Verbal Behavior

There is a somewhat interesting discussion of the friendship between B.F. Skinner and W.V.O. Quine. The piece explores their shared interests and possible influences on one another. It’s not exactly an area of personal interest, but it got me thinking about Julian Jaynes.

Skinner is famous for his behaviorist research. When behaviorism is mentioned, what immediately comes to mind for most people is Pavlov’s dog. But behaviorism wasn’t limited to animals and simple responses to stimuli. Skinner developed his theory toward verbal behavior as well. As Michael Karson explains,

“Skinner called his behaviorism “radical,” (i.e., thorough or complete) because he rejected then-behaviorism’s lack of interest in private events. Just as Galileo insisted that the laws of physics would apply in the sky just as much as on the ground, Skinner insisted that the laws of psychology would apply just as much to the psychologist’s inner life as to the rat’s observable life.

“Consciousness has nothing to do with the so-called and now-solved philosophical problem of mind-body duality, or in current terms, how the physical brain can give rise to immaterial thought. The answer to this pseudo-problem is that even though thought seems to be immaterial, it is not. Thought is no more immaterial than sound, light, or odor. Even educated people used to believe, a long time ago, that these things were immaterial, but now we know that sound requires a material medium to transmit waves, light is made up of photons, and odor consists of molecules. Thus, hearing, seeing, and smelling are not immaterial activities, and there is nothing in so-called consciousness besides hearing, seeing, and smelling (and tasting and feeling). Once you learn how to see and hear things that are there, you can also see and hear things that are not there, just as you can kick a ball that is not there once you have learned to kick a ball that is there. Engaging in the behavior of seeing and hearing things that are not there is called imagination. Its survival value is obvious, since it allows trial and error learning in the safe space of imagination. There is nothing in so-called consciousness that is not some version of the five senses operating on their own. Once you have learned to hear words spoken in a way that makes sense, you can have thoughts; thinking is hearing yourself make language; it is verbal behavior and nothing more. It’s not private speech, as once was believed; thinking is private hearing.”

It’s amazing how much this is resonates with Jaynes’ bicameral theory. This maybe shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Jaynes was trained in behaviorism and early on did animal research. He was mentored by the behaviorist Frank A. Beach and was friends with Edward Boring who wrote a book about consciousness in relation to behaviorism. Reading about Skinner’s ideas about verbal behavior, I was reminded of Jaynes’ view of authorization as it relates to linguistic commands and how they become internalized to form an interiorized mind-space (i.e., Jaynesian consciousness).

I’m not the only person to think along these lines. On Reddit, someone wrote: “It is possible that before there were verbal communities that reinforced the basic verbal operants in full, people didn’t have complete “thinking” and really ran on operant auto-pilot since they didn’t have a full covert verbal repertoire and internal reinforcement/shaping process for verbal responses covert or overt, but this would be aeons before 2-3 kya. Wonder if Jaynes ever encountered Skinner’s “Verbal Behavior”…” Jaynes only references Skinner once in his book on bicameralism and consciousness. But he discusses behaviorism in general to some extent.

In the introduction, he describes behaviorism in this way: “From the outside, this revolt against consciousness seemed to storm the ancient citadels of human thought and set its arrogant banners up in one university after another. But having once been a part of its major school, I confess it was not really what it seemed. Off the printed page, behaviorism was only a refusal to talk about consciousness. Nobody really believed he was not conscious. And there was a very real hypocrisy abroad, as those interested in its problems were forcibly excluded from academic psychology, as text after text tried to smother the unwanted problem from student view. In essence, behaviorism was a method, not the theory that it tried to be. And as a method, it exorcised old ghosts. It gave psychology a thorough house cleaning. And now the closets have been swept out and the cupboards washed and aired, and we are ready to examine the problem again.” As dissatisfying as animal research was for Jaynes, it nonetheless set the stage for deeper questioning by way of a broader approach. It made possible new understanding.

Like Skinner, he wanted to take the next step, shifting from behavior to experience. Even their strategies to accomplish this appear to have been similar. Sensory experience itself becomes internalized, according to both of their theories. For Jaynes, perception of external space becomes the metaphorical model for a sense of internal space. When Karson says of Skinner’s view that “thinking is hearing yourself make language,” that seems close to Jaynes discussion of hearing voices as it develops into an ‘I’ and a ‘me’, the sense of identity split into subject and object which asserted was required for one to hear one’s own thoughts.

I don’t know Skinner’s thinking in detail or how it changed over time. He too pushed beyond the bounds of behavioral research. It’s not clear that Jaynes’ ever acknowledged this commonality. In his 1990 afterword to his book, Jaynes’ makes his one mention of Skinner without pointing out Skinner’s work on verbal behavior:

“This conclusion is incorrect. Self-awareness usually means the consciousness of our own persona over time, a sense of who we are, our hopes and fears, as we daydream about ourselves in relation to others. We do not see our conscious selves in mirrors, even though that image may become the emblem of the self in many cases. The chimpanzees in this experiment and the two-year old child learned a point-to-point relation between a mirror image and the body, wonderful as that is. Rubbing a spot noticed in the mirror is not essentially different from rubbing a spot noticed on the body without a mirror. The animal is not shown to be imagining himself anywhere else, or thinking of his life over time, or introspecting in any sense — all signs of a conscious life.

