Alienation and Soul Blindness

There is the view that consciousness* is a superficial overlay, that the animistic-bicameral mind is our fundamental nature and continues to operate within consciousness. In not recognizing this, we’ve become alienated from ourselves and from the world we are inseparable from. We don’t recognize that the egoic voice is but one of many voices and so we’ve lost appreciation for what it means to hear voices, including the internalized egoic voice that we’ve become identified with in submission to its demurgic authorization. This could be referred to as soul blindness, maybe related to soul loss — basically, a lack of psychological integration and coherency. Is this an inevitability within consciousness? Maybe not. What if a deeper appreciation of voice-hearing was developed within consciousness? What would emerge from consciousness coming to terms with its animistic-bicameral foundation? Would it still be consciousness or something else entirely?

* This is in reference to Julian Jaynes use of ‘consciousness’ that refers to the ego mind with its introspective and internal space built upon metaphor and narratization. Such consciousness as a social construction of a particular kind of culture is not mere perceptual awareness or biological reactivity.

* * *

Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)
by Peter Harrison

Marx identified the concept of alienation as being a separation, or estrangement, from one’s labour. And for Marx the consistent ability to labour, to work purposefully and consciously, as opposed to instinctively, towards a pre-imagined goal, was the trait that distinguished humans from other animals. This means also that humans are able to be persuaded to work creatively, with vigour and passion, for the goals of others, or for some higher goal than the maintenance of daily survival. As long as they are able see some tiny benefit for themselves, which might be service to a higher cause, or even just simple survival, since working for the goal of others may be the only means of obtaining food. So, Marx’s definition of alienation was more specific than an ‘existential’ definition because it specified labour as the defining human characteristic. But he was also aware that the general conditions of capitalism made this alienation more acute and that this escalated estrangement of humans from immediately meaningful daily activity led to a sense of being a stranger in one’s own world, and not only for the working class. This estrangement (I want to write étranger-ment, to reference Camus, but this is not a word) afflicted all classes, even those classes that seemed to benefit from class society, since capitalism had, even by his own time, gained an autonomy of its own. Life is as meaningless [or better: as anti-human] for a cleaner as it is for the head of a large corporation. This is why Marx stated that all people under capitalism were proletarian.

When I discovered the idea of soul blindness in Eduardo Kohn’s book, How Forests Think, I was struck by it as another useful way of understanding the idea of alienation. The concept of soul blindness, as used by the Runa people described by Kohn, seems to me to be related to the widespread Indigenous view of the recently deceased as aimless and dangerous beings who must be treated with great care and respect after their passing to prevent them wreaking havoc on the living. In Kohn’s interpretation, to be soul blind is to have reached the ‘terminus of selfhood,’ and this terminus can be reached while still alive, when one loses one’s sense of self through illness or despair, or even when one just drifts off into an unfocussed daze, or, more profoundly, sinks into an indifference similar to — to reference Camus again — that described by the character Meursault, in L’Etranger.

There are some accounts of Indigenous people first encountering white people in which the white people are initially seen as ghosts, one is recorded by Lévi-Strauss for Vanuatu. Another is embedded in the popular Aboriginal history of the area I live in. On first contact the white people are immediately considered to be some kind of ghost because of their white skin. This may have something to do with practice of preserving the bodies of the dead. This involves scraping off the top layer of skin which, apparently, makes the body white. This practice is described by the anthropologist, Atholl Chase, in his reminisces of Cape York. But for me there is more to the defining of the white intruders as ghosts because of their white skin. These foreigners also act as if they are soul blind. They are like machines, working for a cause that is external to them. For the Indigenous people these strangers do not seem to have soul: they are unpredictable; dangerous; they don’t know who they are.

But it is the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who, I think, connects most clearly to the work of James Hillman on the notion of the soul. James Hillman uses the term soul but he does not mean a Christian soul and he is not ultimately meaning the mind. For him the soul is a form of mediation between events and the subject and, in this sense, it might be similar to Bourdieu’s conception of ‘disposition.’ For Viveiros de Castro, ‘A perspective is not a representation because representations are a property of the mind or spirit, whereas the point of view is located in the body.’ Thus, Amerindian philosophy, which Viveiros de Castro is here describing, perhaps prefigures Hillman’s notion that ‘soul’ is ‘a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself.’

To Empathize is to Understand

What is empathy as a cognitive ability? And what is empathy as an expansion of identity, as part of awareness of self and other?

There is a basic level of empathy that appears to be common across numerous species. Tortoises, when seeing another on its back, will help flip it over. There are examples of animals helping or cooperating with those from an entirely different species. Such behavior has been repeatedly demonstrated in laboratories as well. These involve fairly advanced expressions of empathy. In some cases, one might interpret it as indicating at least rudimentary theory of mind, the understanding that others have their own experience, perspective, and motivations. But obviously human theory of mind can be much more complex.

One explanation about greater empathy has to do with identity. Empathy in a way is simply a matter of what is included within one’s personal experience (Do To Yourself As You Would Do For Others). To extend identity is to extend empathy to another individual or a group (or anything else that can be brought within sphere of the self). For humans, this can mean learning to include one’s future self, to empathize with experience one has not yet had, the person one has not yet become. The future self is fundamentally no different than another person.

Without cognitive empathy, affective empathy is limited to immediate experience. It’s the ability to feel what another feels. But lacking cognitive empathy as happens in the most severe autism, theory of mind cannot be developed and so there is no way to identity, locate and understand that feeling. One can only emotionally react, not being able to differentiate one’s own emotion from that of another. In that case, there would be pure emotion, and yet no recognition of the other. Cognitive empathy is necessary to get beyond affective reactivity, not all that different than the biological reactivity of a slug.

