Am I in Charge of me or is my Brain: Julian Jaynes Edition

Oh shit! Guess who is actually reading that sick (as in awesome) Julian Jaynes book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind I told you about some weeks ago?? ME.

First of all, it has the most excellent cover in the history of scholarly texts:

Damn. That is a tough cover. That cover is like “TAKE IT OR LEAVE IT.”

But what of the book itself? I will confess to only being through chapter 1 but already I can say with certainty that my mind is 100% blown. I never took philosophy in college, so maybe this book is like “ho hum” for everybody who already had their age-eighteen “holy shit maybe everything is just a dream” moment. For me though it is totally wicked!

Jaynes begins by laying out all the metaphors we have used to describe consciousness. Plato and Augustine and those guys (“old dudes”) used metaphors of caves and caverns. In the early 19th century the metaphors seemed to align with new geological discoveries involving the layers of the earth–maybe the mind is like that too! Layers of experience creating a whole (a.k.a. “the unconscious”). Mid century metaphors of the mind took on the qualities of chemistry and laboratory experiments: the mind as a product of sensations and feelings that could be seen in the “gleaming stainless-steel” of the lab. By the end of the century metaphors of mind became all about steam engines–the subconscious as a swollen boiler that needed outlets in the form of weird dreams/desires/perversions. So our mind-metaphors actually mirror real-world shit that’s going on.

The question “what is consciousness” has plagued humankind for thousands of years. “How can we derive this inwardness out of mere matter?” We know if we cut somebody open, we don’t find anything like consciousness. We find blood and guts and tissue. So where is consciousness, what is it, who is it, how did it come to be, etc.?

Jaynes then summarizes all the prevailing theories of consciousness up to the time of his writing. There are some wild and surprising jaunts here. EXAMPLE: The guy who discovered natural selection at the same time as Darwin, who, unlike Darwin, believed consciousness had to come from outside–what he called a “metaphysical imposition”–because, how else do you explain it? Why does no other animal on earth read books or fly rockets to the moon? It’s totally bonkers. This guy insisted that consciousness is imparted from beyond us–by who, he did not say–and his scientific inquiry took the form of going to séances and trying to contact the spirit world! AND THIS IS WHY WE DON’T EVEN REMEMBER HIS NAME (which was Wallace). Because it’s kooky! We want our science to be firmly based in the natural world, which is what Darwin did.

Darwin is like, no way, consciousness can ONLY be explained with natural science. When some degree of nervous complexity is reached, “consciousness appears,” and so begins “its futile course as a helpless spectator of cosmic events.” Well, as Jaynes points out, this is not a very satisfactory answer (“appears” not being a super specific word), and nobody has been satisfied with this idea of consciousness as merely a byproduct of brain function–the melody from a harp that can not pluck the harp’s strings. That seems like bullshit. But so does the metaphysical imposition. UH OH.

Behaviorism! William James. These are the people who claimed all of a sudden that Consciousness DID NOT EXIST AND WASN’T REAL. This is obviously totally obnoxious, and Jaynes demonstrates how this line of reasoning came into being specifically to push philosophy out of the sciences—a state of affairs I am constantly harping upon in this blog! Psychology is trying to become a separate science, so it must distance itself from the noodlings of philosophers. After WWI everyone was excited to turn over a new leaf. “Fuck it! there is no such thing as consciousness.” The LAB reduced all conduct to conditional reflexes (rats in mazes; we are all just rats in a maze (or cage, according to Billy Corgan (not a scientist)). But, as Jaynes points out, “Behaviorism was only a refusal to talk about consciousness. Nobody really believed he was not conscious.”


(also you’ve got to love that that was Psychology’s attempt to distance itself from Philosophy! What could possibly be more bullshitty and more patently untrue (i.e. “philosophical”) than that stupid theory??? That’s the best you could do, Psychology? Damn, I’m going back to my Kant)

So then there is this whole line of thought that is like: All of these theories are bullshit. We want to know WHERE IS CONSCIOUSNESS, LITERALLY. If it is real, it must exist. If it exists, it must be HERE, in the body of a man. Let’s cut one open and see what we can see. Um….as expected, this was inconclusive. Sure, science can increasingly see into the working, living brain in an amazing way. We can now pinpoint where synapses fire, where impulses travel, we can see the bundle of nerves that does this or that. But Jaynes points out something I think we instinctively all feel: that physical stuff can never, “not ever,” explain consciousness itself. But a lot of us also don’t believe in God. So in conclusion: WTF?

He then goes into this extraordinary section of explaining what consciousness is NOT. “When asked the question, what is consciousness? we become conscious of consciousness. And most of us take this consciousness of consciousness to be what consciousness is. This is not true.” (—best sentence ever, he is so wry, this Jaynes fellow! I must find out if he is still alive…oh damn, he died in 1997)

Here are all the things people all say about consciousness: it is obvious, it is located in our head somewhere, it is the defining attribute of all our waking states, moods, affections, memories, volitions, it is the basis of concepts, learning, reasoning, thought, and judgment. NONE OF THIS IS TRUE.

