I wanted to share some passages from the book that has been preoccupying me lately, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976). Quite the mouthful. The book is still in print or can be bought as an ebook, but the entire text can be found various places for free online as a PDF.
The passages below get at the strangeness that Jaynes was exploring and attempting to explain. It involves: shared belief, collective imperative, authorization, induction, focusing and narrowing of consciousness, etc. And it would also connect to: authoritarianism, propaganda, brainwashing, etc. I’m not entirely sure what to think about it all. There is something profound involved, touching on the foundation of our humanity. It’s hard to grasp what it means. I’ve been sitting with it and contemplating it. It’s as perplexing as it’s fascinating.
I sense that this overlaps with my own thinking. I’ve had this idea of symbolic conflation. It’s a theory I came up with to explain some of my own observations of human oddity. Hypnosis might be a perfect explanation. A symbolic conflation involves storytelling, framing, rhetoric, and persuasion. And I can see how metaphor is related, as with Jaynes’ view of consciousness. A symbolic conflation creates not just a particular worldview but a particular mentality and identity, and then it anchors it in place.
That is a good word to describe this process, anchor. This reminds me of neruolinguistic programming. It was partly based on hypnosis. One of the NLP techniques that always interested me, along with rapport, is anchoring. It is establishing a link to something (experience, memory, etc) in order to be able to elicit it later on. That is what a symbolic conflation is, a collective anchoring of the individual mind.
I just wanted to throw this out for the time being. It’s just something rumbling around in my brain.
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The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes (1990 edition)
The application of this general bicameral paradigm to the oracle at Delphi is obvious: the elaborate induction procedures, the trance in which consciousness is lost, the ardently pursued authorization of Apollo. But it is the collective cognitive” imperative or group belief or cultural prescription or expectancy (all of these terms indicating my meaning) which I wish to emphasize. The immensity of the cultural demand upon the entranced priestess cannot be overemphasized. The whole Greek world believed, and had for almost a millennium. As many as thirty-five thousand people a day from every part of the Mediterranean world might struggle by sea through the tiny port of Itea that snuggles the receptive coast just below Delphi. And they, too, went through induction procedures, purifying themselves in the Castalian spring, making offerings to Apollo and other gods as they persisted up the Sacred Way. In the latter centuries of the oracle, more than four thousand votive statues crowded this 220-yard-long climb up the side of Mount Parnassus to the temple of the oracle. It was, I suggest, this confluence of huge social prescription and expectancy, closer to definition than mere belief, which can account for the psychology of the oracle, for the at-once-ness of her answers. It was something before which any skepticism would be as impossible as for us to doubt that the speech of a radio originates in a studio that we cannot see. And it is something before which modern psychology must stand in awe.
What was learned, I suggest, was a state approaching the bicameral mind as a response to the induction. This is important. We do not ordinarily think of learning a new unconscious mentality, a whole new relationship between our cerebral hemispheres, as we think of learning to ride a bicycle.
Since this is the learning of a now difficult neurological state, so different from ordinary life, it is not surprising that the cues of the induction had to be wildly distinctive and have an extreme difference from ordinary life.
And they certainly were different: anything odd, anything strange: bathing in smoke or sacred water, dressing in enchanted chitons with magical girdles, wearing weird garlands or mysterious symbols, standing in a charmed magic circle as medieval magicians did, or upon charakteres as Faust did to hallucinate Mephistopheles, or smearing the eyes with strychnine to procure visions as was done in Egypt, or washing in brimstone (sulphur) and seawater, a very old method which began in Greece, as Porphyry said in the second century A.D., to prepare the anima sfiritalis for the reception of a higher being. All these of course did nothing except as they were believed to do something — just as we in this latter age have no ‘free wil’ unless we believe we have.
The modern poet is in a similar quandary. Once, literary languages and archaic speech came somehow to his bold assistance in that otherness and grandeur of which true poetry is meant to speak. But the grinding tides of irreversible naturalism have swept the Muses even farther out into the night of the right hemisphere. Yet somehow, even helplessly in our search for authorization, we remain “the hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration.” And inspiration flees in attempted apprehension, until perhaps it was never there at all. We do not believe enough. The cognitive imperative dissolves. History lays her finger carefully on the lips of the Muses. The bicameral mind, silent. And since
The god approached dissolves into the air,
Imagine then, by miracle, with me,
(Ambiguous gifts, as what gods give must be)
What could not possibly be there,
And learn a style from a despair.
IF I ASK YOU to taste vinegar as champagne, to feel pleasure when I jab a pin in your arm, or to stare into darkness and contract the pupils of your eyes to an imagined light, or to willfully and really believe something you do not ordinarily believe, just anything, you would find these tasks difficult if not impossible. But if I first put you through the induction procedures of hypnosis, you could accomplish all these things at my asking without any effort whatever.
