The onset of data-driven mental archeology
by Sidarta Ribeiro
For many years this shrewd hypothesis seemed untestable. Corollaries such as the right lateralization of auditory hallucinations were dismissed as too simplistic—although schizophrenic patients present less language lateralization (Sommer et al., 2001). Yet, the investigation by Diuk et al. (2012) represents a pioneering successful attempt to test Jaynes’ theory in a quantitative manner. The authors assessed dozens of Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman texts from up to the second century CE, as well contemporary Google n-grams, to calculate semantic distances between the reference word “introspection” and all the words in these texts. Cleverly, “introspection” is actually absent from these ancient texts, serving as an “invisible” probe. Semantic distances were evaluated by Latent Semantic Analysis, a high-dimensional model in which the semantic similitude between words is proportional to their co-occurrence in texts with coherent topics (Deerwester et al., 1990; Landauer and Dumais, 1997). The approach goes well beyond the mere counting of word occurrence in a corpus, actually measuring how much the concept of introspection is represented in each text in a “distributed semantic sense,” in accordance with the semantic holism (Frege, 1884, 1980; Quine, 1951; Wittgenstein, 1953, 1967; Davidson, 1967) that became mainstream in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (Cancho and Sole, 2001; Sigman and Cecchi, 2002).
The results were remarkable. In Judeo-Christian texts, similitude to introspection increased monotonically over time, with a big change in slope from the Old to the New Testaments. In Greco-Roman texts, comprising 53 authors from Homer to Julius Cesar, a more complex dynamics appeared, with increases in similitude to introspection through periods of cultural development, and decreases during periods of cultural decadence. Contemporary texts showed overall increase, with periods of decline prior to and during the two World Wars. As Jaynes would have predicted, the rise and fall of entire societies seems to be paralleled by increases and decreases in introspection, respectively.
Diuk et al. show that the evolution of mental life can be quantified from the cultural record, opening a whole new avenue of hypothesis testing for Jaynes’ theory. While it is impossible to prove that pre-Axial people “heard” the voices of the gods, the findings suggest new ways of studying historical and contemporary texts. In particular, the probing of ancient texts with words like “dream,” “god” and “hallucination” has great potential to test Jaynesian concepts.
The featured study lends supports to the notion that consciousness is a social construct in constant flux. Quoting senior author Guillermo Cecchi, “it is not just the “trending topics,” but the entire cognitive make-up that changes over time, indicating that culture co-evolves with available cognitive states, and what is socially considered dysfunction can be tested in a more quantitative way.”