1. Consciousness is not reactivity.
Seeing, hearing, walking, reacting, holding a pen in your hand, itching your head, writing a sentence, speaking a sentence, catching a ball, etc.

Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we aren’t conscious of what we aren’t conscious of. WTF MAN? Ok here is an analogy: Imagine a flashlight. You ask the flashlight “what things in this dark room have light shining on them?”; the flashlight looks around, and everything it sees has light shining on it. Because it’s a flashlight. So it says, “well, everything has light shining on it.” the flashlight can’t see the vast numbers of things–all things, really–that don’t have light shined on them in the dark room. Thus, the “seeming continuity of consciousness is an illusion.” We’re only conscious of being conscious when we’re conscious. PLUS: While we’re playing the piano, we aren’t conscious of each finger’s motor movement; of the meaning of each symbol on the page we look at; of each individual note or melody; of our feet pressing the pedals. Somehow it all combines into one act, during which we are conscious, but we are profoundly NOT CONSCIOUS of many millions of aspects of it. Reading and speaking simply slur into meaning, without consciousness of phonemes and articulation–indeed, consciousness of phonemes would DESTROY meaning. Consciousness decides what to say, when, and how, “but then the orderly and accomplished succession of phonemes or of written letters is somehow done for us.”


2. Consciousness is not a copy of experience.
John Locke: tabula rasa: we all kind of think of consciousness as just storing up memories as its main function, then we use those memories to know stuff. NOT TRUE! Jaynes wants you to tell him now, from memory: how many teeth do you see in the mirror when you brush your teeth? which is your second-longest finger? is the red or green light on the top of the stoplight? exactly which pictures are on the wall of your living room and where exactly are they all? You don’t know, yet you have seen all these things literally millions of times. You don’t know, but if one of these things CHANGED you would know immediately. So you know all the answers, but NOT CONSCIOUSLY. “What you can consciously recall is a thimbleful to the huge oceans of your actual knowledge.”

Furthermore! if you try to “recall,” say, coming in the coffee shop and sitting down, you are recreating lots of it based on what it “should” be like rather than what it was actually like. Which he calls “Narratizing.” You recreate–you don’t really remember it exactly, all its sensations, everything you did, everyone you looked at. “Memory is the medium of the must-have-been.” JESUS!!!!!!

3. Consciousness is not necessary for learning.
“Learning,” in laboratory terms, is broken into three groups: signals, skills, solutions.
SIGNALS: Like Pavlov! Learning that when you hear the dinner bell it’s time for dinner. When you say certain things, whoever you are talking to is more pleasantly disposed to you. These things are by definition unconscious. In fact, they have proven in studies that if you are CONSCIOUS of the terms of the experiment (like, if you are told, “ok every time I ring this bell I’m going to give you a treat and I want to see if ringing the bell makes you start salivating after awhile”) THE LEARNING DOESN’T HAPPEN. Boom.
SKILLS: toss 2 coins into opposite hands. You can learn it quickly. Are you conscious of all your movements? No. Learning skills is often purely organic, not conscious. Your consciousness sets the terms of the learning (what Jaynes calls a “struction”) and then your body takes over. In fact, you do WORSE if you try to be actively conscious of your movements/decisions (think of playing the piano! As soon as you start thinking about your individual fingers, you can’t keep playing. You are paralyzed).
SOLUTIONS: Yes, consciousness is often a major player in finding solutions, BUT NOT ALWAYS, which means it is not purely-speaking NECESSARY for solving problems. He gives as an example a fun project given to a psychology class, where the professor told the entire class to spend a week complimenting the appearance of every girl they saw wearing red. Within a week, “the cafeteria was ablaze” with ladies in red. The ladies had learned the “solution” (wear red) to the “problem” (getting compliments, which are nice), without anyone having any knowledge of any of it. He gives other amazing examples.

So! Consciousness is important, but we see we can learn all kinds of stuff without it.

4. Consciousness is not necessary for thinking.
YIKES! For real?
Judgment: carefully, consciously pick up 2 objects and determine which is heavier. You feel the muscles tensing, the surface of the objects. You are conscious of everything you’re doing. “And now the actual judging of which is heavier. Where is that? Lo!” (he actually says ‘Lo!’ He is a great writer). The judgment itself is “somehow just given to you.” Thus “judging, that supposed hallmark of consciousness, DOES NOT EXIST AT ALL” (emphasis mine).

