Bicameralism and Symbolic Conflation

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.

* * *

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes (1990 edition)

p. 325

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.

p. 345

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.

p. 378-380

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.

p. 383-384

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.

5 thoughts on “Bicameralism and Symbolic Conflation

  1. To open, I’d love to just thank you for your blog, I had a hard time trying to determine how “famous” you may or may not be, but reading a handful of comments led me to reading a handful of your recent blog posts, and my intuition tells me that if you aren’t “internet-famous” yet, you ought to be. The election inspired feelings of guilt in me, over my previous and current apathy and lack of engagement in discussions that truly MATTER. So ever since the 8th I’ve been attempting to find ways to translate my love for reading and writing into a habit of engaging with smart people and hashing out a worldview that I KNOW I believe in, because I came by it the old fashioned way of discussing and defending and exploring it. So that’s my introduction, for what it’s worth I am grateful and respectful for the way you approach issues and the way you appear to be actively exploring the world from inside your mind. I hope to be more like that myself, and maybe after the next election I won’t feel as culpable for not trying any harder than I did.

    Now, getting to the post I’m commenting on… I’m fascinated with these excerpts and I’m bookmarking the PDF to try reading when I finish my current book. Hopefully I’m not barking up the wrong tree if I say that I’m a lifelong Church-guy and a Christian, and this potentially speaks to my spiritual beliefs, such as they are. I was raised to believe that the Bible is literally and historically true… and although I have always been a doubter and a skeptic at heart, I certainly still WANT to believe in perhaps a more grown-up and seasoned version of a Christian worldview.

    Now having said that, I also feel compelled to defend my own capacity for intellect, maybe by sharing that one of the most profound days of my life was the day I read that lipids in a solution will automatically arrange themselves into pockets, with an inside and an outside, and that this could very well have been one of the steps taken in the transition from inorganic, chaotic matter to ordered… living cellular organisms. I believe that God created everything… and I would love to have a better understanding of how, scientifically speaking, he may have gone about doing it. I could get kicked out of some circles for asking those questions, so I hope that believing in the being I call “God” doesn’t disqualify me from serious conversations by default. In any case…

    Just like I enjoy learning the scientific mechanisms God may have employed to create Life according to scientific principles that He designed personally… I also like to try to look at human history and philosophy and attempt to reconcile all we have discovered and all we have recorded, and see whether it might fit into an overarching narrative of what God is up to, and what story He is trying to tell us here on Earth.

    One aspect of your post (and therefore the book) that inspires me is this phenomenon of the physical effects of hypnosis changing over time, as a reflection of the changing cultural conception of hypnosis. This seemingly metaphysical (or maybe just up-till-now mysterious and unknown) practice of temporarily taking a measure of control over another sentient being has grown and developed with time, according to what the subject THINKS hypnosis is SUPPOSED to do to them.

    I read this and am reminded of so many Bible verses about what exactly happens to a person that surrenders themselves to the ultimate will of the Almighty, as well as the overall narrative of the Spiritual history of Mankind. According to the Christian Bible, there was a time when spiritually relating to the Hebrew “Lord” required simply “Walking” with Him, in the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve, rather than trust the morality and goodness of God, chose instead to attempt to parse good and evil on their own terms, and doing so caused a relational rift that continues and is passed on from birth to this very day. Then came a chapter when material sacrifice was necessary, and failing to follow the exactly dictated cleansing procedures could make a direct encounter with God lethal. Then two thousand years ago, as the story goes, an undercover mission was launched to invade the Earth and change the game again. God presented himself in human flesh, and rather than conquer the World like He was expected to do, he presented a radically different Morality, both stricter and infinitely more forgiving than ever before. And in His death he ushered in the Holy Spirit, an entirely new way of relating to God, one that doesn’t kill you on sight, but rather lives within your body and your mind, and whispers wordlessly about the perfect morality that we as a species abandoned millennia ago.

