The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness

“There is in my opinion no tenable argument against the hypothesis that psychic functions which today seem conscious to us were once unconscious and yet worked as if they were conscious. We could also say that all the psychic phenomena to be found in man were already present in the natural unconscious state. To this it might be objected that it would then be far from clear why there is such a thing as consciousness at all.”
~ Carl Jung, On the Nature of the Psyche 

An intriguing thought by Jung. Many have considered this possibility. It leads to questions about what is consciousness and what purpose it serves. A recent exploration of this is the User Illusion by Tor Nørretranders, in which the author proposes that consciousness doesn’t determine what we do but chooses what we don’t do, the final vote before action is taken, but action itself requires no consciousness. As such, consciousness is useful and advantageous, just not absolutely necessary. It keeps you from eating that second cookie or saying something cruel.

Another related perspective is that of Julian Jaynes’ bicameral mind theory. I say related because Jaynes influenced Nørretranders. About Jung, Jaynes was aware of his writings and stated disagreement with some ideas: “Jung had many insights indeed, but the idea of the collective unconscious and of the archetypes has always seemed to me to be based on the inheritance of acquired characteristics, a notion not accepted by biologists or psychologists today.” (Quoted by Philip Ardery in “Ramifications of Julian Jaynes’s theory of consciousness for traditional general semantics.”) What these three thinkers agree about is that the unconscious mind is much more expansive and capable, more primary and important than is normally assumed. There is so much more to our humanity than the limits of interiorized self-awareness.

What interested me was the anthropological angle. Here is something I wrote earlier:

“Julian Jaynes had written about the comparison of shame and guilt cultures. He was influenced in by E. R. Dodds (and Bruno Snell). Dodds in turn based some of his own thinking about the Greeks on the work of Ruth Benedict, who originated the shame and guilt culture comparison in her writings on Japan and the United States. Benedict, like Margaret Mead, had been taught by Franz Boas. Boas developed some of the early anthropological thinking that saw societies as distinct cultures.”

Boas founded a school of thought about the primacy of culture, the first major challenge to race realism and eugenics. He gave the anthropology field new direction and inspired a generation of anthropologists.This was the same era during which Jung was formulating his own views.

As with Jung before him, Jaynes drew upon the work of anthropologists. Both also influenced anthropologists, but Jung’s influence of course came earlier. Even though some of these early anthropologists were wary of Jungian psychology, such as archetypes and collective unconscious, they saw personality typology as a revolutionary framework (those influenced also included the likes of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, both having been mentors of Boas who maybe was the source of introducing linguistic relativism into American thought). Through personality types, it was possible to begin understanding what fundamentally made one mind different from another, a necessary factor in distinguishing one culture from another.

In Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology, Sonu Shamdasani describes this meeting of minds (Kindle Locations 4706-4718):

“The impact of Jung’s typology on Ruth Benedict may be found in her concept of Apollonian and Dionysian culture patterns which she first put forward in 1928 in “Psychological Types in the cultures of the Southwest,” west,” and subsequently elaborated in Patterns of Culture. Mead recalled that their conversations on this topic had in part been shaped by Sapir and Oldenweiser’s discussion of Jung’s typology in Toronto in 1924 as well as by Seligman’s article cited above (1959, 207). In Patterns of Culture, ture, Benedict discussed Wilhelm Worringer’s typification of empathy and abstraction, Oswald Spengler’s of the Apollonian and the Faustian and Friedrich Nietzsche’s of the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Conspicuously, ously, she failed to cite Jung explicitly, though while criticizing Spengler, she noted that “It is quite as convincing to characterize our cultural type as thoroughly extravert … as it is to characterize it as Faustian” (1934, 54-55). One gets the impression that Benedict was attempting to distance herself from Jung, despite drawing some inspiration from his Psychological Types.

