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.

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* 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.

Metaphor and Empathy

Sweetness and strangeness
by Heather Altfeld and Rebecca Diggs

In thinking through some of the ways that our relationship to metaphor might be changing, especially in educational settings, we consulted a study by Emily Weinstein and her research team at Harvard, published in 2014. They set out to study a possible decline in creativity among high-school students by comparing both visual artworks and creative writing collected between 1990-95, and again between 2006-11. Examining the style, content and form of adolescent art-making, the team hoped to understand the potential ‘generational shift’ between pre- and post-internet creativity. It turned out that there were observable gains in the sophistication and complexity of visual artwork, but when it came to the creative-writing endeavours of the two groups, the researchers found a ‘significant increase in young authors’ adherence to conventional writing practices related to genre, and a trend toward more formulaic narrative style’.

The team cited standardised testing as a likely source of this lack of creativity, as well as changing modes of written communication that create ‘a multitude of opportunities for casual, text-based communication’ – in other words, for literalism, abbreviation and emojis standing in for words and feelings. With visual arts, by contrast, greater exposure to visual media, and the ‘expansive mental repositories of visual imagery’ informed and inspired student work.

Of course, quantifying creativity is problematic, even with thoughtfully constructed controls, but it is provocative to consider what the authors saw as ‘a significant increase in and adherence to strict realism’, and how this might relate to a turn away from metaphoric thinking. […]

In a long-term project focusing on elementary school and the early years of high school, the psychologists Thalia Goldstein and Ellen Winner at Boston College studied the relationship between empathy and experience. In particular, they wanted to understand how empathy and theories of mind might be enhanced. Looking at children who spent a year or more engaged in acting training, they found significant gains in empathy scores. This isn’t surprising, perhaps. Acting and role-play, after all, involve a metaphoric entering-into another person’s shoes via the emotional lives and sensory experiences of the characters that one embodies. ‘The tendency to become absorbed by fictional characters and feel their emotions may make it more likely that experience in acting will lead to enhanced empathy off stage,’ the authors conclude.

For one semester, I taught the Greek tragedy Hecuba to college students in Ancient Humanities. The first part of Hecuba centres on the violence toward women during war; the second half offers a reversal whereby, in order to avenge the deaths of her children, Hecuba kills Polymestor – the king of Thrace – and his two sons, just as he killed her son, whose safety he had explicitly guaranteed. The play is an instruction in lament, in sorrow, rage and vengeance, loyalty and betrayal. To see it is to feel the agony of a woman betrayed, who has lost all her children to war and murder. To act in it – as students do, when we read it, much to their horror – is to feel the grief and rage of a woman far removed from our present world, but Hecuba’s themes of betrayal and revenge resonate still: the #MeToo movement, for example, would find common ground with Hecuba’s pain.

Eva Maria Koopman at Erasmus University in Rotterdam has studied the ‘literariness’ of literature and its relationship to emotion, empathy and reflection. Koopman gave undergraduates (and for sample size, some parents as well) passages of the novel Counterpoint (2008) by the Dutch writer Anna Enquist, in which the main character, a mother, grieves the loss of her child. Thus, Koopman attempted to test age-old claims about the power of literature. For some of the readers, she stripped passages of their imagery and removed foregrounding from others, while a third group read the passages as originally written by Enquist.

Koopman’s team found that: ‘Literariness may indeed be partly responsible for empathetic reactions.’ Interestingly, the group who missed the foregrounding showed less empathetic understanding. It isn’t just empathy, however, that foregrounding triggers, it’s also what Koopman identifies as ‘ambivalent emotions: people commenting both on the beauty or hope and on the pain or sorrow of a certain passage’. Foregrounding, then, can elicit a ‘more complex emotional experience’. Reading, alone, is not sufficient for building empathy; it needs the image, and essential foreground, for us to forge connections, which is why textbooks filled with information but devoid of narrative fail to engage us; why facts and dates and events rarely stick without story.

Reading Voices Into Our Minds

Each of us is a multitude. There is no single unified self. Our thoughts are a conversation. The voices of family echo in our minds when we first leave home and long after our loved ones have died. Then there are all the television, movie, and commercial characters that invade our consciousness with their catchphrases, slogans, and taglines. And we can’t forget how songs get stuck on cognitive repeat or emerge as a compulsion to sing.

Yet another example are the intimate voices imagined as you read novels, a form of inner speech that can carry on after you have put down a book. These can be the most powerful voices. There is nothing that compares to the long periods of time spent with compelling fiction. The voice of characters in a novel are heard within your own head as you read. You can return to this experience again and again, until the characters have become internalized and their words inscribed upon your psyche. Their voices becomes your own voices.

