Lock Without a Key

In his recent book The “Other” Psychology of Julian Jaynes, Brian J. McVeigh brings the latest evidence to bear on the the theory of the bicameral mind. His focus is on textual evidence, the use of what he calls mind words and their frequency. But before getting to the evidence itself, he clarifies a number of issues, specifically the ever confounding topic of consciousness itself. Many have proclaimed Jaynes to have been wrong based on their having no clue of what he was talking about, as he used consciousness in a particular way that he took great care to define… for anyone who bothers to actually read his book before dismissing it.

To avoid confusion, McVeigh refers to Jaynesian ‘consciousness’ as conscious interiority (others simply call it J-consciousness). McVeigh states that his purpose is to “distinguish it from perception, thinking, cognition, rational thought, and other concepts.” Basically, Jaynes wasn’t talking about any form of basic awareness and physiological reactivity (e.g., a slug recoiling from salt) nor complex neurocognitive skills (e.g., numerical accounting of trade goods and taxes), as the bicameral mind possessed these traits. Starting with Jaynes’ analysis, McVeigh as he does in other books gives a summary of the features of concious interiority:

  • Spatialization of Psyche
  • Introception
  • Excerption
  • Self-narratzation
  • Self-autonomy
  • Self-authorization
  • Concilence
  • Indidviduation
  • Self-reflexivity

These describe a historically contingent state of mind and social identity, a way of being in the world and experiencing reality, a social order and cultural lifestyle. These traits are peculiar to civilization of these past millennia. But be clear that they are no indication of superiority, as archaic civilizations were able to accomplish tasks we find phenomenal — such as envisioning and planning over multiple generations to carve stones that weigh hundreds of tons, move them over great distances, and place them into precise position in the process of building large complex structures, something we don’t know how to accomplish without the advances of modern mathematics, architecture, and technology.

There is nothing inevitable nor necessary about consciousness, and it is surely possible that civilization could have developed in alternative ways that might have been far more advanced than what we presently know. Consider that the largest city in the world during early European colonialism was in the Americas, where the bicameral mind may have held on for a longer period of time. If not for the decimation by disease (and earlier Bronze Age decimation by environmental catastrophe), bicameralism might have continued to dominate civilization and led to a different equivalent of the Axial Age with whatever would have followed from it. History is full of arbitrary junctures that end up tipping humanity one way or another, depending on which way the wind happens to be blowing on a particular day or how the entire weather pattern might shift over several centuries.

That said, in history as it did play out, we now have our specific egoic consciousness and it is hard for us to imagine anything else, even if in the grand scheme of things our mighty neurocognitive monoculture is a mere momentary blip in the passing of eons, maybe disappearing in the near future as quickly as it came. Our civilization lives in a constant state of precarious uncertainty. That is why we study the past, in order to grapple with the present, and maybe just maybe glimpse what is yet to come. We might as well spend our time in this game of attempted self-understanding, if only to amuse future generations who might happen upon our half-witted ponderings.

Let us consider one aspect of consciousness. Here is McVeigh’s quick summary of concilience (pp. 39-40): A “slightly ambiguous perceived object is made to conform to some previously learned schema.” Consilience (or assimilation) is “doing in mind-space what narratization does in our mind-time or spatialized time. It brings things together [as] conscious objects just as narratization brings episodes together as a story” (Jaynes 1976; 64-65). I hadn’t previously given this much thought. But for some reason it stood out to me in my perusal. Immediately coming to mind was Lewis Hyde’s metonymy, along with the nexus of metaphorical framing, embodied mind, and symbolic conflation. Related to concilience and narratization, McVeigh speaks of coception which he defines as “how perceptions and introceptions coincide (such overlapping deludes us into assuming that interior experiences are sensory reflections of reality)” (p. 41).

I’m not sure to what degree I comprehend what McVeigh is getting at. But I grasp some hints of what it might mean. It resonates with my readings of Lewis Hyde’s Trickster Makes This World (see “Why are you thinking about this?”). Hyde defines metonymy as “substituting of one thing for another” (p. 169), “an unalterable fact about the body is linked to a place in the social order, and in both cases, to accept the link is to be caught in a kind of trap. Before anyone can be snared in this trap, an equation must be made between the body and the world (my skin color is my place as a Hispanic; menstruation is my place as a woman).”

