The Universe of Discourse

Thu, 08 May 2008

The Origin of Consciousness

One of my favorite books is The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, by Julian Jaynes, a psychologist at Princeton University. Nearly everyone seems to agree that this is either a work of profound genius, or of profound crackpottery, and also that they aren't sure which it is. Jaynes' theory, as nearly as I can summarize the book, is something like this:

Human consciousness (which Jaynes describes and defines in considerable detail) is a relatively recent development, dating back at most only about 3,000 years or so.

That is the shocking part of the theory. Most people probably imagine consciousness arising much, much earlier, perhaps before language. Jaynes disagrees. In his theory, language, and in particular its mediation of thought through the use of metaphors, is an essential prerequisite for consciousness. And his date for the development of consciousness means that human consciousness would postdate several other important developments, such as metalworking, large-scale agriculture, complex hierarchical social structures, and even writing. Jaynes thinks that the development of consciousness is a historical event and is attested to by written history. He tries to examine the historical record to find evidence not only of preconscious culture, but of the tremendous upheavals that both caused and were the result of the arrival of consciousness.

If preconscious humans farmed, built temples and granaries, and kept records, they must have had some sort of organizing behavior that sufficed in place of consciousness. Jaynes believes that prior to the development of consciousness, humans had a very different mentality. When you or I need to make a decision, we construct a mental narrative, in which we imagine ourselves trying several courses of action, and attempt to predict the possible consequences. Jaynes claims that Bronze Age humans did not do this. What then?

Instead, says Jaynes, the two halves of the brain were less well-integrated in preconscious humans than they are today. The preconscious mentality was "bicameral", with the two halves of the brain operating more independently, and sometimes at odds with each other. The left hemisphere, as today, was usually dominant. Faced with a difficult decision, preconscious human would wait, possibly undergoing (and perhaps even encouraging) an increasingly agitated physical state, until they heard the voice of a god directing them what to do. These hallucinated voices were generated by the right hemisphere of the brain, and projected internally into the left hemisphere.

For example, when the Iliad says that the goddess Athena spoke to Achilles, and commanded and physically restrained him from killing Agamemnon, it is not fabulating: Achilles' right brain hallucinated the voice of the Goddess and restrained him.

In Jaynes' view, there is a large amount of varied literary, anthropological, and neurological evidence supporting this admittedly bizarre hypothesis. For example, he compares the language used in the Biblical Book of Amos (bicameral) with that in Ecclesiastes (conscious). He finds many examples of records from the right period of history bewailing the loss of the guidance of the gods, the stilling of their voices, and the measures that people took, involving seers and prophets, to try to bring the guiding voices back.

Jaynes speculates that mental states such as schizophrenia, which are frequently accompanied by irresistible auditorily hallucinated commands, may be throwbacks to the older, "bicameral" mental state.

Whether you find the theory amazingly brilliant or amazingly stupid, I urge to to withhold judgment until you have read the book. It is a fat book, and there is a mass of fascinating detail. As I implied, it's either a work of profound genius or of profound crackpottery, and I'm not sure which. (Yaakov Sloman tells me that the response to Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus was similarly ambivalent when it was new. I think the consensus is now on the genius side.) Either way, it is quite fascinating. There needs to be some theory to account for the historical development of consciousness, and as far as I know, this is the only one on offer.

Anyway, I did not mean to get into this in so much detail. The reason I brought this up is that because of my continuing interest in Jaynes' theory, and how it is viewed by later scholars, I am reading Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucination by Daniel B. Smith. I am not very far into it yet, but Smith has many interesting things to say about auditory hallucinations, their relationship to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other matters.

On page 37 Smith mentions a paper, which as he says, has a wonderful title: "Involuntary Masturbation as a Manifestation of Stroke-Related Alien Hand Syndrome". Isn't that just awesome? It gets you coming and going, like a one-two punch. First there's the involuntary masturbation, and while you're still reeling from that it follows up with "alien hand syndrome".

To save you the trouble of reading the paper, I will summarize. The patient is a 72-year-old male. He has lesions in his right frontal lobe. He is experiencing "alien hand syndrome", where his hand seems to be under someone else's control, grabbing objects, like the TV remote control, or grabbing pieces of chicken off his plate and feeding them to him, when what he wanted to do was feed himself with the fork in his right hand. "During his hospital stay, the patient expressed frustration and dismay when he realized that he was masturbating publicly and with his inability to voluntarily release his grasp of objects in the left hand."

Reaction time tests of his hands revealed that when the left hand was under his conscious control, it suffered from a reaction time delay, but when it was under the alien's control, it didn't.

Whee, freaky.

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