by Charles Carreon
January 22, 2017
Julian Jaynes didn’t quite convince Richard Dawkins that the theory of mind proposed in his 1976 psych-classic, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” was correct – Dawkins remains on the fence about whether it’s pure bullshit or pure genius – but Jaynes certainly won first prize for Most Provoking Title for A Serious Book. Jaynes was competing in the burgeoning post-Freudian psych-theory market where Szasz, Laing, Leary and Lilly had already pitched their tents, so he undoubtedly wanted to cut through clutter and get people to hear his idea. The only drawback to his strategy is that, to the pedestrian ear, Jaynes’ dramatic declaration sounds a little like, “We Come From Crazy Ancestors Who Had A Breakdown, and Became Us.”
Bicameralism, Split-Brain Syndrome in Pre-Iliadic Humanity
Jaynes argues that our ability to cognize ourselves as human beings results from the linguistic integration of the two hemispheres of our brain. Jaynes further argues that for millennia, our human ancestors possessed a “bicameral mind,” in which the two brain hemispheres collaborated without the medium of self-conscious awareness, before the activity of naming events, objects and living beings blossomed into the magic of individual consciousness. If you were equipped with a bicameral mind living in the Indian subcontinent in 4000 BC, according to Jaynes, you literally could not think “I,” much less, “I should pick these mangos to eat later.” You’d just pick the mangos, eat as many as you could, and save some for later, because of learned responses generated by your nervous system, that he calls “aptic” systems, i.e., systems that make us apt at performing certain actions, what used to be called “instinct.”
The above illustration presumes that mangos are familiar, and thus no stress is created when they are seen. The person sees the mango, knows it is food, eats and stores it. But suppose the same person discovers an unfamiliar fruit outside of their usual domain. Now the bicameral mind might kick into action. The right brain might manifest as a voice, emanating from a haze around the fruit tree, and that voice might say, “Eat of this tree, for it is good.” Why? Since the idea of the self does not exist in the bicameral mind, the idea of aiding the self to survive cannot arise. Jaynes’ vision of these type of people includes even the heroes of the Iliad, such as Achilles, Hector, and Menelaus, all of whom ascribe what seem like rash, passionate actions to the irresistible power of the gods, whose voices drive them to act in ways that modern humans would call intemperate.
The bicameral condition of pre-Iliadic man, is therefore one of unconscious action, directed by forces either automatic or hallucinated. The automatic forces are the “aptic systems,” and the “divine” hallucinations are provoked by the untethered right hemisphere. Jaynes supports his interesting theory with evidence derived from split-brain research that proves that, in cases where the physical mechanism of hemispheric interconnection is physically damaged, the right brain and the left brain fail to integrate two things: perceptions and concepts. The integration of perceptions and concepts is a metaphor-fueled activity that occurs due to the interaction of brain hemispheres and the speech centers of the brain. Self-awareness and self-interest then supplants the visionary hallucinations.
Bicameralism in Westworld
A modern Jaynes fan, Marcel Kuijsten, head of an Institute dedicated to his theory, was recently interviewed on the topic of bicameralism after the term was uttered on the current TV series, “Westworld.” Kuijsten described the bicameral mind as what humans have “after language develops, but before we learn consciousness [so that instead] of an introspective mind-space, we’re hearing a commanding voice when we have decisions to make [until eventually humans] develop the ability to have introspection and little by little, the hallucinations are suppressed.”
“The hallucinations” that are associated with the “voices of the gods” must be understood to be quite different from something like “the voice of conscience,” which is a conscious structure constructed of concepts, that couldn’t exist in a bicameral mind. Unlike Jehovah, these “gods” perform no miracles, command no one to do the impossible, and exert a pure authority. By “pure authority,” I mean that when their inner voices speak, the bicameral people act. Bicameral minds cannot ponder the “influence of the divine” upon the “self,” nor can they choose by an act of “free will” to behave as “a sinner” or “a saint.”
Submission, Not Anarchy, Is the Bicameral Condition
So far, so good, but without a coordinating authority, would not all of these “gods,” shooting off their mouths in everyone’s head, create chaos? How can it be that, as Jaynes argues, bicameral minds operated the first agrarian societies, managing vast irrigated fields and timed harvests, gathering all the grain into central granaries, and operating complex administrative systems? As Kuijsten helpfully explains, summarizing Jaynes’ idea – bicameral people tended to hear the boss’ voice:
“You would hear the voice of the chief of the tribe, or the king, and then as the leader died, what would happen was that followers would still hear his commanding voice. So that’s why you see all around the world, the dead are treated as living, and fed, and propped up, and worshiped. So in the death of the leader, we see the birth of the concept of the gods. In ancient Egypt, for example, each king that dies becomes the God of Osiris.”
Thus, argues Jaynes, when the Chief died, people continued to get advice from him, a lot like the Clooney character showing up to help out the Sandra Bullock character in Gravity, described in this review:
“[T]he scene in question involves the return of Clooney’s veteran astronaut, Matt Kowalski. Late in the game, Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) has reached her breaking point. She thinks that she has exhausted every possible opportunity to return home. She shuts down the oxygen the capsule that contains her, and prepares to asphyxiate. But she’s woken out of her stupor by her supervisor (Clooney), who reminds her of one last option she hadn’t explored. Only the catch is, Kowalski’s still dead, and Stone was – what? Imagining him? Envisioning him? Conjuring his essence? The scene is open to multiple interpretations.”
Well, if you were about to pull the plug on your ventilator because you couldn’t figure out how to save yourself, it might push you right back into a bicameral condition. Note the Bullock character has exhausted all of her conscious resources. This is a situation that, however good it is for the rest of her life, is just not being adequately addressed by “consciousness,” and so, she reverts to bicamerality long enough to get that “aha” experience, and rediscover what is beyond the known. But how would she explain it to the folks back at home? So she would quickly revert from bicamerality to consciousness, as soon as the danger was over.
Brain Plasticity and Post-Conscious Humanity
How did humans graduate from bicameralism to “consciousness?” As best I can tell at this stage of the reading, through language. By learning to attach names to perceptions, to discrete objects, to persons, and then, to the self. Having cognized the self, we can begin to experience it, to use it, and to recognize it in others.
Because Jaynes was arguing that human brains now operate differently from those of our ancestors with the same cerebral hardware, he also had to argue that this change in function was possible, thus throwing in his lot with the newly-emerging paradigm of brain plasticity. Today, we have plenty of evidence that the brain repurposes its neural resources with great flexibility, and can thus agree that the functioning of the brain has evolved as linguistic capacities developed, causing newer brains to be wired more efficiently as generations have grown up with ever-more sophisticated speech resources, including of course, the Internet.
So one must ask: if our consciousness arose from the “breakdown” of the bicameral mind, due toits inability to handle the stress of ambiguous situations as efficiently as a “conscious” interface, what could lead to the “breakdown” of consciousness? Could it be the labor of keeping up with machine intelligence? Could it be the overtaxing of consciousness by loading it with too many alternatives for a single mind to process? And if so, what would the next evolutionary stage be?
 http://www.cinemablend.com/new/George-C ... 39723.html