It’s interesting that some species (primates, rats, dolphins, etc) might be able to have more cognitive empathy and theory of mind than some people at the extreme ends of severe autism, not necessarily being an issue of intelligence. On the other hand, the high functioning on the autistic spectrum, if intervention happens early enough, can be taught theory of mind, although it is challenging for the. This kind of empathy is considered a hallmark of humanity, a defining feature. This is what leads to problems of social behavior for those with autism spectrum disorder.

Someone entirely lacking in theory of mind would be extremely difficult to communicate and interact with beyond the most basic level, as is seen in the severest cases of autism and other extreme developmental conditions. Helen Keller asserts she had no conscious identity, no theory of her own mind or that of others, until she learned language.* Prior to her awakening, she was aggressive and violent in reacting to a world she couldn’t understand, articulate, or think about. That fits in with the speculations of Julian Jaynes. What he calls ‘consciousness’ is the addition of abstract thought by way of metaphorical language, as built upon concrete experience and raw affect. Keller discusses how her experience went from from the concreteness of touch to the abstraction of language. In becoming aware of the world, she became aware of herself.

Without normal development of language, the human mind is crippled: “The “black silence” of the deaf, blind and mute is similar in many respects to the situation of acutely autistic children where there are associated difficulties with language and the children seem to lack what has been called “a theory of mind” ” (Robin Allott, Helen Keller: Language and Consciousenss). Even so, there is more to empathy than language, and that might be true as well for some aspects or kinds of cognitve empathy. Language is not the only form of communication.

Rats are a great example in comparing to humans. We think of them as pests, as psychologically inferior. But anyone who has kept rats knows how intelligent and social they are. They are friendlier and more interactive than the typical cat. And research has shown how cognitively advanced they are in learning. Rats do have the typical empathy of concern for others. For example, they won’t hurt another rat in exchange for a reward and, given a choice, they would rather go hungry. But it goes beyond that.

It’s also shown that “rats are more likely and quicker to help a drowning rat when they themselves have experienced being drenched, suggesting that they understand how the drowning rat feels” (Kristin Andrews, Rats are us). And “rats who had been shocked themselves were less likely to allow other rats to be shocked, having been through the discomfort themselves.” They can also learn to play hide-and-seek which necessitates taking on the perspective others. As Ed Yong asks in The Game That Made Rats Jump for Joy, “In switching roles, for example, are they taking on the perspective of their human partners, showing what researchers call “theory of mind”?”

That is much more than mere affective empathy. This seems to involve active sympathy and genuine emotional understanding, that is to say cognitive empathy and theory of mind. If they are capable of both affective and cognitive empathy, however limited, and if Jaynesian consciousness partly consists of empathy imaginatively extended in space and time, then a case could be made that rats have more going on than simple perceptual awareness and biological reactivity. They are empathically and imaginatively engaging with others in the world around them. Does this mean they are creating and maintaining a mental model of others? Kristin Andrews details the extensive abilities of rats:

“We now know that rats don’t live merely in the present, but are capable of reliving memories of past experiences and mentally planning ahead the navigation route they will later follow. They reciprocally trade different kinds of goods with each other – and understand not only when they owe a favour to another rat, but also that the favour can be paid back in a different currency. When they make a wrong choice, they display something that appears very close to regret. Despite having brains that are much simpler than humans’, there are some learning tasks in which they’ll likely outperform you. Rats can be taught cognitively demanding skills, such as driving a vehicle to reach a desired goal, playing hide-and-seek with a human, and using the appropriate tool to access out-of-reach food.”

To imagine the future for purposes of thinking in advance and planning actions, that is quite advanced cognitive behavior. Julian Jaynes argued that was the purpose of humans developing a new kind of consciousness, as the imagined metaphorical space that is narratized allows for the consideration of alternatives, something he speculates was lacking in humans prior to the Axial Age when behavior supposedly was more formulaic and predetermined according to norms, idioms, etc. Yet rats can navigate a path they’ve never taken before with novel beginning and ending locations, which would require taking into account multiple options. What theoretically makes Jaynesian consciousness unique?

Jaynes argues that it’s the metaphorical inner space that is the special quality that created the conditions for the Axial Age and all that followed from it, the flourishing of complex innovations and inventions, the ever greater extremes of abstraction seen in philosophy, math and science. We have so strongly developed this post-bicameral mind that we barely can imagine anything else. But we know that other societies have very different kinds of mentalities, such as the extended and fluid minds of animistic cultures. What exactly is the difference?

Australian Aborigines give hint to something between the two kinds of mind. In some ways, the mnemonic systems represent more complex cognitive ability than we are capable with our Jaynesian consciousness. Instead of an imagined inner space, the Songlines are vast systems of experience and knowledge, culture and identity overlaid upon immense landscapes. These mappings of externalized cognitive space can be used to guide the individual across distant territories the individual has never seen before and help them to identify and use the materials (plants, stones, etc) at a location no one in their tribe has visited for generations. Does this externalized mind have less potential for advanced abilities? Upon Western contact, Aborigines had farming and ranching, kept crop surpluses in granaries, used water and land management.

It’s not hard to imagine civilization having developed along entirely different lines based on divergent mentalities and worldviews. Our modern egoic consciousness was not an inevitability and it likely is far from offering the most optimal functioning. We might already be hitting a dead end with our present interiorized mind-space. Maybe it’s our lack of empathy in understanding the minds of other humans and other species that is an in-built limitation to the post-bicameral world of Jaynesian consciousness. And so maybe we have much to learn from entirely other perspectives and experiences, even from rats.

