Why Even Discuss Bicamerality?

Discussion of Julian Jaynes's second hypothesis - that before the development of consciousness, humans operated under a previous mentality called the bicameral mind.
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Why Even Discuss Bicamerality?

Post by GraemeM »

Here's a thought I've had about Jaynes' theory, I'd be interested in comments.

I gather that there are two central planks to Jaynes' theory. These are firstly that in early man, the mind existed in a partitioned state with directive thoughts 'heard' as voices apart, and secondly that as the brain integrated this state into a single unified mind 'Jaynesian consciousness' was formed through the capacity for linguistic introspection.

It seems to me that the first plank is rather inconsequential, it is his second plank that should interest us most. Whether or not bicamerality ever existed, Jaynes' idea that modern consciousness arose through language and is a learned phenomenon retains its explanatory power regardless of what led us to this state. That is, if language gives rise to 'consciousness', then it will have done that whether language and culture simply developed over time or whether a bicameral mind eventually integrated itself.

Jaynes' insight is that consciousness is a uniquely human phenomenon inherently tied to language use. As I see it, there is little reason to argue the likelihood for a bicameral mind. It may or may not have happened, but so what? It is not of any great value in itself when it comes to understanding just what consciousness is. We are where we are.

Jaynes suggests that much of our everyday behavior does not require conscious consideration when we define consciousness as Jaynesian consciousness, and I would agree with this. A lot of what we do - our behaviors - simply occur without conscious apprehension. We don't conduct a running commentary from moment to moment upon all of our behaviors. We are certainly aware of what is happening around and to us, but that is a different thing.

So, language is the mechanism through which the introspective "I" is formed, the internal mind-space in which we create a metaphorical representation of the external and internal environments in the form of a living self that can narrate and direct the body's behaviors.

However, and this is my point, if this IS the case then it follows that this kind of "I" is entirely learned. Without language one would not be 'conscious' in the Jaynesian sense. This seems to be how Jaynes' idea is interpreted from other comments I've read here, in which case I think there is a MAJOR implication. Simply put, Jaynesian consciousness is therefore a spectrum property, ranging from no consciousness for a person without language (eg Helen Keller) to a limited or perhaps narrow form of consciousness (eg Piraha people) to a more complex form of consciousness (eg various modern societies).

If this is so, then we really don't need to worry about whether primitive humans, or modern tribal societies (say pre-white settlement Australian Aborigines) were 'bicameral'. Bicamerality of itself is a dead-end philosophically - it would be but a curiosity of history. What is of interest is the extent to which any individual is conscious in a Jaynesian sense.

Which of course, leads me to suggest that Jaynesian consciousness is a cultural construct which probably varies - and has varied - according to time and place. And Bicameralism is a red herring more likely to detract from Jaynes' idea than add to it.

Thoughts? Why should we even discuss the bicameral mind theory?
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Re: Why even discuss bicamerality?

Post by ottoworks »

"Why should we even discuss the bicameral mind theory?"

I would agree that bicamerality is Jaynes'... mistake, in that readers and reviewers gravitate to it rather than focusing on the genius of Jayne's discussion on what consciousness is. Jaynes bicameral ideas are richly speculative, and thus ripe for rejoinder and critique.

For me, however, bicameral theory is far more than a "curiosity of history". The compelling beauty of Jayne's speculations is in the plausibility -- the visualizability. He paints his story from the imagined first words of early humans through to illustrative observations on writings and cultures. Pretty picture, but so what?

The greatest takeaway -- the most 'ringing' -- is how the advent of gods, theocracies and religions are explained by his theory. Clearly, this dominant characteristic of human society to this day has long begged for understanding, and Jaynes delivered. The fact that his story maps so successfully to neural hemisphericity is a strong reinforcer.

Is this "history"? No, but there will never be a "history" of the times before or during the early days of writing and symbolology. And Jaynes' efforts at leveraging the Illiad and other writings is necessarily suspect (to a point) because of fragility of surety regarding the genesis of these writings.

As for Jaynes' biggest guffaw evoker -- auditory hallucination of directive voices -- I still think he makes a strong case, simply based on the aural roots of language and hemisphericity.

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Re: Why even discuss bicamerality?

Post by Moderator »

I agree with Ottoworks. Bicamerality is not merely a historical curiosity but rather it is essential for an accurate understanding of the present human condition. In bicamrality, Jaynes offers the best explanation of the origin of gods and therefore religion. Bicamerality is the best explanation for understanding the millions of people who currently hear voices to varying degrees, understanding children's imaginary playmates, hypnosis, etc., etc. Present-day human psychology is totally incomplete without understanding our bicameral past.
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Re: Why even discuss bicamerality?

Post by GraemeM »

Perhaps you are right. I'm not convinced but hey, I am not that intimate with the psychology and mechanics of religious ideas. For me the standout aspect of Jaynes' thinking is his notion that consciousness is instantiated in language and the capacity for narrative introspection. I'd like to see a lot more serious discussion about that idea, is there any out there?

In regard to the origin of gods and religion, I am very taken with Michael Graziano's ideas. His proposal, the Attention Schema theory, postulates that consciousness (awareness) arises as a model of attention and suggests that in its evolution a core feature is the capacity to assign 'awareness' to both self and other creatures. Awareness is a property the brain assigns to itself as much as other creatures - that is we think of other creatures as conscious aware beings in the same way that we think of ourselves as conscious aware beings. We might also consider inanimate objects in a similar way, for example (as Graziano observes) how easily we can tend to think of a ventriloquist's puppet as harbouring conscious thought.

I like Graziano's thinking.

On this idea then we are simply engineered to assign conscious awareness - and intent - to others. Now it seems to me that this process might operate on environmental cues such that our brains note what external features are suggestive of a living creature and we then evaluate those on the basis that there is life and consciousness and intent in whatever has these features. We assume consciousness - minds - in external objects whose behaviour or contextual placement is suggestive of directed intent.

It follows then that it is simply inherent in the mechanics of conscious awareness that in observing patterns in events and circumstances, our brains will assign some conscious direction to these; that is we would assume that other entities are directed by a conscious intelligence. This really seems to be all that's required to produce gods, spirits and religious notions about the world.

That said, it *is* curious that there is such a sense of actual communication with other worldly beings in history and even in certain mental conditions today. Perhaps bicamerality is indeed the best explanation for this aspect of human experience. I wouldn't bet against it, it just doesn't seem to ring my bell as an idea.
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