“In her autobiography, Mead recalls that in the period that led up to her Sex and Temperament, she had a great deal of discussion with Gregory Bateson concerning the possibility that aside from sex difference, there were other types of innate differences which “cut across sex lines” (1973, 216). She stated that: “In my own thinking I drew on the work of Jung, especially his fourfold scheme for grouping human beings as psychological ical types, each related to the others in a complementary way” (217). Yet in her published work, Mead omitted to cite Jung’s work. A possible explanation for the absence of citation of Jung by Benedict and Mead, despite the influence of his typological model, was that they were developing oping diametrically opposed concepts of culture and its relation to the personality to Jung’s. Ironically, it is arguably through such indirect and half-acknowledged conduits that Jung’s work came to have its greatest impact upon modern anthropology and concepts of culture. This short account of some anthropological responses to Jung may serve to indicate that when Jung’s work was engaged with by the academic community, it was taken to quite different destinations, and underwent a sea change.”

It was Benedict’s Patterns of Culture that was a major source of influence on Jaynes. It created a model for comparing and contrasting different kinds of societies. Benedict was studying two modern societies, but Dodds came to see how it could be applied to different societies across time, even into the ancient world. That was a different way of thinking and opened up new possibilities of understanding. It set the stage for Jaynes’ radical proposal, that consciousness itself was built on culture. From types of personalities to types of cultures.

All of that is just something that caught my attention. I find fascinating such connections, how ideas get passed on and develop. None of that was the original reason for this post, though. I was doing my regular perusing of the web and came across some stuff of interest. This post is simply an excuse to share some of it.

This topic is always on my mind. The human psyche is amazing. It’s easy to forget what a miracle it is to be conscious and the power of the unconscious that underlies it. There is so much more to our humanity than we can begin to comprehend. Such things as dissociation and voice hearing isn’t limited to crazy people or, if it is, then we’re all a bit crazy.

* * *

Other Multiplicity
by Mark and Rana Mannng, Legion Theory

When the corpus callosum is severed in adults, we create separate consciousnesses which can act together cooperatively within a single body. In Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD), or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), as it is now known, psychological trauma to the developing mind also creates separate consciousnesses which can act together cooperatively within a single body. And in both cases, in most normal social situations, the individual would provide no reason for someone to suspect that they were not dealing with someone with a unitary consciousness.

The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible
by John Geiger
pp. 161-162

For modern humans generally, however, the stress threshold for triggering a bicameral hallucination is much higher, according to Jaynes: “Most of us need to be over our heads in trouble before we would hear voices.” 10 Yet, he said, “contrary to what many an ardent biological psychiatrist wishes to think, they occur in normal individuals also.” 11 Recent studies have supported him, with some finding that a large minority of the general population, between 30 and 40 percent, report having experienced auditory hallucinations. These often involve hearing one’s own name, but also phrases spoken from the rear of a car, and the voices of absent friends or dead relatives. 12 Jaynes added that it is “absolutely certain that such voices do exist and that experiencing them is just like hearing actual sound.” Even today, though they are loath to admit it, completely normal people hear voices, he said, “often in times of stress.”

Jaynes pointed to an example in which normally conscious individuals have experienced vestiges of bicameral mentality, notably, “shipwrecked sailors during the war who conversed with an audible God for hours in the water until they were saved.” 13 In other words, it emerges in normal people confronting high stress and stimulus reduction in extreme environments. A U.S. study of combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder found a majority (65 percent) reported hearing voices, sometimes “command hallucinations to which individuals responded with a feeling of automatic obedience.”

Gods, voice-hearing and the bicameral mind
by Jules Evans, Philosophy for Life

Although humans evolved into a higher state of subjective consciousness, vestiges of the bicameral mind still remain, most obviously in voice-hearing. As much as 10% of the population hear voices at some point in their lives, much higher than the clinical incidence of schizophrenia (1%). For many people, voice-hearing is not debilitating and can be positive and encouraging.

Sensing a voice or presence often emerges in stressful situations – anecdotally, it’s relatively common for the dying to see the spirits of dead loved ones, likewise as many as 35% of people who have recently lost a loved one say they have a sense of the departed’s continued presence. Mountaineers in extreme conditions often report a sensed presence guiding them (known as the Third Man Factor).