* * *

* Helen Keller, from Light in My Darkness:

I had no concepts whatever of nature or mind or death or God. I literally thought with my body. Without a single exception my memories of that time are tactile. . . . But there is not one spark of emotion or rational thought in these distinct yet corporeal memories. I was like an unconscious clod of earth. There was nothing in me except the instinct to eat and drink and sleep. My days were a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without interest or joy. Then suddenly, I knew not how or where or when, my brain felt the impact of another mind, and I awoke to language, to knowledge, to love, to the usual concepts of nature, good, and evil. I was actually lifted from nothingness to human life.

And from The Story of My Life:

As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–-a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.

And from The World I Live In:

Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. I can remember all this, not because I knew that it was so, but because I have tactual memory. It enables me to remember that I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking. I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. I also recall tactually the fact that never in a start of the body or a heart-beat did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith. […]

Since I had no power of thought, I did not compare one mental state with another. So I was not conscious of any change or process going on in my brain when my teacher began to instruct me. I merely felt keen delight in obtaining more easily what I wanted by means of the finger motions she taught me. I thought only of objects, and only objects I wanted. It was the turning of the freezer on a larger scale. When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me. Thus it was not the sense of touch that brought me knowledge. It was the awakening of my soul that first rendered my senses their value, their cognizance of objects, names, qualities, and properties. Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.”

I cannot represent more clearly than any one else the gradual and subtle changes from first impressions to abstract ideas. But I know that my physical ideas, that is, ideas derived from material objects, appear to me first an idea similar to those of touch. Instantly they pass into intellectual meanings. Afterward the meaning finds expression in what is called “inner speech.”  […]

As my experiences broadened and deepened, the indeterminate, poetic feelings of childhood began to fix themselves in definite thoughts. Nature—the world I could touch—was folded and filled with myself. I am inclined to believe those philosophers who declare that we know nothing but our own feelings and ideas. With a little ingenious reasoning one may see in the material world simply a mirror, an image of permanent mental sensations. In either sphere self-knowledge is the condition and the limit of our consciousness. That is why, perhaps, many people know so little about what is beyond their short range of experience. They look within themselves—and find nothing! Therefore they conclude that there is nothing outside themselves, either.

However that may be, I came later to look for an image of my emotions and sensations in others. I had to learn the outward signs of inward feelings. The start of fear, the suppressed, controlled tensity of pain, the beat of happy muscles in others, had to be perceived and compared with my own experiences before I could trace them back to the intangible soul of another. Groping, uncertain, I at last found my identity, and after seeing my thoughts and feelings repeated in others, I gradually constructed my world of men and of God. As I read and study, I find that this is what the rest of the race has done. Man looks within himself and in time finds the measure and the meaning of the universe.

* * *

As an example of how language relates to emotions:

The ‘untranslatable’ emotions you never knew you had
by David Robson

But studying these terms will not just be of scientific interest; Lomas suspects that familiarising ourselves with the words might actually change the way we feel ourselves, by drawing our attention to fleeting sensations we had long ignored.

“In our stream of consciousness – that wash of different sensations feelings and emotions – there’s so much to process that a lot passes us by,” Lomas says. “The feelings we have learned to recognise and label are the ones we notice – but there’s a lot more that we may not be aware of. And so I think if we are given these new words, they can help us articulate whole areas of experience we’ve only dimly noticed.”

As evidence, Lomas points to the work of Lisa Feldman Barrett at Northeastern University, who has shown that our abilities to identify and label our emotions can have far-reaching effects.

Her research was inspired by the observation that certain people use different emotion words interchangeably, while others are highly precise in their descriptions. “Some people use words like anxious, afraid, angry, disgusted to refer to a general affective state of feeling bad,” she explains. “For them, they are synonyms, whereas for other people they are distinctive feelings with distinctive actions associated with them.”

This is called “emotion granularity” and she usually measures this by asking the participants to rate their feelings on each day over the period of a few weeks, before she calculates the variation and nuances within their reports: whether the same old terms always coincide, for instance.

Importantly, she has found that this then determines how well we cope with life. If you are better able to pin down whether you are feeling despair or anxiety, for instance, you might be better able to decide how to remedy those feelings: whether to talk to a friend, or watch a funny film. Or being able to identify your hope in the face of disappointment might help you to look for new solutions to your problem.

In this way, emotion vocabulary is a bit like a directory, allowing you to call up a greater number of strategies to cope with life. Sure enough, people who score highly on emotion granularity are better able to recover more quickly from stress and are less likely to drink alcohol as a way of recovering from bad news. It can even improve your academic success. Marc Brackett at Yale University has found that teaching 10 and 11-year-old children a richer emotional vocabulary improved their end-of-year grades, and promoted better behaviour in the classroom. “The more granular our experience of emotion is, the more capable we are to make sense of our inner lives,” he says.

Both Brackett and Barrett agree that Lomas’s “positive lexicography” could be a good prompt to start identifying the subtler contours of our emotional landscape. “I think it is useful – you can think of the words and the concepts they are associated with as tools for living,” says Barrett. They might even inspire us to try new experiences, or appreciate old ones in a new light.

