An alternative history of the human mind

Nautilus has an excellent article on a theory of consciousness that is very likely wrong but so startlingly original it is widely admired: Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind.

Based on the fact that there is virtually no description of mental states in the Ancient Greek classic The Iliad, where the protagonists are largely spoken to by Gods, Jaynes speculates that consciousness as we know it didn’t exist at this point in time and people experienced their thoughts as instructions from external voices which they interpreted as gods.

His book is a 1976 is a tour de force of interdisciplinary scholarship and although the idea that humans became conscious only 3,000 years ago is extremely unlikely, the book has been hugely influential even among people who think Jaynes was wrong, largely because he is a massively creative thinker.

Consciousness, Jaynes tells readers, in a passage that can be seen as a challenge to future students of philosophy and cognitive science, “is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.” His illustration of his point is quite wonderful. “It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

The Nautilus article is a brilliant retrospective on both Jaynes as a person and the theory, talking to some leading cognitive scientists who are admirers.

A wonderful piece on a delightful chapter in the history of psychology.

Link to Nautilus article on Julian Jaynes.

9 thoughts on “An alternative history of the human mind”

  1. I find the hypothesis compelling because there are many cultures, perhaps most cultures, that include the person who is “called by God” or whatever form that interpretation of our mental voices as reality, as coming from outside of ourselves, i.e., from Gods, demons, angels, etc. Of course there is a fundamental error being made. Those voices do not come from outside your mind. Those who recite the Bible/Koran have incorporated so much of the contents into their thoughts that it is more likely that they would perceive their thoughts as being directed by God and being Godly means following your voices as if they are not your voices but rather Gods. My own father, who was raised on a farm in a fundamentalist religious setting behaved in that way, so much so, that I found it impossible to communicate with him. At the age of five I realized that most people have trouble distinguishing between their beliefs as mental concepts and physical reality. My father was a kind man, but I did not find a consciousness, as I experienced consciousness, in my father, as he, like the Ancient Greeks, never spoke about his mental states or his mind as his mind and was never able to question the reality of his beliefs. He failed something more important than the Turing test.

  2. Interesting read! I totally find the theory of language as forming the basis of consciousness compelling. Basing an analysis primarily on the Iliad and the Odyssey is in my mind flawed, as these epic poems (another would be Beowulf) are examples of transition from oral to literary traditions, and their forms are artefacts of memorization technique. That could be another interesting trajectory on the subject of the role of language in the development of consciousness. Language is a way of storing, organizing and transmitting information – managing focus and directing consciousness – and written language would have enhanced this and adapted the human mind as it did so. Our memories have shrunk, but written language allows us to communicate across time, with people who are long dead or far away, allowing an internal voice to flourish. Instead of communicating out loud, person to person, written language encourages you to communicate and learn internally.

  3. I don’t think consciousness evolved only 3000 years ago, but I’m open to considering that the way we experience it has shifted over time, especially through interaction with new technologies. We create tools and then adapt to them – we have smaller molars because we cook our food – so why wouldn’t this have happened with the mind as well?

  4. I read Jaynes as a young philosopher and was captivated by the singular thesis:

    Read Homer as a realist and not metaphorically.

    What could he be referring to when he spoke of the gods?

    I recommend the exercise to everyone who wants to test the Jaynes thesis.

  5. My mother taught me that my conscience was the voice of God speaking inside me. When I was eleven years old I suddenly realised that my bad feeling about telling lies felt identical to my guilt when I cut the string on a parcel, instead of carefully untying and saving it. Abstractly, I could believe in a God of Truth, but not a God of the String Jar. Taken together these two feelings became clearly the internalised voice of my mother.

    I suddenly had a richer theory of mind (my own mind). If theory of one’s own mind is consciousness, I have _experienced_ the validity of Jayne’s thesis.

  6. I quite like the idea of Dennet’s “kinds of minds”, so why not — by extension — ‘consciousnesses’? Perhaps consciousness, or the belief in one?, is more related to our awareness of it, and people score differently on this ‘spectrum of awareness of consciousness’? You might find this preposterous, and/or bullshit (in the good ol’ Frankfurt kind of way), but what I’d like to say, is that people do differ in how conscious they are. If people can be in ‘atheism denial’, they might also be in ‘consciousness denial’, right? And although 3000 year ago sounds to specific, maybe the mechanism still holds true in principle? Even now, for some people?

    Em… Sorry for the comment?

  7. Articles about Jaynes are sure to attract the “voice hearers” crowd who aren’t just girls with green hair, tattoos and nose rings who claim to naturally hear voices without being psychotic in the slightest. Professional disruptors straight out of the movie Jacob’s Ladder.

    Jaynes was right and there is no proof. I believe in proof and I believe in probabilities without proof which doesn’t automatically open the door to NWO chemtrails and UFO’s.

    I first heard about Jaynes from a controversial American psychotherapist named Lowen. Why do I “know” Jaynes was right? You don’t want to know. Makes me curious about Sagan’s Dragons of Eden. Another disproven theory that is on the trail to something that is right in front of our eyes that we don’t want to train the flashlight on.

  8. I don’t know how sustainable this idea is, but given John Nash’s recent passing, it is interesting to recall:

    “In an interview with correspondent Mike Wallace of the CBS News program 60 Minutes, Nash, who suffers from schizophrenia, his wife, Alicia, and son Johnny deny these allegations, which have made this Academy Award contender controversial in recent weeks.

    This is the first time Nash has spoken out since the movie was released.

    He tells Wallace he began hearing voices when he was in his thirties. “I thought of the voices as . . . something a little different from aliens. I thought of them more like angels . . . “It’s really my subconscious talking, it was really that…I know that now,” says Nash”

    Voices in the head: From angels to my subconscious.

    Could John Nash’s personal journey give us some insight into the most provocative element of Jaynes’s theory?

  9. Two points:

    One, reading is talking to oneself. If Jaynes’ theory is correct, children would become more conscious about themselves, for instance using “I” more, when they start reading, as the inner voice develops quickly through reading. Without reading, this development would take more time.

    Second, reading is a form of sensory substitution, with visual input used to access sound patterns.

    Put the two together, (the strong sense of) consciousness is a byproduct of a specific sensory substitution our species invented. Schooling is thus a way of reinforcing the “I”, and individualism, which follows.

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