Vestiges of an Earlier Mentality: Different Psychologies

“The Self as Interiorized Social Relations Applying a Jaynesian Approach to Problems of Agency and Volition”
By Brian J. McVeigh

(II) Vestiges of an Earlier Mentality: Different Psychologies

If what Jaynes has proposed about bicamerality is correct, we should expect to find remnants of this extinct mentality. In any case, an examination of the ethnopsychologies of other societies should at least challenge our assumptions. What kinds of metaphors do they employ to discuss the self? Where is agency localized? To what extent do they even “psychologize” the individual, positing an “interior space” within the person? If agency is a socio-historical construction (rather than a bio-evolutionary product), we should expect some cultural variability in how it is conceived. At the same time, we should also expect certain parameters within which different theories of agency are built.

Ethnographies are filled with descriptions of very different psychologies. For example, about the Maori, Jean Smith writes that

it would appear that generally it was not the “self” which encompassed the experience, but experience which encompassed the “self” … Because the “self” was not in control of experience, a man’s experience was not felt to be integral to him; it happened in him but was not of him. A Maori individual was not so much the experiencer of his experience as the observer of it. 22

Furthermore, “bodily organs were endowed with independent volition.” 23 Renato Rosaldo states that the Ilongots of the Philippines rarely concern themselves with what we refer to as an “inner self” and see no major differences between public presentation and private feeling. 24

Perhaps the most intriguing picture of just how radically different mental concepts can be is found in anthropologist Maurice Leenhardt’s   intriguing book Do Kamo, about the Canaque of New Caledonia, who are “unaware” of their own existence: the “psychic or psychological aspect of man’s actions are events in nature. The Canaque sees them as outside of himself, as externalized. He handles his existence similarly: he places it in an object — a yam, for instance — and through the yam he gains some knowledge of his existence, by identifying himself with it.” 25

Speaking of the Dinka, anthropologist Godfrey Lienhardt writes that “the man is the object acted upon,” and “we often find a reversal of European expressions which assume the human self, or mind, as subject in relation to what happens to it.” 26 Concerning the mind itself,

The Dinka have no conception which at all closely corresponds to our popular modern conception of the “mind,” as mediating and, as it were, storing up the experiences of the self. There is for them no such interior entity to appear, on reflection, to stand between the experiencing self at any given moment and what is or has been an exterior influence upon the self. So it seems that what we should call in some cases the memories of experiences, and regard therefore as in some way intrinsic and interior to the remembering person and modified in their effect upon him by that interiority, appear to the Dinka as exteriority acting upon him, as were the sources from which they derived. 27

The above mentioned ethnographic examples may be interpreted as merely colorful descriptions, as exotic and poetic folk psychologies. Or, we may take a more literal view, and entertain the idea that these ethnopsychological accounts are vestiges of a distant past when individuals possessed radically different mentalities. For example, if it is possible to be a person lacking interiority in which a self moves about making conscious decisions, then we must at least entertain the idea that entire civilizations existed whose members had a radically different mentality. The notion of a “person without a self” is admittedly controversial and open to misinterpretation. Here allow me to stress that I am not suggesting that in today’s world there are groups of people whose mentality is distinct from our own. However, I am suggesting that remnants of an earlier mentality are evident in extant ethnopsychologies, including our own. 28

* * *

Text from:

Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness:
Julian Jaynes’s Bicameral Mind Theory Revisited
Edited by Marcel Kuijsten
Chapter 7, Kindle Locations 3604-3636

See also:

Survival and Persistence of Bicameralism
Piraha and Bicameralism


Research on Jayne’s Bicameral Theory

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.”

Confusion on Consciousness

There is many difficulties in dealing with Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, first argued in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It attacks straight on the most daunting of challenges to our humanity. What is consciousness? From that, many questions follow.

Jayne’s book has often been discussed, for decades at this point. Almost anyone who has heard about the idea of bicameralism has an opinion on it, whether or not they’ve read much about it. The book itself is a scholarly book and so few have bothered reading it. To be honest, it took me many years to finally get around to looking seriously at it and even then I’ve never read it in a linear fashion (then again, I almost never read any book in a linear fashion).

There are a number of essays that deal solely with the issue of misunderstandings about the theory of bicameralism and post-bicameral consciousness. Confusion is to be expected, considering the complexity of the subject matter, involving multiple areas of scholarship. It was an ambitious work, to say the least. Few could attempt such a massive project. You have to give Jaynes credit for having the intellectual courage and vision to pull it off, even if you ultimately disagree with the conclusions.

Let me give some of examples of the confusion that easily follows. The first one comes from a book that discusses bicameralism a bit: The Fall by Steve Taylor. I was only skimming it out of curiosity when I came across this quote (p. 142):

If pre-historic people had no self-consciousness, as Julian Jaynes suggests, they would also have had no awareness of death. But this wasn’t the case, of course, as their funerals, graves and afterlife beliefs testify.

That misses the point of the bicameral theory (as I explained in a comment to a review by Frank S. Robinson). If ancient societies actually were bicameral, they wouldn’t have had our dualistic experience of life and death. It’s not an issue of awareness of death, since death wouldn’t have been perceived as post-bicameral people perceived it. Dead people, in a sense, didn’t die.

Bicameral people, according to theory, kept hearing the voices of the people they knew when they were living. The memory of the person was experienced as still being part of the world. They wouldn’t merely remember the voice of a loved one, a priest, or a king for memory to them would have been the voice of the person still speaking within their experience. That voice would go on speaking, until those who had known the person also died and there was no living memory left to call them back into existence.

Their burial practices, therefore, were done with such care because the person in question was still present to them. Such burial practices are in no way evidence against Jayne’s theory. And their beliefs about an afterlife were a continuum with their beliefs about the living world, no absolute demarcation required. The criticism by Taylor isn’t an actual counter-argument.