* * *

And related to all of this is hypocognition, overlapping with linguistic relativity — in how language and concepts determine our experience, identity, and sense of reality — constraining and framing and predetermining what we are even capable of perceiving, thinking about, and expressing:

Hypocognition is a censorship tool that mutes what we can feel
by Kaidi Wu

It is a strange feeling, stumbling upon an experience that we wish we had the apt words to describe, a precise language to capture. When we don’t, we are in a state of hypocognition, which means we lack the linguistic or cognitive representation of a concept to describe ideas or interpret experiences. The term was introduced to behavioural science by the American anthropologist Robert Levy, who in 1973 documented a peculiar observation: Tahitians expressed no grief when they suffered the loss of a loved one. They fell sick. They sensed strangeness. Yet, they could not articulate grief, because they had no concept of grief in the first place. Tahitians, in their reckoning of love and loss, and their wrestling with death and darkness, suffered not from grief but a hypocognition of grief. […]

But the darkest form of hypocognition is one born out of motivated, purposeful intentions. A frequently overlooked part of Levy’s treatise on Tahitians is why they suffered from a hypocognition of grief. As it turns out, Tahitians did have a private inkling of grief. However, the community deliberately kept the public knowledge of the emotion hypocognitive to suppress its expression. Hypocognition was used as a form of social control, a wily tactic to expressly dispel unwanted concepts by never elaborating on them. After all, how can you feel something that doesn’t exist in the first place?

Intentional hypocognition can serve as a powerful means of information control. In 2010, the Chinese rebel writer Han Han told CNN that any of his writings containing the words ‘government’ or ‘communist’ would be censored by the Chinese internet police. Ironically, these censorship efforts also muffled an abundance of praise from pro-leadership blogs. An effusive commendation such as ‘Long live the government!’ would be censored too, for the mere mention of ‘government’.

A closer look reveals the furtive workings of hypocognition. Rather than rebuking negative remarks and rewarding praises, the government blocks access to any related discussion altogether, rendering any conceptual understanding of politically sensitive information impoverished in the public consciousness. ‘They don’t want people discussing events. They simply pretend nothing happened… That’s their goal,’ Han Han said. Regulating what is said is more difficult than ensuring nothing is said. The peril of silence is not a suffocation of ideas. It is to engender a state of blithe apathy in which no idea is formed.

Do To Yourself As You Would Do For Others

“…our impulse control is less based on an order from our executive command center, or frontal cortex, and more correlated with the empathic part of our brain. In other words, when we exercise self-control, we take on the perspective of our future self and empathize with that self’s perspectives, feelings, and motivations.”
~ Alexandar Soutscheck

Self-control is rooted in self-awareness. Julian Jaynes and Brian McVeigh, in one of their talks, brought up the idea that “mind space” has increased over time: “The more things we think about, the more distinctions we make in our consciousness  between A and B, and so on, the more mind-space there is” (Discussions with Julian Jaynes, ed. by Brian J. McVeigh, p. 40). The first expansion was the creation of introspective consciousness itself. Narratization allowed that consciousness to also extend across time, to imagine possibilities and play out scenarios and consider consequences. Empathy, as we we experience it, might be a side effect of this as consciousness includes more and more within it, including empathy with our imagined future self. So, think of self-control as being kind to yourself, to your full temporal self, not only your immediate self.

This would relate to the suggestion that humans learn theory of mind, the basis of cognitive empathy, first by observing others and only later apply it to ourselves. That is to say the first expansion of mental space as consciousness takes root within relationship to others. It’s realizing that there might be inner experience within someone else that we claim inner space in our own experience. So, our very ability to understand ourselves is dependent on empathy with others. This was a central purpose of the religions that arose in the Axial Age, the traditions that continue into the modern world* (Tahere Salehi, The Effect of Training Self-Control and Empathy According to Spirituality on Self-Control and Empathy Preschool Female Students in Shiraz City). The prophets that emerged during that era taught love and compassion and introspection, not only as an otherworldly moral dictum but also in maintaining group coherence and the common good. The breakdown of what Jaynes called the bicameral mind was traumatic and a new empathic mind was needed to replace it, if only to maintain social order.

Social order has become a self-conscious obsession ever since, as Jaynesian consciousness in its tendency toward rigidity has inherent weaknesses. Social disconnection is a crippling of the mind because the human psyche is inherently social. Imagining our future selves is a relationship with a more expansive sense of self. It’s the same mechanism as relating to any other person. This goes back to Johann Hari’s idea, based on Bruce K. Alexander’s rat park research, that the addict is the ultimate individual. In this context, this ultimate individual lacking self-control is not only disconnected from other people but also disconnected from themselves. Addiction is isolating and isolation promotes addiction. Based on this understanding, I’ve proposed that egoic consciousness is inherently addictive and that post-axial society is dependent on addiction for social control.

But this psychological pattern is seen far beyond addiction. This fits our personal experience of self. When we were severely depressed, we couldn’t imagine or care about the future. This definitely inhibited self-control and led to more impulsive behavior in being in present-oriented psychological survival mode. Then again, the only reason self-control is useful at all is because, during and following the Axial Age, humans ever more loss the capacity of being part of a communal identity that created the conditions of communal control, the externally perceived commands of archaic authorization through voice-hearing. We’ve increasingly lost the capacity of a communal identity (extended mind/self) and hence a communal empathy, something that sounds strange or unappealing to the modern mind. In denying our social nature, this casts the shadow of authoritarianism, an oppressive and often violent enforcement of top-down control.

By the way, this isn’t merely about psychology. Lead toxicity causes higher rates of impulsivity and aggression. This is not personal moral failure but brain damage from poisoning. Sure, teaching brain-damaged kids and adults to have more empathy might help them overcome their disability. But if we are to develop and empathic society, we should learn to have enough empathy not to wantonly harm the brains of others with lead toxicity and other causes of stunted development (malnutrition, stress, ACEs, etc), just because they are poor or minority and can’t fight back. Maybe we need to first teach politicians and business leaders basic empathy, in overcoming the present dominance of pscyopathic traits, so that they could learn self-control in not harming others.