And around 65% of children say they have had ‘imaginary friends’ or toys that play a sort of guardian-angel role in their lives – Jaynes thought children evolve from bicameral to conscious, much as Piaget thought young children are by nature animist

Earslips: Of Mishearings and Mondegreens
by Steven Connor, personal blog

The processing of the sounds of the inanimate world as voices may strike us as a marginal or anomalous phenomenon. However, some recent work designed to explain why THC, the active component of cannabis, might sometimes trigger schizophrenia, points in another direction. Zerrin Atakan of London’s Institute of Psychiatry conducted experiments which suggest that subjects who had been given small doses of THC were much less able to inhibit involuntary actions. She suggests that THC may induce psychotic hallucinations, especially the auditory hallucinations which are classically associated with paranoid delusion, by suppressing the response inhibition which would normally prevent us from reacting to nonvocal sounds as though they were voices. The implications of this argument are intriguing; for it seems to imply that, far from only occasionally or accidentally hearing voices in sounds, we have in fact continuously and actively to inhibit this tendency. Perhaps, without this filter, the wind would always and for all of us be whispering ‘Mary’, or ‘Malcolm’.

Hallucinations and Sensory Overrides
by T. M. Luhrmann, Stanford University

Meanwhile, the absence of cultural categories to describe inner experience does limit
the kinds of psychotic phenomena people experience. In the West, those who are psychotic sometimes experience symptoms that are technically called “thought insertion” and “thought withdrawal”, the sense that some external force has placed thoughts in one’s mind or taken them out. Thought insertion and withdrawal are standard items in symptoms checklists. Yet when Barrett (2004) attempted to translate the item in Borneo, he could not. The Iban do not have an elaborated idea of the mind as a container, and so the idea that someone could experience external thoughts as placed within the mind or removed from it was simply not available to them.

Hallucinatory ‘voices’ shaped by local culture, Stanford anthropologist says
by Clifton B. Parker, Stanford University

Why the difference? Luhrmann offered an explanation: Europeans and Americans tend to see themselves as individuals motivated by a sense of self identity, whereas outside the West, people imagine the mind and self interwoven with others and defined through relationships.

“Actual people do not always follow social norms,” the scholars noted. “Nonetheless, the more independent emphasis of what we typically call the ‘West’ and the more interdependent emphasis of other societies has been demonstrated ethnographically and experimentally in many places.”

As a result, hearing voices in a specific context may differ significantly for the person involved, they wrote. In America, the voices were an intrusion and a threat to one’s private world – the voices could not be controlled.

However, in India and Africa, the subjects were not as troubled by the voices – they seemed on one level to make sense in a more relational world. Still, differences existed between the participants in India and Africa; the former’s voice-hearing experience emphasized playfulness and sex, whereas the latter more often involved the voice of God.

The religiosity or urban nature of the culture did not seem to be a factor in how the voices were viewed, Luhrmann said.

“Instead, the difference seems to be that the Chennai (India) and Accra (Ghana) participants were more comfortable interpreting their voices as relationships and not as the sign of a violated mind,” the researchers wrote.

Tanya Luhrmann, hearing voices in Accra and Chenai
by Greg Downey, Neuroanthropology

local theory of mind—the features of perception, intention, and inference that the community treats as important—and local practices of mental cultivation will affect both the kinds of unusual sensory experiences that individuals report and the frequency of those experiences. Hallucinations feel unwilled. They are experienced as spontaneous and uncontrolled. But hallucinations are not the meaningless biological phenomena they are understood to be in much of the psychiatric literature. They are shaped by explicit and implicit learning around the ways that people pay attention with their senses. This is an important anthropological finding because it demonstrates that cultural ideas and practices can affect mental experience so deeply that they lead to the override of ordinary sense perception.

How Universal Is The Mind?
by Salina Golonka, Notes from Two Scientific Psychologists

To the extent that you agree that the modern conception of “cognition” is strongly related to the Western, English-speaking view of “the mind”, it is worth asking what cognitive psychology would look like if it had developed in Japan or Russia. Would text-books have chapter headings on the ability to connect with other people (kokoro) or feelings or morality (dusa) instead of on decision-making and memory? This possibility highlights the potential arbitrariness of how we’ve carved up the psychological realm – what we take for objective reality is revealed to be shaped by culture and language.

