The Origin of Consciousness

This consciousness that is myself, that is everything and nothing at all, is a secret theater of silent monologues, a mansion of all moods, disappointments, and discoveries.  A kingdom where we alone rein, commanding and questioning.  A hidden hermitage where we may study what we have done and may yet do.  Where did it come from? –Julian Jaynes

Steinberg's Rabbit

Steinberg’s Rabbit

In 1977, a book appeared on the New York Times best-seller list with the unlikely title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind,  by psychologist Julian Jaynes.  I first read it back in the 1980s, but reread and abstracted it last year.

What does it mean to be conscious?  In the sense Jaynes is talking about, it is the awareness of ourselves as thinking beings, an awareness of our own individual thought processes and emotions, everything in the opening quote above.

Take away consciousness, and we are not “unconscious,” which means a loss of sensory input.  Without consciousness, we can still hear and see; we are just not aware of our thinking, although it still occurs.  When driving, we are not conscious of much of the passing scene, but we still react to it, such as a car pulling out.  We are not conscious of the turns we must make to get home, but we still make the right ones.   Consciousness is not necessary for thinking.

Take away consciousness and we are in an animal state, thinking, performing and reacting rationally, but not aware of the process or of our own individual part in that process.

Most of us assume consciousness is unique to humans because of our unique brain power.  Jaynes proposes consciousness is indeed unique to humans, but is not an inborn trait at all.  It is an invention that occurred sometime during the development of civilization, an invention we each learn to use as an early part of growing up.

A clue to this theory is that we have no words for thought processes.  We always describe them in metaphors of actions in space, and space is one thing that we do innately understand.  We discover problems and struggle with them.  We search for an answer.  We gather information.  We weigh the alternatives until we finally arrive at a decision.

In Jaynes’s theory, consciousness is simply an imaginary space we construct in our minds.  Everything in our world fits in this space.  When concentrating, we even close our eyes to see it more clearly.

One use of this space is to visualize and organize concepts that are not spatial, such as time.  We imagine time as a line extending to the right as the future, and to the left as the past.  We can then sequence events along this timeline.  Up until age three or four, children have not created this space, and even have difficulty telling you what they had for breakfast.  Without the imaginary timeline, all previous breakfasts run together.

But the main use of this space is to create an avatar of ourselves and run an imaginary puppet show to help make decisions.  When asked if you would rather drive to a park or just stay home, you put your puppet to work.  In the first scenario, the puppet (you) gets in the car and drives through some traffic (negative).  But once there, the sun is warm, people are there, and he chats with others on a bench (positive).  In the second scenario, your puppet watches part of a baseball game on TV (positive), then drags a lawn chair to the back yard and reads the morning newspaper (positive).  The real you is watching all of this and comparing them.  Staying home wins until your spouse suggests some chores and you rerun the second scenario with a few negatives included.

A young child cannot do this.  They may say they want to go to the park, but once there, they want to go home.  We have all seen this.

We use our puppet to reminisce.  My avatar could be sitting in Mr. McClure’s chemistry class, or going on a date again, while I sit back and watch the show.  When reminiscing, we often do not see the scene from our own eyes, but from a distance that includes ourselves (our puppet), as in a movie.

When we talk to ourselves, as we all do silently, we are really putting words into the mouth of our avatar.

Even when we are not purposely using our puppet, the show goes on with the puppet doing just what we are doing at the time, and we continuously monitor the puppet’s reaction.  Is he happy?  Bored?  Tired?  People often have this feeling they are watching themselves throughout the day, “the mysterious observer who is never observed.”  Ask a child how they feel, and they will be puzzled by the question because they have not yet created their puppet show.  Parents know they have to observe the child’s behavior themselves to understand how the child is feeling.

Children are also known to begin lying about the age of three or four.  Psychologists see it as an important sign of their maturity.  Before then, they do not understand their individuality.  They assume everyone knows the same things, and lying is meaningless.  They have not yet developed civilization’s most important invention: consciousness. Consciousness is necessary for lying.

A famous Saul Steinberg cartoon expressing this “other observer” shows a cross-section of a man’s head.  It is empty inside except for a rabbit standing on his hind legs, looking out through the man’s eyes.

Suppose, Jaynes suggests, the theory is correct, and we could find a piece of writing before humans developed consciousness.  What would it be like?  Finding such a document would be very lucky, indeed.  Even if it existed, we would have to be sure it had not been changed over the years, and we would have to have an accurate translation that would be true to the thinking of their time, not ours.

Fortunately, Homer’s The Iliad, the Greek story of the conquest of Troy, is such a document.  We know the version today is virtually identical with the original, and we know the nuances of meaning of ancient Greek. Could it have been written before humans developed consciousness?

We find when reading it that it is indeed strikingly different from modern writing. The characters never mention their own feelings or will, although passions are certainly high.  They never mention their thought processes, even though many difficult decisions are constantly made.

Thought certainly had to be a big part of the decisions, so how could they not be aware of it?  Anytime they come up with a decision, one of the Gods speaks to them and tells them what to do.  Their will is never their own.  One God encourages Achilles to go into battle, another makes him promise not to.  The Gods are constantly speaking to them.  Even The Iliad itself was not created consciously.  It opens with the statement that it is the song of a Goddess heard by a bard.  The entire story reads very differently than anything we read later.  By the slightly later time of The Odyssey, consciousness is already evident.  The Odyssey reads like a modern novel.

This sounds reasonable.  If you thought long and hard about a difficult decision, but were unaware of the thought process, how else would you account for the decision that suddenly popped into your head?  According to Jaynes, ancient people actually heard God, or some absent authority figure, like a king, parent, or spouse, speaking to them just as clearly as reality.

But then, slowly over time, we became aware of our thinking by learning to express it with metaphors of space.  Consequently, we lost this daily, direct contact with God.  In Judaism, the age of prophesy was over.  How this happened is described by the breakdown of the bicameral mind and will be the subject of another posting.

About Roger Walck

My reasons for writing this blog are spelled out in the posting of 10/1/2012, Montaigne's Essays. They are probably not what you think.
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