The part of the brain involving cognitive empathy and theory of mind is generally involved with selflessness and pro-social behavior. To stick with brain development and neurocognitive functioning, let’s look at diet. Weston A. Price, in studying traditional populations that maintained healthy diets, observed what he called moral health in that people seemed kinder, more helpful, and happier — they got along well. Strong social fabric and culture of trust is not an abstraction but built into general measures of health, in the case of Price’s work, having to do with nutrient-dense animal foods containing fat-soluble vitamins. As the standard American diet has worsened, so has mental health. That is a reason for hope. In an early study on the ketogenic diet as applied to childhood diabetes, the researchers made a side observation that not only did the diabetes symptoms improve but so did behavior. I’ve theorized about how a high-carb diet might be one of the factors that sustains the addictive and egoic self.

Narrow rigidity of the mind, as seen in the extremes of egoic consciousness, has come to be accepted as a social norm and even a social ideal. It is the social Darwinian worldview that has contributed to the rise of both competitive capitalism and the Dark Triad (psycopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism), and unsurprisingly it has led to a society that lacks awareness and appreciation of the harm caused to future generations (Scott Barry Kaufman, The Dark Triad and Impulsivity). Rather than normalized, maybe this dysfunction should be seen as a sickness, not only a soul sickness but a literal sickness of the body-mind that can be scientifically observed and measured, not to mention medically and socially treated. We need to thin the boundaries of the mind so as to expand our sense of self. Research shows that those with such thinner boundaries not only have more sense of identification with their future selves but also their past selves, in maintaining a connection to what it felt like to be a child. We need to care for ourselves and others in the way we would protect a child.

* * *

* In their article “Alone and aggressive“, A. William Crescioni and Roy F. Baumeister included the loss of meaning. It was maybe associated with the loss of empathy, specifically in understanding the meaning of others (e.g., the intention ‘behind’ words, gestures and actions). Meaning traditionally has been the purview of religion. And I’d suggest that it is not a coincidence that the obsession with meaning arose in the Axial Age right when words were invented for ‘religion’ as a formal institution separate from the rest of society. As Julian Jaynes argues, this was probably in response to the sense of nostalgia and longing that followed the silence of the gods, spirits, and ancestors.

A different kind of social connection had to be taught, but this post-bicameral culture wasn’t and still isn’t as effective in re-creating the strong social bonds of archaic humanity. Periods of moral crisis in fear of societal breakdown have repeated ever since, like a wound that was never healed. I’ve previously written about social rejection and aggressive behavior in relation to this (12 Rules for Potential School Shooters) — about school shooters, I explained:

Whatever they identify or don’t identify as, many and maybe most school shooters were raised Christian and one wonders if that plays a role in their often expressing a loss of meaning, an existential crisis, etc. Birgit Pfeifer and Ruard R. Ganzevoort focus on the religious-like concerns that obsess so many school shooters and note that many of them had religious backgrounds:

“Traditionally, religion offers answers to existential concerns. Interestingly, school shootings have occurred more frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population (Arcus 2002). Michael Carneal (Heath High School shooting, 1997, Kentucky) came from a family of devoted members of the Lutheran Church. Mitchell Johnson (Westside Middle School shooting, 1998, Arkansas) sang in the Central Baptist Church youth choir (Newman et al. 2004). Dylan Klebold (Columbine shooting, 1999, Colorado) attended confirmation classes in accordance with Lutheran tradition. However, not all school shooters have a Christian background. Some of them declare themselves atheists…” (The Implicit Religion of School Shootings).

Princeton sociologist Katherine Newman, in studying school shootings, has noted that, “School rampage shootings tend to happen in small, isolated or rural communities. There isn’t a very direct connection between where violence typically happens, especially gun violence in the United States, and where rampage shootings happen” (Common traits of all school shooters in the U.S. since 1970).

It is quite significant that these American mass atrocities are concentrated in “small, isolated or rural communities” that are “frequently in areas with a strong conservative religious population”. That might more precisely indicate who these school shooters are and what they are reacting to. Also, one might note that rural areas in general and specifically in the South do have high rates of gun-related deaths, although many of them are listed as ‘accidental’ which is to say most rural shootings involve people who know each other; also true of school shootings.

* * *

Brain stimulation reveals crucial role of overcoming self-centeredness in self-control
by Alexander Soutschek, Christian C. Ruff, Tina Strombach, Tobias Kalenscher and Philippe N. Tobler

Empathic Self-Control
by David Shoemaker

People with a high degree of self-control typically enjoy better interpersonal relationships, greater social adjustment, and more happiness than those with a low degree of self-control. They also tend to have a high degree of empathy. Further, those with low self-control also tend to have low empathy. But what possible connection could there be between self-control and empathy, given that how one regulates oneself seems to have no bearing on how one views others. Nevertheless, this paper aims to argue for a very tight relation between self-control and empathy, namely, that empathy is in fact one type of self-control. The argument proceeds by exploring two familiar types of self-control, self-control over actions and attitudes, the objects for which we are also responsible. Call the former volitional self-control and the latter rational self-control. But we also seem to be responsible for—and have a certain type of control and self-control over—a range of perceptual states, namely, those in which we come to see from another person’s perspective how she views her valuable ends and what her emotional responses are to their thwarting or flourishing. This type of empathic self-control is a previously-unexplored feature of our interpersonal lives. In addition, once we see that the type of empathy exercised is also exercised when casting ourselves into the shoes of our future selves, we will realize how intra-personal empathy better enables both volitional and rational self-control.

Science Says When Self-Control Is Hard, Try Empathizing With Your Future Self
by Lindsay Shaffer

Soutscheck’s study also reveals what happens when we fail to exercise the empathic part of our brain. When Soutscheck interrupted the empathic center of the brain in 43 study volunteers, they were more likely to take a small amount of cash immediately over a larger amount in the future. They were also less inclined to share the money with a partner. Soutscheck’s study showed that the more people are stuck inside their own perspective, even just from having the empathic part of their brain disrupted, the more likely they are to behave selfishly and impulsively.