Why? How can such supererogatory enabling even exist?
It seems a very different company we enter when we go from the familiarity of poetry to the strangeness of hypnosis. For hypnosis is the black sheep of the family of problems which constitute psychology. It wanders in and out of laboratories and carnivals and clinics and village halls like an unwanted anomaly. It never seems to straighten up and resolve itself into the firmer proprieties of scientific theory. Indeed, its very possibility seems a denial of our immediate ideas about conscious self-control on the one hand, and our scientific idea about personality on the other. Yet it should be conspicuous that any theory of consciousness and its origin, if it is to be responsible, must face the difficulty of this deviant type of behavioral control.
I think my answer to the opening question is obvious: hypnosis can cause this extra enabling because it engages the general bicameral paradigm which allows a more absolute control over behavior than is possible with consciousness. […]
I shall even go so far as to maintain that no theory other than the present one makes sense of the basic problem. For if our contemporary mentality is, as most people suppose, an immutable genetically determined characteristic evolved back somewhere in mammalian evolution or before, how can it be so altered as in hypnosis? And that alteration merely at some rather ridiculous ministrations of another person? It is only by rejecting the genetic hypothesis and treating consciousness as a learned cultural ability over the vestigial substrate of an earlier more authoritarian type of behavioral control that such alterations of mind can begin to seem orderly.
That the phenomenon of hypnosis is under the control of a collective cognitive imperative or group belief system is clearly demonstrated by its continual changing in history. As beliefs about hypnosis changed, so also its very nature. A few decades after Mesmer, subjects no longer twisted with strange sensations and convulsions. Instead they began spontaneously to speak and reply to questions during their trance state. Nothing like this had happened before. Then, early in the nineteenth century, patients spontaneously began to forget what had happened during the trance,2 something never reported previously. Around 1825, for some unknown reason, persons under hypnosis started to spontaneously diagnose their own illnesses. In the middle of the century, phrenology, the mistaken idea that conformations of the skull indicate mental faculties, became so popular that it actually engulfed hypnosis for a time. Pressure on the scalp over a phrenological area during hypnosis caused the subject to express the faculty controlled by that area (yes, this actually happened), a phenomenon never seen before or since. When the scalp area over the part of the brain supposedly responsible for “veneration” was pressed, the hypnotized subject sunk to his knees in prayer!3 This was so because it was believed to be so.
A little later, Charcot, the greatest psychiatrist of his time, demonstrated to large professional audiences at the Salpetriere that hypnosis was again quite different! Now it had three successive stages: catalepsy, lethargy, and somnambulism. These “physical states” could be changed from one to another by manipulating muscles, or various pressures, or friction on the top of the head. Even rubbing the head over Broca’s area produced aphasia! And then Binet, arriving at the Salpetriere to check on the findings of Charcot, promptly compounded the problem by returning to Mesmer’s magnets and discovering even more bizarre behavior.4 Placing magnets on one side or the other of the body of a hypnotized person, he could flip-flop perceptions, hysterical paralyses, supposed hallucinations, and movements from one side to the other, as if such phenomena were so many iron filings. None of these absurd results was ever found before or since.
It is not simply that the operator, Mesmer or Charcot or whoever, was suggesting to the pliant patient what the operator believed hypnosis to be. Rather, there had been developed within the group in which he worked a cognitive imperative as to what the phenomenon was ‘known’ to be. Such historical changes then clearly show that hypnosis is not a stable response to given stimuli, but changes as do the expectations and preconceptions of a particular age.
What is obvious in history can be shown in a more experimentally controlled way. Previously unheard-of manifestations of hypnosis can be found by simply informing subjects beforehand that such manifestations are expected in hypnosis, that is, are a part of the collective cognitive imperative about the matter. For example, an introductory psychology class was casually told that under hypnosis a subject’s dominant hand cannot be moved. This had never occurred in hypnosis in any era. It was a lie. Nevertheless, when members of the class at a later time were hypnotized, the majority, without any coaching or further suggestion, were unable to move their dominant hand. Out of such studies has come the notion of the “demand characteristics” of the hypnotic situation, that the hypnotized subject exhibits the phenomena which he thinks the hypnotist expects.5 But that expresses it too personally. It is rather what he thinks hypnosis is. And such “demand characteristics,” taken in this way, are of precisely the same nature as what I am calling the collective cognitive imperative.
Another way of seeing the force of the collective imperative is to note its strengthening by crowds. Just as religious feeling and belief is enhanced by crowds in churches, or in oracles by the throngs that attended them, so hypnosis in theaters. It is well known that stage hypnotists with an audience packed to the rafters, reinforcing the collective imperative or expectancy of hypnosis, can produce far more exotic hypnotic phenomena than are found in the isolation of laboratory or clinic.