He gives many examples. Speech itself! Consciousness gives us a struction (“tell your listener the story of that asshole who almost ran you over today”) and then speech JUST HAPPENS. You aren’t consciously being like “now I need an adverb. This adverb I have chosen has 3 syllables. Each syllable has whatever a phoneme is. How shall I articulate it? What accent shall I put on it? How loud should I say it? Etc. etc. etc. )

(this makes me think of the Radio Lab episode about choice, and the guy who after brain surgery lost his ability to make choices because he lost his ability to have feelings about them. They didn’t put it this way, but now I see that it is that he’d lost his ability to NOT BE CONSCIOUS while making a choice. Holy shit.)

5. Consciousness is not necessary for Reason.
First of all, what is Reason even? It’s totally vague and everybody crows about it but what is it really? It’s not conscious, that’s for sure–the reason we need logic to explain it is BECAUSE it’s not conscious. Everything he’s just proven (judgment, solutions, etc.) is really just primitive forms of reason, so we’ve already seen that reason doesn’t have to be conscious.

But what of High Reason? Scientific deduction, for example? Surely that must be conscious! Except, as Jaynes points out, scientific deduction often comes “mysteriously.” He quotes Gauss: “like a sudden flash of lightning, the riddle happened to be solved.”
(also reminds me of the New Yorker article about intuition–how they found the place in the brain where intuition actually happens, but found that it takes it forever to travel to whatever our consciousness is. Thus you “know” the answer up to EIGHT SECONDS before you know it. WTF)

Jaynes says, of Einstein himself, that so many insights came to him abruptly while he was shaving that he had to carefully slow down his razor “lest he cut himself with surprise.”
SURPRISE. He’s just shaving, and suddenly—-a voice? OMG we’ll get to that later—suddenly from somewhere inside (or outside) of him comes the knowledge: “LIGHT TRAVELS FAST” or whatever. “E=MC2.” And he is caught off guard and surprised by it! Where did it come from–he wasn’t even thinking about it. That is obviously not “consciousness” doing that work.

You consciously work on a problem (setting up the struction, just like when you told yourself to learn how to toss two coins into opposite hands), then it incubates unconsciously, while you’re sleeping or watching “Star Wars” or whatever, then illumination suddenly arrives, and is justified LATER by logic.


6. Consciousness is not in the head area.
By far the funniest one. We all feel like consciousness is in our head. But why? Try to FEEL where your consciousness is. You can’t, really. Try to project your consciousness around the corner, and do your thinking from there. You kind of can. Although the body/”I” situation is important and he will talk about it later. But still!

EYES: everyone feels like it’s something to do with the eyes. That it’s behind the eyes. You “look” within yourself. You “look” into somebody’s thoughts/feelings through their eyes. AND YET we know quite well THERE IS NOTHING BACK THERE. Just blood and guts! We actually create a totally imagined space where we fantasize consciousness resides. Aristotle for example thought consciousness must be around the heart. We just make it up and agree to believe whatever the collective unconscious (HA HA) decrees.

Out of body experiences

These aren’t metaphysical! These experiences demonstrate that the location of consciousness is at least somewhat arbitrary. CONSCIOUSNESS HAS NO LOCATION. This is a real mind-fuck if you think about it (with your consciousness).

Okay! If all this is true, then is consciousness necessary? Ok, no, fine.
Okay, if it’s all true, and consciousness is not necessary for all this shit, then can’t we actually imagine “a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved, indeed did most of what we do, BUT WERE NOT CONSCIOUS AT ALL”???


Now he’s gonna talk about the Greeks. I’m so stoked!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Check out this summary of his whole argument from wikipedia, is this the toughest thing you ever read?

“in which he argued that ancient peoples did not access consciousness (did not possess an introspective mind-space), but instead had their behavior directed by auditory hallucinations, which they interpreted as the voice of their chief, king, or the gods. Jaynes argued that the change from this mode of thinking (which he called the bicameral mind) to consciousness (construed as self-identification of interior mental states) occurred over a period of centuries about three thousand years ago and was based on the development of metaphorical language and the emergence of writing.”

Consciousness ITSELF only coming into being after we invent metaphors???????????????????

“An early criticism by philosopher Ned Block argued that Jaynes had confused the emergence of consciousness with the emergence of the concept of consciousness. In other words, according to Block, humans were conscious all along but didn’t have the concept of consciousness and thus did not discuss it in their texts.”


Me and my consciousness are going to go take a bath now. OR ARE WE

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2 Responses to Am I in Charge of me or is my Brain: Julian Jaynes Edition

  1. RCH says:

    I think that consciousness is real stuff, as real as anything we can see, and our thoughts are its “shadow.” What I want to know is, based on for example an 11 dimension map of reality, is consciousness dimension 0 or dimension 11?

  2. Maty says:

    This is one of those books I have heard about for years and now I am desperate to acquire it and read it. The way you describe his theories on conciousness mirrors my own perfectly. Please post more about the book as you work your way through it. Until I find a copy myself, your blog will be like a cool cliffsnotes version!
    The idea of asking the flashlight to look around the room and see which things have light shining on them…WOW! Thanks so much for writing about this!

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