This is common. Few people seem able to grasp what Jaynes was trying to explain. It doesn’t mean valid criticisms can’t be made. But it is interesting that those who disagree with Jaynes so rarely make valid criticisms. The best critiques come from those like Iain McGilchrist who, in proposing a slightly different theory, are looking closely at the same kind of evidence that Jaynes knew so well. The problem is those who dismiss Jaynes would also likely dismiss McGilchrist or anyone else who sincerely attempts to deal with this evidence.

Here is another example I came across. It’s from and essay, “Do Animals Need a ‘Theory of Mind’?” by Michael Bavidge and Ian Ground, in the book Against Theory of Mind edited by I. Leudar and A. Costall (p. 177):

As an illustration of closet-Cartesianism in the discussion of TToM [Theory ‘Theory of Mind’] consider the controversy over mirror experiments on chimps. Julian Jaynes writes:

“that a mirror-educated chimpanzee immediately rubs off a spot on his forehead when he sees it in a mirror is not […] clear evidence for self-awareness, at least in its usual sense […] Our conscious selves are not our bodies […] we do not see our conscious selves in mirrors. Gallup’s chimpanzee has learnt a point to point relation between a mirror image and his body, wonderful as that is.”
(Jaynes, 1978, quoted in Kennedy, 1992, p. 108)

Here straightforwardly dualist thoughts — that ‘our conscious selves are not our bodies’ and ‘we do not see our conscious selves in mirrors’ — are used to object to the claim that chimps might have a concept of self.

Of course, viewed in a different light, Jaynes’ objection can be given a sense. As Hume pointed out, conscious selves could never appear in anything like a mirror:

“For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe any thing but the perception.”
(Hume, 2004, Book I, Part 4, Section 6)5

That is, the self, chimp or human, conceived as the conscious owner of experience, could never be data at all, not even in a inner ‘mirror of introspection’. More likely, however, Jaynes simply thinks that selves just are the sort of things that could only appear in inner mirrors: this is Cartesianism disguised as stringent scientific methodology.

It’s hard to even make sense of what is being criticized.

Jaynes is making an argument about societies that were prior to Cartesianism and other forms of abstract dualistic thought. He hypothesizes that internal experience was metaphorically based on external experience. The point of the argument for bicameralism is to explain the close relationship between inner and outer, specifically in terms of identity formation.

If anything, that is the opposite of Cartesianism. It’s not clear that Bavidge and Ground even grasp what they are trying to criticize. This is compounded by the fact that they are responding to a quote that comes from yet another book, indicating they might not even have read Jaynes’ book or sought to understand any of the context around the quote. For the sake of clarity, here is more of the context (from the Afterword of the 1990 and later editions):

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.

As can be seen, some important points were left out in the cut-up quote from John S. Kennedy’s book (The New Anthropomorphism). Besides, that brief mention is the only time Kennedy discusses Jaynes at all. Like Bavidge and Ground, Kennedy showed no evidence of grappling with the challenges of bicameral theory.

Such meager partial quotes and superficial commentary is the most that such people ever learn about Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism. It’s brought up only to be dismissed, often just in a few sentences, based on the assumption that others must have already analyzed it elsewhere and so there must be no point in taking it seriously at this point. It’s crazy talk, plain absurd, and obviously wrong. All respectable thinkers already know this and so don’t need to read the book in order to understand what was disproven long ago. This is an intellectual laziness based on mainstream thought or rather thoughtlessness.

In the full passage and throughout the rest of his book, Jaynes makes clear that a metaphorically imagined, interiorized, spatialized, and narrativized self-conscious identity (what Jaynes means by “consciousness”) isn’t necessary to respond to a perceived spot on the body, whether perceived directly or in a mirror. The confusion is that few people trying to make sense of Jaynes theory ever bother trying to understand his definition and explanation of consciousness, a more complicated issue than most realize since our folk psychology assumptions rarely are questioned. To put it simply, few people ever become conscious of their own beliefs and biases about consciousness, since their subjective perceptions are inseparable from their cultural conceptions.

Part of the struggle here is the strangeness of the evidence itself. Jaynes didn’t begin with a conclusion and then look for proof to confirm it. He came across ancient texts that described experiences that didn’t match what modern Westerners assume to be reality. That is a problem requiring a solution, even if one prefers a different kind of explanation.

So, what are we to do with such extreme inconsistencies between past and present use of language in describing experience and identity? If we don’t attempt to take at face value the words of other people, how do we avoid simply projecting our assumptions and biases in interpreting those words? How can we ever come to terms with a foreign worldview that doesn’t match our cultural expectations and frameworks of understanding? What if ancient humans weren’t (and chimpanzees aren’t) just a simpler version of modern Westerners?

Jaynes answer to these questions and others could be wrong, partly or entirely. The debate about this hasn’t ended. It’s barely begun. But most people don’t yet even have the conceptual framework and basic knowledge to understand what the debate is about, much less the capacity to join that debate. This is a tough nut to crack. Even four decades after its original publication, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind should not be underestimated. That book was just a parting shot, as impressive as it was for its time. Dozens of books have been inspired by it and brought the theory up to date, either with new evidence or entirely reformulated into new theories.

As with everything, if it is worth having an opinion about, it is worth spending the time to learn about and understand. Plus, it’s fascinating. Let loose the reigns of your imagination and let your curiosity get the better of you. Take it as a thought experiment. What if the human mind did radically change in the past? And what if it still has the potential for radical change? How would we know and recognize this? What harm would come from honestly and carefully looking at the evidence that doesn’t fit our preconceptions?