“…consciousness is itself the result of learning.”

As above, so below
by Axel Cleeremans

A central aspect of the entire hierarchical predictive coding approach, though this is not readily apparent in the corresponding literature, is the emphasis it puts on learning mechanisms. In other works (Cleeremans, 2008, 2011), I have defended the idea that consciousness is itself the result of learning. From this perspective, agents become conscious in virtue of learning to redescribe their own activity to themselves. Taking the proposal that consciousness is inherently dynamical seriously opens up the mesmerizing possibility that conscious awareness is itself a product of plasticity-driven dynamics. In other words, from this perspective, we learn to be conscious. To dispel possible misunderstandings of this proposal right away, I am not suggesting that consciousness is something that one learns like one would learn about the Hundred Years War, that is, as an academic endeavour, but rather that consciousness is the result (vs. the starting point) of continuous and extended interaction with the world, with ourselves, and with others. The brain, from this perspective, continuously (and unconsciously) learns to anticipate the consequences of its own activity on itself, on the environment, and on other brains, and it is from the practical knowledge that accrues in such interactions that conscious experience is rooted. This perspective, in short, endorses the enactive approach introduced by O’Regan and Noë (2001), but extends it both inwards (the brain learning about itself) and further outwards (the brain learning about other brains), so connecting with the central ideas put forward by the predictive coding approach to cognition. In this light, the conscious mind is the brain’s (implicit, enacted) theory about itself, expressed in a language that other minds can understand.

The theory rests on several assumptions and is articulated over three core ideas. A first assumption is that information processing as carried out by neurons is intrinsically unconscious. There is nothing in the activity of individual neurons that make it so that their activity should produce conscious experience. Important consequences of this assumption are (1) that conscious and unconscious processing must be rooted in the same set of representational systems and neural processes, and (2) that tasks in general will always involve both conscious and unconscious influences, for awareness cannot be “turned off” in normal participants.

A second assumption is that information processing as carried out by the brain is graded and cascades (McClelland, 1979) in a continuous flow (Eriksen & Schultz, 1979) over the multiple levels of a heterarchy (Fuster, 2008) extending from posterior to anterior cortex as evidence accumulates during an information processing episode. An implication of this assumption is that consciousness takes time.

The third assumption is that plasticity is mandatory: The brain learns all the time, whether we intend to or not. Each experience leaves a trace in the brain (Kreiman, Fried, & Koch, 2002).

The social roots of consciousness
by Axel Cleeremans

How does this ability to represent the mental states of other agents get going? While there is considerable debate about this issue, it is probably fair to say that one crucial mechanism involves learning about the consequences of the actions that one directs towards other agents. In this respect, interactions with the natural world are fundamentally different from interactions with other agents, precisely because other agents are endowed with unobservable internal states. If I let a spoon drop on a hard floor, the sound that results will always be the same, within certain parameters that only vary in a limited range. The consequences of my action are thus more or less entirely predictable. But if I smile to someone, the consequences that may result are many. Perhaps the person will smile back to me, but it may also be the case that the person will ignore me or that she will display puzzlement, or even that she will be angry at me. It all depends on the context and on the unobservable mental states that the person currently entertains. Of course, there is a lot I can learn about the space of possible responses based on my knowledge of the person, my history of prior interactions with her, and on the context in which my interactions take place. But the point is simply to say that in order to successfully predict the consequences of the actions that I direct towards other agents, I have to build a model of how these agents work. And this is complex because, unlike what is the case for interactions with the natural world, it is an inverse problem: The same action may result in many different reactions, and those different reactions can themselves be caused by many different internal states.

Based on these observations, one provocative claim about the relationships between self-awareness and one’s ability to represent the mental states of other agents (“theory of mind”, as it is called) is thus that theory of mind comes first, as the philosopher Peter Caruthers has defended. That is, it is in virtue of my learning to correctly anticipate the consequences of the actions that  dIirect towards other agents that I end up developing models of the internal states of such agents, and it is in virtue of the existence of such models that I become able to gain insight about myself (more specifically: about my self). Thus, by this view, self-awareness, and perhaps subjective experience itself, is a consequence of theory of mind as it develops over extended periods of social intercourse.

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?