A puppet is a magical object. It is not a toy, is it? Here they see it as puppet theatre, as puppets for kids. But it’s just not like that. These native tribes — in Africa or Oceania, etc. — the shamans use puppets in communication not only with the upper world, with the gods, but even in relation when they treat a sick person. Those shamans, when they dress as some demon or some deity, they incarnate genuinely. They are either the totem animal or the demon. (via Matt Cardin)


33 thoughts on “The Psychology and Anthropology of Consciousness

    • Some psychedelic research has shown positive results. There is evidence that certain psychedelics can be useful for resetting the addictive brain. But of course most of the research was made illegal or difficult. It’s only been recently that psychedelic research has started to be taken seriously again.

    • “Intelligence – and not just relentless practice – plays a significant role in determining chess skill”

      That seems based on the assumption that intelligence itself is inherent and uneffected by external variables. The fact is we know that intelligence is causally related to environmental conditions. Besides physical factors (e.g., nutrition), there are things a child does or is encouraged to do that will increase lifelong neurocognitive development and hence intelligence, which in turn would determine their potential for skill at various intellectual activities such as playing chess. Pointing to intelligence as a causal factor isn’t entirely meaningful when intelligence is an indicator of and proxy for so many other causal factors.

    • There is ‘grit’. The only problem with that explanation is that it’s a bit of a non-explanation. It basically states a truism, those who work hard achieve more. It leaves unexplained actual causal factors.

      The related factors are important as well. High IQ sometimes goes along with particular dysfunctions such as Aspergers. Mercury toxicity will increase IQ while also increasing major cognitive and behavioral problems. The same goes for toxoplasmosis for girls.

      Both ‘grit’ and ‘intelligence’ are broad concepts. They can mean many things and be caused by many factors.

  1. There’s reasonably compelling evidence that individual differences in these components of the cognitive system are based in physiology–density of white matter connections, throughput of nutrient supply and metabolic waste disposal, balance and distribution of excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, etc.–which might well mean no human has approached the upper limit to how much these cognitive resources could scale up.

    • That is a scientific way of stating something that otherwise seems obvious. We have no reason, based on scientific evidence, to assume humans have come even close to their cognitive potential. But we have much reason to guess that cognitive potential might be immense.

    • That makes me sad. I was talking to my dad about this kind of thing. Why don’t we praise people for being basically well-functioning and socially adapted? Why do employers care so little about moral character and the work ethic? Why don’t we raise kids to be kind and helpful? Our priorities in this society are massively fucked up.

    • It shows how easily biases get built into institutions. But it’s funny that this gets so much attention in the way it does. I noticed that article is from the American Enterprise Institute, an extremely right-wing think tank. I doubt that think tank publishes articles about the racial and class biases also built into such institutions.

        • Even limiting ourselves to the issue of IQ tests, what are the biases of education or whatever that might be leading to the result of more high IQ boys? We know from other countries and sub-populations that the opposite pattern is found. The causal factors obviously include environmental factors, which inevitably would involve systemic and institutional factors. So, all we know is that one set of factors has a gender bias in one direction and another set of factors has a gender bias in the other direction. Neither bias is fair, assuming that fairness is the issue, but of course those working at right-wing think tanks have never cared about fairness for a moment in their lives.

    • I wonder if this has to do with the weird descriptions that get made about the ‘gifted’. Girls are more likely to develop earlier and so they maybe don’t stick out as much, since girls tend to learn social skills earlier. The very notion of ‘gifted’ has been portrayed as socially dysfunctional and so a smart kid who is more socially functional might not be perceived as being ‘gifted’. The very notion of ‘gifted’ has maybe become skewed toward stereotypical boy behaviors. Every parent with a boy who acts out wants to believe their child is ‘gifted’ rather than just being a standard boy.

    • This is one of those pointless debates. Sure, we always need better research for everything. And with new info, we will gain new understandings. But the kind of person who points to this aren’t interested in meaningful, rational debate.

      This Dienekes blog is an example of what to avoid. As with many alt-righters talking about race, he uses terms like Caucasoids and Negroids. WTF! Are we still in the 19th century? Such idiocy will drive even the most patiently tolerant insane.

