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Vestiges of Bicameralism in the Pirahã

Posted: Fri May 09, 2014 3:16 pm
by Moderator
The book Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle by Daniel L. Everett contains descriptions vestiges of bicameralism among the Pirahãs, an isolated tribe living in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest:

"The Pirahãs change names from time to time, usually when individual Pirahãs trade names with spirits they encounter in the jungle." — p. 9

"Spirits can tell the village what it should not have done or what it should not do. Spirits can single out individuals or simply talk to the group as a whole. Pirahãs listen carefully and often follow the exhortations of the kaoaibogi. A spirit might say something like "Don't want Jesus. He is not Pirahã," or "Don't hunt downriver tomorrow," or things that are commonly shared values, such as "Don't eat snakes." — p. 112

"They have individual spirits, but they believe that they have seen these spirits, and they believe they see them regularly. When we looked into it, we saw that these aren't invisible spirits that they're seeing. They are entities that take on the shape of things in the environment. They'll call a jaguar a spirit, or a tree a spirit, depending on the kinds of properties that it has." — p. 134

"Throughout history people have claimed to see these supernatural entities [have had bicameral experiences — Mod]. The Pirahãs are not that much different, if at all. In the prologue, I gave one example of how the Pirahãs are eyewitnesses to spirits, and I have suggested that these spiritual encounters fall under the principle of immediacy of experience [lack spatialization of time — Mod]. But the Pirahãs encounter many kinds of spirits." — p. 137

"The kind of spirit most commonly spoken of is the kaoaibogi (fast mouth). This spirit is responsible for a range of good and bad things that happen to the Pirahãs. It can kill them or give them useful advice, depending on a whim." — p. 137

"Pirahãs see spirits in their mind, literally. They talk to spirits, literally. Whatever anyone else might think of these claims, all Pirahãs will say that they experience spirits." — p. 141

"Since for the Pirahãs spirits and dreams are immediate experiences, they often talk about them. Talk of the spiritual for the Pirahãs is not talk of fiction but talk of real events." — p. 213

"Their own beliefs were not in the fantastic and miraculous but in spirits that were in fact creatures of their environment, creatures that did normal kinds of things." — p. 271

Re: Vestiges of Bicameralism in the Pirahã

Posted: Fri Jun 13, 2014 8:24 am
by DanBlocker
Thank you very much for bringing this to our attention. I read the book and some articles by Everett in the mean time and I am quite impressed.

I am not so sure that the book answers questions on the nature (or origin) of consciousness. Surely, the importance of spirits, the lack of spatialization of time, would be indications of bicamerality. But I find it hard to believe that the Pirahãs really lacked consciousness. One would think that this is something that Everett would have noticed.

On the other hand, the way they live they certainly do not need consciousness. So why should they have picked it up when they refuse to pick up fishing techniques or religion?

One way to falsify Jaynes would be to find old records of dreams in the modern conscious way. I wonder if the reverse is true. Do Pirahãs dream like we do? Unfortunately, I find the story of the dream inconclusive, p. 214. But what does it mean: "With respect to me therefore the big Brazilian woman disappeared". (I know, even asking questions like this, can easily result in accusations of racism.)

To me the most interesting part is Everett’s claim that the language lacks recursiveness. And that therefore the Universal Grammar/Language instinct paradigm is wrong. This is refreshing. The fact that Chomsky says that Everett is a charlatan almost certainly means that he himself has run out of arguments.

So hopefully Universal Grammar will look just as ridiculous to the next generation as behaviorism looks to us. And I am sure it is not possible to understand consciousness without understanding the true nature of language.

Re: Vestiges of Bicameralism in the Pirahã

Posted: Fri Aug 01, 2014 12:01 pm
by Moderator
Yes, I would agree that they do not lack consciousness. However, like nearly all tribes I've read about, they do seem to exhibit many vestiges of bicameralism. What is sorely needed is the study of other even more recently contacted groups by someone with an understanding of/interest in Jaynes's theory.

Re: Vestiges of Bicameralism in the Pirahã

Posted: Sun Dec 13, 2015 11:59 am
by GraemeM
Interested to see some earlier comment about Everett's findings with the Piraha peoples. I hadn't realised this had already been covered here. A couple of observations. The first is mention of racism. I find this curious and I ran into it elsewhere (I have previously discussed what I called 'development of mind' on another forum before I'd actually realised what Jaynes was proposing). Surely if what Jaynes proposes is correct, then there could exist peoples for whom modern consciousness isn't present? If Jaynesian consciousness is largely learned, it also follows that some modern peoples may not be fully conscious - after all, anything learned is on a continuum, so why would it not be that different peoples in different places have different levels of consciousness? And why should that be racist? The idea could lend itself to racism no doubt, but surely one shouldn't ignore a physical fact if such were to be the case?

This is something I am not quite clear on when it comes to Jaynes. I don't think he is suggesting that consciousness is just the loss of hallucinated voices, rather he seems to be saying that through the development of language so too can the internal mind-space of consciousness be developed as metaphor for external reality. I would think then that the state of consciousness of such as the Piraha may actually be different from say modern Europeans. Would it necessarily be obvious? Behaviourally there shouldn't seem to be much difference other than perhaps a more rigid affect, which I gather from Everett may be the case. The Piraha's verbal reports of their inner experience and outlook should also be different. As indeed Everett notes. And their use of language should be far more restrictive. Exactly as observed.

I am not saying that the Piraha actually lack modern consciousness as I am not yet convinced of Jaynes' theory (though I do think he is on to something very profound), I'm more observing that I wonder how obvious bicamerality would actually be should we encounter it. Schizophrenia might be a modern illness that illustrates the possible mechanical effects of bicamerality but I doubt that a truly bicameral person would be singularly different.

This reflects DanBlocker's comment above. Why is there a sense that a non-Jaynesian conscious person should be so noticeably different or even a lesser being? Jaynesian consciousness might permit more flexible and adaptive behaviour but I would not be so sure it's necessarily an actual improvement! The Piraha might find themselves living far more rewarding lives than the modern Europeans I mentioned above...