gone silent.  Jaynes specifically draws our attention to Near Eastern religious carvings where the image of a king standing before an enthroned god is replaced by the image of the king kneeling before an empty throne.  This, he claims, is the origin of a new type of religion involving submission and supplication to an unseen divinity thought of as residing in the heavens.  This sense of loss may be the origin of the Judeo-Christian idea of the Fall of Man.  Adam was expelled from an Earthly paradise-- where God walked among the trees and where God and man had an intimate relationship-- after eating the fruit that gave him knowledge of good and evil.  The breakdown could also have inspired the myths that led Classical writers to compare their times unfavorably to a long lost Golden Age.   

Some people continued to seek out divine guidance, relying on various form of divination and the words of a select few individuals who could still hear the voices .  Jaynes would place the Hebrew prophets in this category as well as the oracles of Delphi, the latter needing to perform a complex ritual in order to tune in to the voices of the gods.

Alongside the historical evidence, Jaynes also turns to brain science.  He points out the similarity between bicameral man and modern day schizophrenics who are plagued by voices.  Furthermore, (as Marcel Kuijsten points out in his 2006 book reexamining Jaynes’ theory) in recent studies a surprisingly large number of mentally healthy people reported having heard voices/a voice at some point in their life-- often during a time of extreme stress.

With few exceptions, the human brain exhibits left hemisphere dominance in regards to language functions. In particular, scientists have identified specific areas in the left brain associated with the production and processing of language, particularly speech (e.g. Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area).  Some of this was already known in the late 1970s when Origin was published. Jaynes pointed to the corresponding areas in the right hemisphere and suggested that they might be the source of bicameral man’s auditory hallucinations. 

There is indeed evidence linking these areas of the brain to “auditory-verbal hallucinations” (AVH).  On the National Center for Biotechnology Information website one can find the abstract of a 2008 article entitled “Auditory verbal hallucinations predominantly activate the right inferior frontal area” and an article published online in October 2012 which states “a lack of synchronization between Broca and its homolog may lead to the erroneous interpretation of emotional speech activity from the right hemisphere as coming from an external source.”  Both of these reported the results of studies where fMRI was used to examine the brain of schizophrenics who experience AVH. 

If one takes seriously Michael Persinger’s experiments involving the “God Helmet” (the results of which have been called into question) this too could be seen as neurological evidence supporting Jaynes’ theory.  Persinger reported that some subjects who underwent the neural stimulation produced by the helmet sensed an outside “presence” (identified by some as angels or a dead relative).  Persinger’s hypothesis was that a disturbance in communication between the right and left hemisphere may lead to the interpretation of right brain activity as coming from an external being.


Some argue that, given the archaeological and scientific evidence, Jaynes’ theory calls for further investigation.  To date (36 years after it’s publication), his work has largely been ignored by scientists and scholars-- viewed as a curiosity produced by an eccentric outsider to academia.  One review I read invokes Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions claiming the bicameral mind theory was dismissed because it runs counter to the current paradigm.  Another possible factor explaining why Origin never found its place is that the interdisciplinary nature of Jaynes’ inquiry/theory makes it hard to see where it could fit.

I see Jaynes’ argument as threefold: there’s (1) his claims regarding the limited role of consciousness; (2) the archaeological evidence for bicameral man, who heard voices and was essentially unthinking; and (3) neurological evidence that, while the left hemisphere controls language, corresponding areas in the right hemisphere may be related to auditory-verbal hallucinations. 

In my opinion, the first claim is as much philosophical (almost epistemological) as it is psychological.  It seems sensible, and-- as it can be severed from the rest of Jaynes’ theory-- it is worth considering on its own.  But while establishing these claims about the role of consciousness may be a necessary antecedent to the theory of the bicameral mind, they really do nothing to prove it.

As for claim 2, the evidence Jaynes provides is all circumstantial, but there is a lot of it.  The differences he points to between artifacts from before and after the breakdown are particularly impressive.  On the other hand, the claim that as late as 2000-1000 BC man was not conscious and his actions were governed by hallucinated voices is a bold one, and one can probably think of more conventional explanations for everything Jaynes points to. 

The third claim seems as if it is supported by a growing corpus of scientific evidence.  But the reasoning that connects the brain science of schizophrenics with Jaynes’ historical narrative is not entirely clear.  If the right brain homologue of the language center in the left brain produces auditory-verbal hallucinations that fits in neatly with Jaynes’ vision of the mind split into two chambers-- but it doesn’t really speak to the heart of the theory.  Emerging evidence that many people hear voices occasionally, and the items Jaynes lists as vestiges of the bicameral mind (the oracles, mediums and seances, possession and exorcism, hypnosis), are perhaps a bit more persuasive.  I doubt Jaynes would claim to have proven his proposed bicameral mind theory; I think he just presents the theory with the best argument and evidence he could to back it, and he probably hoped the book would spark further inquiry. 

After reading The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, I began to notice things which made me recall Jaynes’ theory.  One example is when someone “metaphorically” talks about hearing the voice of another person in his head, e.g. his mother’s voice telling him to shut off all the lights before leaving the house.  And, looking back to when I was studying ancient history in college, I remember thinking that, whereas the Hellenes and the Romans were strikingly modern, there was something alien and inscrutable about earlier civilizations such as the Persian Empire and pre-Hellenistic Egypt.  The way the great kings would collect taxes not to build roads or anything but just to accumulate riches; the construction (begun c.514 BC) of Persepolis-- a complex of monumental palaces which served only as a religious, ceremonial capital; the Egyptian “cities of the dead” lying across the Nile from the cities of the living; the thought process of those who conceived and built the Great Pyramids (a gigantic undertaking with no practical purpose).... More specifically, Jaynes’ chapters on ancient history brought to mind a book I read on “sacral kingship” in the ancient Near East.  The book discussed how the king served as an intercessor between his people and the gods.  At one point it said that, when they needed a message from the gods, the king might go sleep in a temple-- in order to increase the likelihood that a god would appear in his dreams.

Image of Le Pensuer by Auguste Rodin on display at Musée Rodin, Paris.  Image of Achilles and Hector doing battle clay pot found on All Empires History Forum.   Image of Hammurabi standing before enthroned sun god from top of stela on display at the Louvre, Paris.  Assyrian relief of King Tukulti-Ninurta I kneeling before the empty throne of Fire-God on display at Vorderaisatische Museem Berlin. Image of Schizoprenic and Normal brain scan found on Purdue Dept of Nuclear Pharmacy website. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Schopenhauer on prescient accommodation

Among all phenomena of the one Will, a general mutual adaptation and accommodation has taken place, whereby, however, as we will soon see more distinctly, all temporal determination must be excluded, since Ideas lie beyond time.  Accordingly, every phenomenon has to adapt to the surroundings in which it occurs, but the latter in turn also to the former....
...[W]e have to abstract from all temporal relations because these can concern only the phenomenon of the Idea, not the latter itself.  Accordingly, this mode of explanation can be employed retroactively as well, and one is not only to assume that every species has accommodated itself to already existing circumstances, but that these temporally antecedent circumstances themselves have had just as much regard for beings that are some day yet to come. 

Thus the course of the planets, the declination of the ecliptic, the rotation of the earth, the division into continents and seas, atmosphere, light, heat and all similar phenomena which are in nature what the basso continuo is in harmony -- have presciently accommodated themselves to the coming species of living beings of which they were to be the bearer and sustainer.

All parts of nature accommodate one another because it is the one Will that makes its appearance in them all….
The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, bk. 2 §28 pp190-191 (adapted from 2008 translation by Richard Aquila)