“This less interesting, more primitive interpretation was made even clearer by an ingenious experiment done in Skinner’s laboratory (Epstein, 1981). Essentially the same paradigm was followed with pigeons, except that it required a series of specific trainings with the mirror, whereas the chimpanzee or child in the earlier experiments was, of course, self-trained. But after about fifteen hours of such training when the contingencies were carefully controlled, it was found that a pigeon also could use a mirror to locate a blue spot on its body which it could not see directly, though it had never been explicitly trained to do so. I do not think that a pigeon because it can be so trained has a self-concept.”

Jaynes was making the simple, if oft overlooked, point that perception of body is not the same thing as consciousness of mind. A behavioral response to one’s own body isn’t fundamentally different than a behavioral response to anything else. Behavioral responses are found in every species. This isn’t helpful in exploring consciousness itself. Skinner too wanted to get beyond this level of basic behavioral research, so it seems. Interestingly, without any mention of Skinner, Jaynes does use the exact phrasing of Skinner in speaking about the unconscious learning of ‘verbal behavior’ (Book One, Chapter 1):

“Another simple experiment can demonstrate this. Ask someone to sit opposite you and to say words, as many words as he can think of, pausing two or three seconds after each of them for you to write them down. If after every plural noun (or adjective, or abstract word, or whatever you choose) you say “good” or “right” as you write it down, or simply “mmm-hmm” or smile, or repeat the plural word pleasantly, the frequency of plural nouns (or whatever) will increase significantly as he goes on saying words. The important thing here is that the subject is not aware that he is learning anything at all. [13] He is not conscious that he is trying to find a way to make you increase your encouraging remarks, or even of his solution to that problem. Every day, in all our conversations, we are constantly training and being trained by each other in this manner, and yet we are never conscious of it.”

This is just a passing comment in using one example among many, and he states that “Such unconscious learning is not confined to verbal behavior.” He doesn’t further explore language in this immediate section or repeat again the phrase ‘verbal behavior’ in any other section, although the notion of verbal behavior is central to the entire book. But a decade after the original publication date of his book, Jaynes wrote a paper where he does talk about Skinner’s ideas about language:

“One needs language for consciousness. We think consciousness is learned by children between two and a half and five or six years in what we can call the verbal surround, or the verbal community as B.F Skinner calls it. It is an aspect of learning to speak. Mental words are out there as part of the culture and part of the family. A child fits himself into these words and uses them even before he knows the meaning of them. A mother is constantly instilling the seeds of consciousness in a two- and three-year-old, telling the child to stop and think, asking him “What shall we do today?” or “Do you remember when we did such and such or were somewhere?” And all this while metaphor and analogy are hard at work. There are many different ways that different children come to this, but indeed I would say that children without some kind of language are not conscious.”
(Jaynes, J. 1986. “Consciousness and the Voices of the Mind.” Canadian Psychology, 27, 128– 148.)

I don’t have access to that paper. That quote comes from an article by John E. Limber: “Language and consciousness: Jaynes’s “Preposterous idea” reconsidered.” It is found in Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness edited by Marcel Kuijsten (pp. 169-202).

Anyway, the point Jaynes makes is that language is required for consciousness as an inner sense of self because language is required to hear ourselves think. So verbal behavior is a necessary, if not sufficient, condition for the emergence of consciousness as we know it. As long as verbal behavior remains an external event, conscious experience won’t follow. Humans have to learn to hear themselves as they hear others, to split themselves into a speaker and a listener.

This relates to what makes possible the differentiation of hearing a voice being spoken by someone in the external world and hearing a voice as a memory of someone in one’s internal mind-space. Without this distinction, imagination isn’t possible for anything imagined would become a hallucination where internal and external hearing are conflated or rather never separated. Jaynes proposes this is why ancient texts regularly describe people as hearing voices of deities and deified kings, spirits and ancestors. The bicameral person, according to the theory, hears their own voice without being conscious that it is their own thought.

All of that emerges from those early studies of animal behavior. Behaviorism plays a key role simply in placing the emphasis on behavior. From there, one can come to the insight that consciousness is a neurocognitive behavior modeled on physical and verbal behavior. The self is a metaphor built on embodied experience in the world. This relates to many similar views, such as that humans learn a theory of mind within themselves by first developing a theory of mind in perceiving others. This goes along with attention schema and the attribution of consciousness. And some have pointed out what is called the double subject fallacy, a hidden form of dualism that infects neuroscience. However described, it gets at the same issue.

It all comes down our being both social animals and inhabitants of the world. Human development begins with a focus outward, culture and language determining what kind of identity forms. How we learn to behave is who we become.

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