Self-Control Is Just Empathy With Your Future Self
by Ed Yong

This tells us that impulsivity and selfishness are just two halves of the same coin, as are their opposites restraint and empathy. Perhaps this is why people who show dark traits like psychopathy and sadism score low on empathy but high on impulsivity. Perhaps it’s why impulsivity correlates with slips among recovering addicts, while empathy correlates with longer bouts of abstinence. These qualities represent our successes and failures at escaping our own egocentric bubbles, and understanding the lives of others—even when those others wear our own older faces.

New Studies in Self Control: Treat Yourself Like You’d Treat Others
from Peak

A new study recently shifted the focus to a different mechanism of self control. Alexander Soutschek and colleagues from the University of Zurich believe self-control may be related to our ability to evaluate our future wants and needs.

The scientists suggest that this takes place in an area of the brain called the rTPJ, which has long been linked to selflessness and empathy for others. It’s an important part of our ability to “take perspectives” and help us step into the shoes of a friend.

The scientists hypothesized that perhaps the rTPJ treats our “future self” the same way it treats any other person. If it helps us step into our friend’s shoes, maybe we can do the same thing for ourselves. For example, if we’re deciding whether to indulge in another pint of beer at a bar, maybe our ability to hold off is related to our ability to imagine tomorrow morning’s hangover. As science writer Ed Yong explains, “Think of self-control as a kind of temporal selflessness. It’s Present You taking a hit to help out Future You.”

Empathy for Your Future Self
by Reed Rawlings

Further Research on the TPJ

The results of Soutscheks team were similar to past work on the empathy, future-self, and the TPJ. It’s believed a better connected rTPJ increases the likelihood of prosocial behaviors. Which relates to skills of executive function. Individuals who exhibit lower empathy, score higher for impulsivity – the opposite of self-control.

Keeping our future selves in mind may even keep our savings in check. In this research, Stanford University tested a “future self-continuity”. They wanted to explore how individuals related to their future self. Participants were asked to identify how they felt about the overlap between their current and future selves. They used the Venn diagrams below for this exercise.

If they saw themselves as separate, they were more likely to choose immediate rewards. A greater overlap increased the likelihood of selecting delayed rewards. In their final study, they assessed individuals from the San Francisco Bay area. The researchers found a correlation between wealth and an overlap between selves.

While the above research is promising, it doesn’t paint a full picture. Empathy seems useful, but making a sacrifice for our future-self requires that we understand the reason behind it. It’s the sacrifice that is especially crucial – positive gains demand negative trade-offs.

That’s where altruism, our willingness to give to others, comes in.

Why Do We Sacrifice?

Research from the University of Zurich’s examined some altruism’s driving factors. Their work came up with two correlations. First, the larger your rTPJ, the more likely you are to behave altruistically. Second, concerns of fairness affect how we give.

In this experiment, individuals were more generous if their choice would decrease inequality. When inequality would increase, participants were less likely to give.

This is an understandable human maxim. We have little reason to give to an individual who has more than we do. It feels completely unfair to do so. However, we’re raised to believe that helping those in need is objectively good. Helping ourselves should fall under the same belief.

Empathy and altruism, when focused on our own well-being, are intimately linked. To give selflessly, we need to have a genuine concern for another’s well-being. In this case, the ‘other’ is our future self. Thankfully, with a bit of reflection, each of us can gain a unique insight into our own lives.

Alone and aggressive: Social exclusion impairs self-control and empathy and increases hostile cognition and aggression.
by A. William Crescioni and Roy F. Baumeister
from Bullying, Rejection, and Peer Victimization ed. by Monic J. Harris
pp. 260-271 (full text)

Social Rejection and Emotional Numbing

Initial studies provided solid evidence for a causal relationship be-tween rejection and aggression. The mechanism driving this relation-ship remained unclear, however. Emotional distress was perhaps the most plausible mediator. Anxiety has been shown to play a role in both social rejection (Baumeister & Tice, 1990) and ostracism (Williamset al., 2000). Emotional distress, however, was not present in these experiments by Twenge et al. (2001). Only one significant mood effect was found, and even this effect deviated from expectations. The sole difference in mood between rejected and accepted participants was a slight decrease in positive affect. Rejected participants did not show any increase in negative affect; rather, they showed a flattening of affect, in particular a decrease in positive affect. This mood difference did not constitute a mediator of the link between rejection and aggression. It did, however, point toward a new line of thinking. It was possible that rejection would lead to emotional numbing rather than causing emotional distress. The flattening of affect seen in the previous set of studies would be consistent with a state of cognitive deconstruction. This state is characterized by an absence of emotion, an altered sense of time, a fixa-tion on the present, a lack of meaningful thought, and a general sense of lethargy (Baumeister, 1990). […]

Rejection and Self-Regulation

Although the emotional numbness and decrease in empathy experienced by rejected individuals play an important role in the link between social rejection and aggression, these effects do not constitute a complete explanation of why rejection leads to aggression. The diminished prosocial motivations experienced by those lacking in empathy can open the door to aggressive behavior, but having less of a desire to do good and having more of a desire to do harm are not necessarily equivalent. A loss of empathy, paired with the numbing effects of rejection, could lead individuals to shy away from those who had rejected them rather than lashing out. Emotional numbness, however, is not the only consequence of social rejection.