    • Some comments from the Youtube video:

      sa ra6 months ago
      most university graduates in developed countries are women .in Iran 70 percent of stem fields and engineering students are women (despite all its government attempt to ban them from university) early digital computer programmers were women and wireless was invented by a woman.I mentioned these few that you can feel their impact on the present moment where you are sitting at your desk in front of your laptob

      carmillaburana2 years ago
      The notion of “too good to be true” is not a scientific one, but an ideological one. How is a valid sociological explanation too efficient to be relevant ?
      Plus, as to the lack of “control subjects”, how exactly are these to be found : where can we find women and men who have not been subjected all their life to both insidious and direct bias about women’s mathematical abilities ? On Mars ?
      The control subjects exist : they are the men, and the tests show that existing prejudices affect both men (who perform better because they are told they are better and hence gain confidence in this domain) and women (who are told the opposite). But an informed scholar such as yourself should know that social structures are embedded in ideological beliefs that cannot be merely put aside for the sake of a test’s objectivity… Unless you deliberately seek to mislead your audience into reinforcing old dogmatic views on relationship between men and women…

    • A good response to the idiocy, along with a couple of comments to it:

      Those familiar with discussion of social science research on inequalities will recognize this kind of question as a “magic button” question. Is stereotype threat the one overwhelming thing that causes a gender gap in mathematics? Um, does any social phenomenon have just one overwhelming cause? Generally not, but that doesn’t stop Stoet, and his coauthor David C. Geary, from asking exactly that. […]

      So the question of the paper was not “Does stereotype threat exist?” or “Does stereotype threat contribute to gender differences on difficult mathematical tests?” If it had been, the answer provided by the paper would have been an unequivocal “Yes.” The authors excluded every study that did not use a male control group or used an adjustment to math scores, and they still found that that the existence of stereotype threat was supported in 30% of situations studied. […]

      There is evidence of stereotype threat that has been replicated reliably, if not universally. For a social phenomenon, that’s pretty good. […]

      o, the paper shows an effect even after removing the studies without male control groups, but it’s important to mention those studies don’t have male control groups–and that being told men don’t perform well at a math test could, if it ever happened, possibly affect men’s performance. The paper says that, to the extent stereotype threat is presented as the only problem affecting women’s performance, there is too much attention paid to stereotype threat, but the press release says paying any attention to it at all is a problem. The paper finds replication of the effect, but the press release calls it “a problem that does not exist”.

      It’s a sad state of affairs when a press release and a paper are this far off on their conclusions, but it does, once again, demonstrate how important it is to read the one of them that is peer-reviewed.

      aleph squared
      July 23, 2012 at 7:51 am
      The weird thing for me is that even if this paper did conclude that stereotype threat doesn’t exist/have an effect, stereotype threat has been supported by so many studies that it would need many many more studies finding no effect to make it even remotely reasonable to declare something as grandiose as stereotype threat being over or gone or never here.

      Giliell, not to be confused with The Borg
      July 23, 2012 at 9:29 am
      Ah, yes, press releases.
      That’s how I learned over the years to go and check if tehre was something spectacular in the press. Most times you’re going to be disappointed, angry or both.
      But I’m wondering a bit about the control-group question (I remember from the “Gender Delusion” that you actually can test this with a male control in some cases, but how are you going to control for a phenomenon that is present since we’re born?
      I mean, you can’t just change the message to “men are bad at maths” unless you raise a group of men in a Trueman-show scenario.

      July 23, 2012 at 1:46 pm
      What Giliell said. It’s impossible to find a control group that isn’t in some way conditioned to common social/cultural memes and tropes. I do think that looking at stereotype threat is one angle on a much bigger problem, and that bigger problem would be easier to test for.

      Three groups, randomly chosen. One group is told that the average mark on the test is 80. Another group is told that the average mark on the test is 50. A third group is told nothing. See how the test results compare. Do a second test, mix up the groupings, and see how the results compare to the original.
      It’s not exactly the same..with stereotype threat you’re talking about internal expectations and with that test you’re looking at external expectations, but I would suspect you would get similar results, due to things such as confidence and stress.
      One reason why I think one would see a rather big pushback against these concepts is that they directly challenge some pretty big concepts in terms of academics and education. (I.E. with high stakes testing we’re not only testing knowledge, we’re also testing relative stress levels, making the results basically useless if you’re looking to measure knowledge)

    • This is what undermines the HBD, race realism, and other such simplistic views. Changing a single factor can alter real world results to an extreme degree. Now consider the fact that every result is dependent on unknown numbers (thousands? millions?) of factors, most of which we are completely unaware of and ignorant about. Humans and societies are complex systems within an even more complex environment.

