Julian Jaynes's Theory

Consciousness Is More “Nurture” than “Nature”

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But Like a Massive Planet, the Gravitational Pull of the Word “Consciousness” Drags our Thinking in the Wrong Direction, Warping Scientific Analysis

The nature-versus-nurture debate has framed discussions about the origins of mind for centuries: Is it innate or acquired? Has it biologically evolved or is it better understood as the product of historical development? To what degree is it learned? To be more specific, what about consciousness, understood here as one aspect of mind?

Many of us assume that consciousness has the qualities of something inborn and is thus more “nature” than “nurture.” Arguably this is because we unthinkingly associate it with perception and some vague notion of cognition (some of us even believe it is a basic property of any organism possessed of a mind). Unfortunately, within the ambit of “consciousness” a host of unhelpful associations swirl around that distorts our understanding. Many believe it is a basic, elemental aspect of mentality, so therefore it must be ahistorical and unconnected to the vagaries of human civilization. If this is the case, consciousness must be deeply rooted in our very distant evolutionary past. Being something evolved, it is thus unrelated to what is learned. This must mean then that it antedates socializing experiences and it emerges whether or not an individual is exposed to learnable elements in a given environment. In other words, similar to sensory perception, breathing, or digestion, consciousness will automatically kick in and operate even without being culturally acquired.

Here a caveat is needed. Like most either-or propositions, the nature-versus-nurture framework oversimplifies reality, especially since human capabilities require both innate and environmental experiences to become operational. So the nature-versus-nurture perspective actually distorts our understanding because in reality, they interact to such a degree and are so intertwined that they can only be disentangled for theoretical purposes. In other words, culture (nurture) is not simply layered over a deeper, “more real” physicality (nature). The nature-versus-nurture perspective is merely a heuristic maneuver to highlight how certain facets of the human condition are not inborn (i.e., enculturation). But what is learned still requires a catalyzing grounding in our physical being, specifically, our neurology. The mind is best considered as an interactant or a result of the coming together of neurological processes plus enculturation.

In any case, for the sake of argument, we can postulate that certain phenomena fit more comfortably and convincingly in either the category of nature or nurture. And consciousness, since it is learned, finds a better home in the nurture category. Many people, mainstream psychologists in particular, have a difficult time conceptualizing consciousness as a recent historical invention because our folk psychology implicitly teaches us that it must be part of an evolved, innate psychic structures and shared with other animals. But consciousness is not a product of evolution and is species specific, i.e., limited to Homo sapiens. Subjective introspectable self-awareness is a cultural innovation, not an inborn trait of our neurological apparatus.

Learn more about Julian Jaynes’s theory by joining the Julian Jaynes Society and reading our publications.

Brian J. McVeigh

Brian J. McVeigh has a MS in counseling and a PhD in Anthropology, Princeton University. He researches how humans adapt, both through history and therapeutically. The author of 17 books, his latest publication, "The Self-healing Mind: Harnessing the Active Ingredients of Psychotherapy" (2022), adopts a Jaynesian framework to explain how therapy works. He works as a licensed mental health counselor.

Brian McVeigh

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