    This is the current chapter of History, and I realize I am reading a LOT into a book about consciousness and hypnosis. But at the same time, the idea is that there is a worldwide organization called the “Church” which is the flawed-but-growing incarnation of a God, who subconsciously changes and directs us from within… and if that isn’t related to the notion of hypnosis then I’m not sure what is. Maybe science is replicating something that God has been doing below the surface for 2000-some years now, and maybe it’s how He intends to eventually save the World? If so, I’m as convinced as anyone that we have a LONG way to go… but it’s a fascinating thought in any case.

    • Welcome to my blog! I can’t say I’m internet famous. Some people follow and comment on my blog. So, that is something. I write what interests me and it either interests others or it doesn’t. I wouldn’t worry about the election. Don’t let it get you down, if you can help it. The world goes on. Did you find my blog because of some of my writings about politics?

      Christians are welcome to my blog, just like anyone else… well, almost anyone else. As long as you’re not a troll or a racist, then everything should be fine. I was raised Christian and my parents are very religious. I had a great experience of Christianity when I was younger, although I don’t attend a church these days. I’m not outwardly religious, but I’ve always been fascinated by religion. That does relate to why I enjoy reading thinker’s like Jaynes.

      I appreciate that you “feel compelled to defend my own capacity for intellect”. That is the kind of religious person I can get along with. I learned much of my curiosity, love of learning, and intellectuality from my religious parents. So, to me there is no inherent contradiction between faith and reason. I’m more prone to ‘spiritual’ seeking than religious faith, but I understand and sympathize with the impulse toward faith. The best I’ve managed is to have, as I sometimes say, a faith in faith.

      You might enjoy Jaynes’ book. His father was a Unitarian minister who died before he got to know him, but he grew up reading a collection of his father’s sermons. I’m sure that had to shaped his interest in divine voice-hearing and other related things. He does talk about religion to a great degree in the book. Besides Jaynes, others have discussed his bicameral theory in relation to the Judaic and Christian traditions. The fullest account comes from Rabbi James Cohn’s book, “The Minds of the Bible”. Another book that isn’t directly Jaynesian but closely related is “When God Talks Back” by Tanya Luhrmann, as she was inspired by Jaynes (and interestingly she also came out of the Unitarian tradition). An essay that might interest you is Jonathan Bernier’s “The Consciousness of John’s Gospel: A Prolegomenon ro a Jaynesian-Janesonian Approach”:

      If you look around my blog, you can find previous writings on all of this. I have a number of posts on Jaynes. I also have a fairly recent post on Luhrmann. By the way, have you read Philip K. Dick. He wrote a lot of science fiction that was made into movies. He had much interest in Christianity, but his thinking was far from conventional. I’ve written about PKD often over the years.

      • I found your blog after reading the comments on “I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump”
        I think I was just impressed enough with your style that when I saw a comment referencing a lot of interesting looking posts of yours, I decided to check it out. And as a side note… you seem to read and write a LOT fairly quickly (or at least you post longish articles pretty regularly). Are you a speed reader or anything like that? I like to read difficult books but you seem like you reference five or six of them related to any topic that comes up, so I’m curious how you get it all done. You also seem to make points and normally have evidence to back a lot of them up, and I’m not sure how a person finds evidence to back things up, beyond just trying to search google and finding mostly regurgitated soundbites on partisan pseudo-news outlet sites.

        I think I’m not as worried as I am regretful for not participating more in discussion and educating myself. My fiancee and I in particular had a minor falling out when election day came and we realized we landed on different sides but had barely talked about it.

        But getting back to spirituality… I think it’s unfortunate (and honestly a bit discordant, perhaps a tad dishonest) that intellectuals apparently feel they have outgrown or out-discovered the notion of God and the divine. For those of us that believe in God, he’s just as legitimate as He ever was, and He was ALWAYS more advanced and intellectually deep than we can ever hope to be. So even if you find a millennia-old book (or belief system) to be archaic and juvenile, well of COURSE it is, he was writing it and designing it for barely-literate human beings THROUGH barely literate human beings. I think if we instead allow our understanding of God to grow and advance right along with us, there are some really exciting possibilities to think about.

        • That was a good article where you saw my comments. It turned out to be a good discussion as well.