      Based on little knowledge and much speculation, to blame so much on a single factor like race or whatever is pure idiocy (even ignoring to what extent these kinds of categories are meaningful at all). If you feel the need to focus on a single factor, at least look for one that has been thoroughly researched and confirmed such as lead toxicity, nutrition, or inequality.

      One thing that is clear is how little we still know about human nature and the world. The other thing is that humans constantly surprise us in demonstrating the immensity of potential that remains hidden until certain conditions and incidences cause it to manifest.

    • Yeah. I get irritated and bored with most speculation. It’s not that I dislike speculation on principle. But most of the time it seems ideologically driven, a conclusion looking for evidence. A case in point:

      “But for all the work that Zhao, Plomin, and others have done to this point, not a single gene has reliably been shown to account for the heritability of IQ. Plomin believes that if we could identify just a few of the genes associated with IQ, we could make huge strides in the field of education.”

      Even though the evidence is lacking, Plomin thinks we should keep looking for the evidence he believes should exist because that is what he wants to believe. Maybe genetics by itself doesn’t directly explain anything, since genetics are dependent on epigenetics and environment. The same genetics could express with completely opposite results dependent on unknown numbers of factors.

      I noticed this as well:

      “Essentially, what heritability estimates is the ratio between how much the range of genetic differences can affect a given trait compared to how much a range of environmental factors can affect that same trait.”

      That isn’t quite correct. It isn’t compared to all environmental factors. The comparison is only to known and measurable environmental factors, which probably isn’t the majority of environmental factors.

      Plus, how do epigentics and the microbiome, the latter including non-human genetics (90% of the human body’s genetics is non-human), fit into the equation? By the way, the microbes in your body contribute to which human genetics get expressed and how they get expressed (i.e., epigenetics).

      Once again, in speculating, we are simply out of our depths. Our present ignorance swamps our present knowledge. Speculation ends up being pointless. Maybe we should simply admit we don’t entirely know at the moment. It could turn out genetics doesn’t work whatsoever like we assume it to work.

      Instead of wasting our time on speculation, maybe we should focus on what we have proven to improve lives: better nutrition, healthcare availability, disease control, parasite elimination, pollution regulation, education resources, etc. After we take care of the obvious failures of our society, then we can move onto more complex problems of genetics.

    • That is the type of thing that seems like speculating on limited info. These simplistic discussions always miss the point. They often become platforms for ideological opinionating, looking for the evidence that fits some particular view. One commenter made a similar point about the lack of context:

      “As a statistician, this feels like over-interpreting the results of a simple regression.
      An alternative explanation is that not all “training” as measured is equal. For example, measuring training as a computer scientist as “number of hours on the job” is too coarse a metric to capture the aspects that is driving development, (working in a stanford lab versus working at a helpdesk).”

      I’m also reminded of the book I’ve been reading, This Is Your Brain on Parasites by Kathleen McAuliffe.

      In one section, she discusses the microbiome. One study she mentions involved microbially sterile mice, such as behaving less cautiously. They act different than normal mice because microbes apparently help animals in the learning process, along with determining how the structure of the brain develops.

      Accordingly, the existence and kind of microbiome would determine how much effect practice has. The ability to learn, from practice or otherwise, is dependent on many other factors as well.

      I’m constantly amazed about how ignorant we are about almost every aspect of life and the world. Change one factor and you’ll get entirely different results and most of the time we don’t even know what the factors are. It’s like that other mice study showing that even scientific controls don’t control for apparently some of the most important factors that can dramatically alter results.

      We should be much more intellectually humble in our speculations. And we should assume that almost everything we believe and think we know is to some degree false, partial, or inadequate in explaining reality.

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