Even more relevant is Hyde’s detailed exploration of the body and shame. I’d propose that this is a key factor in the rise of consciousness. Jaynes’ noted that shame and general obsession over nakedness, sexuality, etc can’t be found in the earliest texts and art (maybe not entirely unrelated to how anthropologists have observed the depression that follows when tribal people first see themselves in a mirror and so see themselves as others see them, which leads to the entertaining thought of Bronze Age civilizations having collapsed as mirrors became widely used and the populations descended into mass despondency). Hyde says that, “The construction of the trap of shame begins with this metonymic trick, a kind of bait and switch in which one’s changeable social place is figured in terms of an unchangeable part of the body. Then by various means the trick is made to blend invisibly into the landscape. […] In short, to make the trap of shame we inscribe the body as a sign of wider worlds, then erase the artifice of that signification so that the content of shame becomes simply the way things are, as any fool can see.”

This word magik of hypnotic metonymy and concilience is how we fall into our collective trance. We mass hallucinate our moral imagination into social reality. And then we enforce the narrative of individual selfhood onto ourselves, passing it on as an intergenerational inheritance or curse. What if shame is the cornerstone of modern civilization built over the buried corpse of bicameral civilization? We construct the social order around us like a prison to which we forgot to design a key. Shame is the trap we set for ourselves, the trap we keep on triggering, the door locking behind us each time. And so shame is the mechanism of the lock that we refuse to look at, the mechanism that would release us.

It is only in consciousness that we can remain unconscious.


Spoken Language: Formulaic, Musical, & Bicameral

One could argue for an underlying connection between voice-hearing, formulaic language, and musical ability. This could relate to Julian Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind, as this has everything with the hemispheric division of neurocogntive functioning.

It is enticing to consider the possibility that language originally developed out of or in concert with music, the first linguistic expression having been sing-song utterances. And it is fascinating to imagine that the voices of gods, ancestors, etc might have spoken in a formulaic musicality. I remember reading about a custom, as I recall in pre-literate Germany, of people greeting each other with traditional (and probably formulaic) poems/rhymes. When I came across that, I wondered if it might have been a habit maintained from an earlier bicameralism.

Maybe poetic and musical language was common in most pre-literate societies. But by the time literacy comes around to write down languages, those traditions and the mindsets that go with them might already be severely on the decline. That would mean little evidence would survive. We do know, for example, that Socrates wanted to exclude the poets from his utopian Axial Age (i.e., post-bicameral) society.

Spoken language with rhymes or rhythm is dangerous because it has power over the human mind. It speaks to (or maybe even from) something ancient dwelling within us.

* * *

Rajeev J Sebastian: “Found this very interesting paper that suggests differences between grammatical language and so-called “formulaic” language and the link between melody/music and “formulaic” language … echoes of [Julian Jaynes’] theory in there.”

Ed Buffaloe: “It makes me wonder if communication in bicameral men may have been largely through right-brain-controlled formulaic language.”

Tapping into neural resources of communication: formulaic language in aphasia therapy
by Benjamin Stahl & Diana Van Lancker Sidtis

Decades of research highlight the importance of formulaic expressions in everyday spoken language (Vihman, 1982; Wray, 2002; Kuiper, 2009). Along with idioms, expletives, and proverbs, this linguistic category includes conversational speech formulas, such as “You’ve got to be kidding,” “Excuse me?” or “Hang on a minute” (Fillmore, 1979; Pawley and Syder, 1983; Schegloff, 1988). In their modern conception, formulaic expressions differ from newly created, grammatical utterances in that they are fixed in form, often non-literal in meaning with attitudinal nuances, and closely related to communicative-pragmatic context (Van Lancker Sidtis and Rallon, 2004). Although the proportion of formulaic expressions to spoken language varies with type of measure and discourse, these utterances are widely regarded as crucial in determining the success of social interaction in many communicative aspects of daily life (Van Lancker Sidtis, 2010).

The unique role of formulaic expressions in spoken language is reflected at the level of their functional neuroanatomy. While left perisylvian areas of the brain support primarily propositional, grammatical utterances, the processing of conversational speech formulas was found to engage, in particular, right-hemisphere cortical areas and the bilateral basal ganglia (Hughlings-Jackson, 1878; Graves and Landis, 1985; Speedie et al., 1993; Van Lancker Sidtis and Postman, 2006; Sidtis et al., 2009; Van Lancker Sidtis et al., 2015). It is worth pointing out that parts of these neural networks are intact in left-hemisphere stroke patients, leading to the intriguing observation that individuals with classical speech and language disorders are often able to communicate comparably well based on a repertoire of formulaic expressions (McElduff and Drummond, 1991; Lum and Ellis, 1994; Stahl et al., 2011). An upper limit of such expressions has not yet been identified, with some estimates reaching into the hundreds of thousands (Jackendoff, 1995). […]

Nonetheless, music-based rehabilitation programs have been demonstrated to directly benefit the production of trained expressions in individuals with chronic non-fluent aphasia and apraxia of speech (Wilson et al., 2006; Stahl et al., 2013; Zumbansen et al., 2014). One may argue that the reported progress in the production of such expressions depends, at least in part, on increased activity in right-hemisphere neural networks engaged in the processing of formulaic language, especially when considering the repetitive character of the training (cf. Berthier et al., 2014).