In addition to its emotional consequences, social rejection has adverse effects on a variety of cognitive abilities. Social rejection has been shown to decrease intelligent (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002) and meaningful thought (Twenge et al., 2002). But another category of cognitive response is self-regulation. Studies have demonstrated that self-regulation depends upon a finite resource and that acts of self-regulation can impair subsequent attempts to exercise self-control (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice, 1998). Self-regulation has been shown to be an important tool for controlling aggressive impulses. Stucke and Baumeister (2006) found that targets whose ability to self-regulate had been depleted were more likely to respond aggressively to insulting provocation. DeWall, Baumeister, Stillman, and Galliot (2007) found that diminished self-regulatory resources led to an increase in aggression only in response to provocation; unprovoked participants showed no increase in aggressive behavior. Recall that in earlier work (Twenge et al.,2002) rejected individuals became more aggressive only when the target of their aggression was perceived as having insulted or provoked them.This aggression could have been the result of the diminished ability of rejected participants to regulate their aggressive urges. […]

These results clearly demonstrate that social rejection has a detrimental effect on self-regulation, but they do not explain why this is so and, indeed, the decrement in self-regulation would appear to be counterproductive for rejected individuals. Gaining social acceptance often involves regulating impulses in order to create positive impressions on others (Vohs, Baumeister, & Ciarocco, 2005). Rejected individuals should therefore show an increase in self-regulatory effort if they wish to create new connections or prevent further rejection. The observed drop in self-regulation therefore seems maladaptive. The explanation for this finding lies in rejection’s effect on self-awareness.

Self-awareness is an important prerequisite of conscious self-control (Carver & Scheier, 1981). Twenge et al. (2002) found that, when given the option, participants who had experienced rejection earlier in the study were more likely to sit facing away from rather than toward a mirror. Having participants face a mirror is a common technique for inducing self-awareness (Carver & Scheier, 1981), so participants’ unwillingness to do so following rejection provides evidence of a desire to avoid self-awareness. A drop in self-awareness is part of the suite of effects that comprises a state of cognitive deconstruction. Just as emotional numbness protects rejected individuals from the emotional distress of rejection, a drop in self-awareness would shield against awareness of personalflaws and shortcoming that could have led to that rejection. The benefit of this self-ignorance is that further distress over one’s inadequacies is mitigated. Unfortunately, this protection carries the cost of decreased self-regulation. Because self-regulation is important for positive self-presentation (Vohs et al., 2005), this drop in self-awareness could ironically lead to further rejection. […]

These data suggest that social rejection does not decrease the absolute ability of victims to self-regulate but rather decreases their willingness to exert the effort necessary to do so. Increased lethargy, another aspect of cognitive deconstruction, is consistent with this decrease in self-regulatory effort. Twenge et al. (2002) found that social rejection led participants to give shorter and less detailed explanations of proverbs. Because fully explaining the proverbs would require an effortful response, this shortening and simplification of responses is evidence of increased lethargy amongst rejected participants. This lethargy is not binding, however. When given sufficient incentive, rejected participants were able to match the self-regulatory performance of participants in other conditions. Inducing self-awareness also allowed rejected individuals to self-regulate as effectively as other participants. In the absence of such stimulation, however, rejected individuals showed a decrement in self-regulatory ability that constitutes an important contribution to explaining the link between rejection and aggression. […]

Rejection and Meaningfulness

Twenge et al. (2002) found that social rejection led to a decrease in meaningful thought among participants, as a well as an increased likelihood to endorse the statement, “Life is meaningless.” Williams (2002)has also suggested that social rejection ought to be associated with a perception of decreased meaning in life. Given the fundamental nature of the need to belong, it makes sense that defining life as meaningful would be at least in part contingent on the fulfillment of social needs. A recent line of work has looked explicitly at the effect of social rejection on the perception of meaning in life. Perceiving meaning in life has been shown to have an inverse relationship with hostility, aggression,and antisocial attitude (Mascaro, Morey, & Rosen, 2004). As such, any decrease in meaning associated with social rejection would constitute an important feature of the explanation of the aggressive behavior of rejected individuals.

The God of the Left Hemisphere:
Blake, Bolte Taylor and the Myth of Creation
by Roderick Tweedy

The left hemisphere is competitive… the will to power…is the agenda of the left hemisphere. It arose not to communicate with the world but to manipulate it. This inability to communicate or co-operate poses great difficulties for any project of reintegration or union. Its tendency would be to feed off the right hemisphere, to simply use and gain power over it too. Left hemisphere superiority is based, not on a leap forward by the left hemisphere, but on a ‘deliberate’ handicapping of the right. There is perhaps as much chance of persuading the head of a multinational to stop pursuing an agenda of self-interest and ruthless manipulation as there is of persuading the Urizenic program of the brain which controls him of “resubmitting” itself to the right hemisphere’s values and awareness.

The story of the Western world being one of increasing left-hemispheric domination, we would not expect insight to be the key note. Instead we would expect a sort of insouciant optimism, the sleepwalker whistling a happy tune as he ambles towards the abyss.

The left, rational, brain, it might be safe to conclude, has no idea how serious the problem is, that is to say, how psychopathic it has become. Of course, it doesn’t care that it doesn’t care. “The idiot Reasoner laughs at the Man of Imagination/And from laughter proceeds to murder by undervaluing calumny”, noted Blake in a comment that is only remarkable for the fact that it has taken two hundred years to understand.

The apparently “conscious” rational self, the driving program and personality of the left brain, turns out to be deeply unconscious, a pathological sleepwalker blithely poisoning its own environment whilst tenaciously clinging onto the delusion of its own rightness. This unfortunate mixture, of arrogance and ignorance, defines contemporary psychology. The left hemisphere not only cannot see that there is a problem, it cannot see that it is itself the problem.