          I’m not a speed reader by habit, although I’m capable of it. My reading speed is only moderate, sometimes faster when easier material or skimming in looking for particular things. But I have a fair amount of time to read, even on the job. And I’m always simultaneously reading multiple books. I almost never read anything in linear fashion. I go round and round about what interests me, coming back to certain books for years.

          I also always have a ton of blog posts in the works. So, it’s just random when I get around to finishing any particular post. Sometimes several posts come out around the same time. But I’ll go for periods without posting anything.

          How do I get it all done? Mainly I slug along. I can be obsessive when something interests me. I’ll spend weeks or months or even years scouring everything I can find in books and on the internet. I love the search functions for books provided by Google and and Amazon. I can find the books that have the info I’m looking for. I’m able to be so obsessive because I keep my life simple with no wife or kids and only working part time.

          Getting evidence to back things up requires a number of strategies. Search engines truly are your friend, especially if you know how to use them effectively (there are some basic tricks to that). On an almost daily basis, I’m always either reading, researching, or writing. It’s my life. Even when I hang out with my closest friend, we often just sit around and read or walk around and talk.

          My gathering of knowledge has been going on for a couple of decades now. So, there is just a lot of stuff accumulated in my brain matter. I have a horrible memory, but the internet has been a boon in helping me find what I’m trying to think of. My brain works like the internet, which was problematic in my younger years when I wasn’t using the internet. I had no idea what I was missing out on.

          It helps that I have a fair number of intelligent, well educated, and well read friends and family members. My father is a great resource of knowledge. He worked in the private sector for the first part of his career and then became a professor. His expertise (business management) isn’t exactly in my area of interest, but he has much general knowledge as well. Anyway, he taught me how to think and write, along with much help from my mother who was a school teacher. I was raised with a curiosity about the world and I got that from my parents who are both religious and conservative, although I would point out that neither voted for Trump.

          There are many kinds of intellectuals in the world. But what gets mainstream attention is a small part of all intellectuals. There still are plenty of intellectuals who are religious or who have nothing against the religious. It’s just the most vocal intellectuals are often those with the strongest and most extreme positions.

          I bet you’d enjoy talking to my dad. His religion is personal to him, but it doesn’t stop him from being intellectual and practical about it. The church he attends is in the process of putting up a new building and he is on a committee which brings out his business management side. He can be a hard-nosed kind of guy, very much with his feet on the ground. What my dad isn’t is a fundamentalist. In his beliefs, he leans toward the heresies of Unitarianism and Universalism. He doesn’t worry too much about official theology, although he loves to read Biblical scholarship.

          I must admit that I’m of mixed emotions about religion, but that is largely just because I’m a generally confused person with lots of personal issues. Decades of severe depression can make me feel pessimistic or even cynical at times. I was raised in an extremely positive thinking church, Unity, and so depression hit me even harder when I was younger. Positive thinking and depression are a bad mix. It really messed up my mind for years. Still, I don’t blame religion. I’m just a lost soul wondering about the world and the reasons for it all.

          • Yes, I saw in the Comment Policy section that you mentioned struggling with depression. I’m bipolar, it turns out, and have struggled with it off an on myself. One of my favorite books, which I loved long before my diagnosis, is called “A First Rate Madness”, and its thesis is that mental illness can sometimes be at the root of strong leadership skills… particularly in leaders who serve during times of crisis and turmoil. One of the author’s main points is that depression, rather than leaving a person irrationally jaded, can often give its victims a more accurate sense of reality than the relative idealism of the mentally healthy.

            I envy you your circle of friends. I had some close friends I would consider intellectuals, but a few years ago I followed up on a new job and moved to a different state, so I’m still working on starting over. My immediate family are all very bright though, just not really sources of new information, at least at the moment. But we like talking about deep things and having debates among ourselves, so I’m grateful for that.

            My hope is that cultivating my own intellectual capacity may even help with my mental illness. Sometimes I feel like Sherlock Holmes, just wasting away for something challenging to think about. Thankfully I live in the age of the internet and digital books, so I am completely without excuse if I ever let myself stay bored very long. I also can read a lot during work… I read the essay about Consciousness and the Gospel of John, very thought provoking. Thank you for sharing, and I’m sure I’ll eventually read a lot of your work over the last couple decades.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s