* * *

Music and Dance on the Mind

Over at Ribbonfarm, Sarah Perry has written about this and similar things. Her focus is on the varieties and necessities of human consciousness. The article is “Ritual and the Consciousness Monoculture“. It’s a longer piece and packed full of ideas, including an early mention of Jaynesian bicameralism.

The author doesn’t get around to discussing the above topics until about halfway into the piece. It’s in a section titled, “Hiving and Rhythmic Entrainment”. The hiving refers to Jonathan Haidt’s hive hypothesis. It doesn’t seem all that original of an understanding, but still it’s an important idea. This is an area where I’d agree with Haidt, despite my other disagreements elsewhere. In that section, Perry writes that:

Donald Brown’s celebrated list of human universals, a list of characteristics proposed to be common to all human groups ever studied, includes many entries on music, including “music related in part to dance” and “music related in part to religion.” The Pirahã use several kinds of language, including regular speech, a whistling language, and a musical, sung language. The musical language, importantly, is used for dancing and contacting spirits. The Pirahã, Everett says, often dance for three days at a time without stopping. They achieve a different consciousness by performing rituals calibrated to evoke mental states that must remain opaque to those not affected.

Musical language is the type of evidence that seems to bridge different aspects of human experience. It has been argued that language developed along with human tendencies of singing, dance, ritual movement, communal mimicry, group bonding, and other social behaviors. Stephen Mithen has an interesting theory about the singing of early hominids (The Singing Neanderthal).

That brings to mind Lynne Kelly’s book on preliterate mnemonic practices, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies. Kelly goes into great detail about the practices of the Australian Aborigines with their songlines, which always reminds me of the English and Welsh beating of the bounds. A modern example of the power of music is choral singing, which research has shown to create non-conscious mimicry, physical synchrony, and self-other merging.

* * *

Development of Language and Music

Did Music Evolve Before Language?
by Hank Campbell, Science 2.0

Gottfriend Schlaug of Harvard Medical School does something a little more direct that may be circumstantial but is a powerful exclamation point for a ‘music came first’ argument. His work with patients who have suffered severe lesions on the left side of their brain showed that while they could not speak – no language skill as we might define it – they were able to sing phrases like “I am thirsty”, sometimes within two minutes of having the phrase mapped to a melody.

Theory: Music underlies language acquisition
by B.J. Almond, Rice University

Contrary to the prevailing theories that music and language are cognitively separate or that music is a byproduct of language, theorists at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music and the University of Maryland, College Park (UMCP) advocate that music underlies the ability to acquire language.

“Spoken language is a special type of music,” said Anthony Brandt, co-author of a theory paper published online this month in the journal Frontiers in Cognitive Auditory Neuroscience. “Language is typically viewed as fundamental to human intelligence, and music is often treated as being dependent on or derived from language. But from a developmental perspective, we argue that music comes first and language arises from music.”

* * *

Music and Dance on the Mind

In singing with a choral group or marching in an army, we moderns come as close as we are able to this ancient mind. It’s always there within us, just normally hidden. It doesn’t take much, though, for our individuality to be submerged and something else to emerge. We are all potential goosestepping authoritarian followers, waiting for the right conditions to bring our primal natures out into the open. With the fiery voice of authority, we can be quickly lulled into compliance by an inspiring or invigorating vision:

[T]hat old time religion can be heard in the words and rhythm of any great speaker. Just listen to how a recorded speech of Martin Luther King jr can pull you in with its musicality. Or if you prefer a dark example, consider the persuasive power of Adolf Hitler for even some Jews admitted they got caught up listening to his speeches. This is why Plato feared the poets and banished them from his utopia of enlightened rule. Poetry would inevitably undermine and subsume the high-minded rhetoric of philosophers. “[P]oetry used to be divine knowledge,” as Guerini et al states in Echoes of Persuasion, “It was the sound and tenor of authorization and it commanded where plain prose could only ask.”

Poetry is one of the forms of musical language. Plato’s fear wasn’t merely about the aesthetic appeal of metered rhyme. Living in an oral culture, he would have intimately known the ever-threatening power and influence of the spoken word. Likewise, the sway and thrall of rhythmic movement would have been equally familiar in that world. Community life in ancient Greek city-states was almost everything that mattered, a tightly woven identity and experience.

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?