Bicameralism and Bilingualism

A paper on multilingualism was posted by Eva Dunkel in the Facebook group for The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind: Consequences of multilingualism for neural architecture by Sayuri Hayakawa and Viorica Marian. It is a great find. The authors look at how multiple languages are processed within the brain and how they can alter brain structure.

This probably also relates to learning of music, art, and math — one might add that learning music later improves the ability to learn math. These are basically other kinds of languages, especially the former in terms of  musical languages (along with whistle and hum languages) that might indicate language having originated in music, not to mention the close relationship music has to dance, movement, and behavior and close relationship of music to group identity. The archaic authorization of command voices in the bicameral mind quite likely came in the form of music and one could imagine the kinds of synchronized collective activities that could have dominated life and work in bicameral societies. There is something powerful about language that we tend to overlook and take for granted. Also, since language is so embedded in culture, monolinguals never see outside of the cultural reality tunnel they exist within. This could bring us to wonder about the role played post-bicameral society by syncretic languages like English. We can’t forget the influence psychedelics might have had on language development and learning at different periods of human existence. And with psychedelics, there is the connection to shamanism with caves as aural spaces and locations of art, possibly the earliest origin of proto-writing.

There is no reason to give mathematics a mere secondary place in our considerations. Numeracy might be important as well in thinking about the bicameral mind specifically and certainly about the human mind in general (Caleb Everett, Numbers and the Making of Us), as numeracy was an advancement or complexification beyond the innumerate tribal societies (e.g., Piraha). Some of the earliest uses of writing was for calculations: accounting, taxation, astrology, etc. Bicameral societies, specifically the early city-states, can seem simplistic in many ways with their lack of complex hierarchies, large centralized governments, standing armies, police forces, or even basic infrastructure such as maintained roads and bridges. Yet they were capable of immense projects that required impressively high levels of planning, organizing, and coordination — as seen with the massive archaic pyramids and other structures built around the world. It’s strange how later empires in the Axial Age and beyond that, though so much larger and extensive with greater wealth and resources, rarely even attempted the seemingly impossible architectural feats of bicameral humans. Complex mathematical systems probably played a major role in the bicameral mind, as seen in how astrological calculations sometimes extended over millennia.

Hayakawa and Marian’s paper could add to the explanation of the breakdown of the bicameral mind. A central focus of their analysis is the increased executive function and neural integration in managing two linguistic inputs — I could see how that would relate to the development of egoic consciousness. It has been proposed that the first to develop Jaynesian consciousness may have been traders who were required to cross cultural boundaries and, of course, who would have been forced to learn multiple languages. As bicameral societies came into regular contact with more diverse linguistic cultures, their bicameral cognitive and social structures would have been increasingly stressed.

Multilingualism goes hand in hand with literacy. Rates of both have increased over the millennia. That would have been a major force in the post-bicameral Axial Age. The immense multiculturalism of societies like the Roman Empire is almost impossible for us to imagine. Hundreds of ethnicities, each with their own language, would co-exist in the same city and sometimes the same neighborhood. On a single street, there could be hundreds of shrines to diverse gods with people praying, people invoking and incantating in their separate languages. These individuals were suddenly forced to deal with complete strangers and learn some basic level of understanding foreign languages and hence foreign understandings.

This was simultaneous with the rise of literacy and its importance to society, only becoming more important over time as the rate of book reading continues to climb (more books are printed in a year these days than were produced in the first several millennia of writing). Still, it was only quite recently that the majority of the population became literate, following from that is the ability of silent reading and its correlate of inner speech. Multilingualism is close behind and catching up. The consciousness revolution is still under way. I’m willing to bet American society will be transformed as we return to multilingualism as the norm, considering that in the first centuries of American history there was immense multilingualism (e.g., German was once one of the most widely spoken languages in North America).

All of this reminds me of linguistic relativity. I’ve pointed out that, though not explicitly stated, Jaynes obviously was referring to linguistic relativity in his own theorizing about language. He talked quite directly about the power language —- and metaphors within language —- had over thought, perception, behavior, and identity (Anke Snoek has some good insights about this in exploring the thought of Giorgio Agamben). This was an idea maybe first expressed by Wilhelm von Humboldt (On Language) in 1836: “Via the latter, qua character of a speech-sound, a pervasive analogy necessarily prevails in the same language; and since a like subjectivity also affects language in the same notion, there resides in every language a characteristic world-view.” And Humboldt even considered the power of learning another language in stating that, “To learn a foreign language should therefore be to acquire a new standpoint in the world-view hitherto possessed, and in fact to a certain extent is so, since every language contains the whole conceptual fabric and mode of presentation of a portion of mankind.”

Multilingualism is multiperspectivism, a core element of the modern mind and modern way of being in the world. Language has the power to transform us. To study language, to learn a new language is to become something different. Each language is not only a separate worldview but locks into place a different sense of self, a persona. This would be true not only for learning different cultural languages but also different professional languages with their respective sets of terminology, as the modern world has diverse areas with their own ways of talking and we modern humans have to deal with this complexity on a regular basis, whether we are talking about tax codes or dietary lingo.

It’s hard to know what that means for humanity’s trajectory across the millennia. But the more we are caught within linguistic worlds and are forced to navigate our way within them the greater the need for a strong egoic individuality to self-initiate action, that is to say the self-authorization of Jaynesian consciousness. We step further back into our own internal space of meta-cognitive metaphor. To know more than one language strengthens an identity separate from any given language. The egoic self retreats behind its walls and looks out from its parapets. Language, rather than being the world we are immersed in, becomes the world we are trapped in (a world that is no longer home and from which we seek to escape, Philip K. Dick’s Black Iron Prison and William S. Burroughs Control). It closes in on us and forces us to become more adaptive to evade the constraints.