This chorus of voices is constantly playing in the background, a caucophony of thoughts vying for your attention. But occasionally they rise into the spotlight of your consciousness. Even then, it rarely occurs to any of us how strange those voices are, except when some particular voice insistently refuses to go away and maybe even seems to have a mind of its own. Then we might begin to question the distinction between them and us and question what kind of being we are that can contain both.

There is an argument that novels help us develop theory of mind. But maybe in the process novels, along with certain other modern media, result in a particular kind of mind or minds. We come to identify or otherwise incorporate what we empathize with. The worlds we inhabit long enough eventually inhabit us. And what we’ve heard through out our lives can have a way of continuing to speak to us, layers upon layers of voices that for some of us can speak clearly.

* * *

Fictional characters make ‘experiential crossings’ into real life, study finds
by Richard Lea

It’s a cliche to claim that a novel can change your life, but a recent study suggests almost a fifth of readers report that fiction seeps into their daily existence.

Researchers at Durham University conducted a survey of more than 1,500 readers, with about 400 providing detailed descriptions of their experiences with book. Nineteen per cent of those respondents said the voices of fictional characters stayed with them even when they weren’t reading, influencing the style and tone of their thoughts – or even speaking to them directly. For some participants it was as if a character “had started to narrate my world”, while others heard characters talking, or imagined them reacting to things going on in everyday life.

The study, which was carried out in collaboration with the Guardian at the 2014 Edinburgh international book festival, also found that more than half of the 1,500 respondents said that they heard the voices of characters while reading most or all of the time, while 48% reported a similar frequency of visual or other sensory experiences during reading.

According to one of the paper’s authors, the writer and psychologist Charles Fernyhough, the survey illustrates how readers of fiction are doing more than just processing words for meaning – they are actively recreating the worlds and characters being described.

“For many of us, this can involve experiencing the characters in a novel as people we can interact with,” Fernyhough said. “One in seven of our respondents, for example, said they heard the voices of fictional characters as clearly as if there was someone in the room with them.”

When they asked readers to describe what was happening in detail, the researchers found people who described fictional characters remaining active in their minds after they had put the book down, and influencing their thoughts as they went about their daily business – a phenomenon Fernyhough called “experiential crossing”.

The term covers a wide range of experiences, from hearing a character’s voice to feeling one’s own thoughts shaped by a character’s ideas, sensibility or presence, he continued. “One respondent, for example, described ‘feeling enveloped’ by [Virginia Woolf’s] character Clarissa Dalloway – hearing her voice and imagining her response to particular situations, such as walking into a Starbucks. Sometimes the experience seemed to be triggered by entering a real-world setting similar to one in the novel; in other situations, it felt like seeing the world through a particular character’s eyes, and judging events as the character would.”

The characters who make the leap into readers’ lives are typically “powerful, vivid characters and narrators”, Fernyhough added, “but this will presumably vary hugely from person to person”.

* * *

 

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?

Folk Psychology, Theory of Mind & Narrative

I came across a book with a bit of a different perspective. It is Folk Psychological Narratives by Daniel D. Hutto. I’ve only skimmed sections of it, but it looks like a promising explanation of the human mind.

The basic issue is with folk psychology and theory of mind. To explain simply, theory of mind is about mind-reading, understanding how others think and what motivates their behavior. There are many that see it as an inborn ability of humans, going back to early evolution when the species became distinct.

Hutto, however, sees this as problematic. The details aren’t that important for my purposes at the moment, but suffice it to say that he thinks this view of theory of mind fails to take account of all the evidence. According to him, it is neither sufficient nor necessary.

He speculates that earliest human culture didn’t require a theory of mind. Even basic cultural products, from tools to language, accordingly didn’t require this ability. What allowed folk psychology to develop supposedly was the emergence of narrative thinking. Humans began telling stories and they became increasingly complex.

The book is rather technical in some areas. Hutto isn’t trying to develop an airtight theory. His purpose is more about challenging standard thinking on these issues and so to offer new directions of thought. It seems promising, from what little I can understand at the moment.

What seemed important to me is that he is overturning the idea that mental ability precedes all else. Instead, he sees the understanding of human nature as being a cultural product, built from other cultural developments. I sense a resonance with other previous views, from Julian Jaynes’ bicameralism to Karl Marx’s species-being, although he mentions neither.

I’ll need to read the book in more detail to suss out these potential links. It’s helpful that others have already considered Hutto’s ideas in a larger context, specifically in relation to Jaynes.

* * *

The Contingency of Mind
Situating Jaynes in the Changing Landscape of Contemporary
Philosophy of Mind
by Jan Sleutels

Looking back on the intellectual landscape of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it makes perfect sense that Julian Jaynes was considered a maverick. There was simply no place for his historical approach to consciousness (Jaynes 1976). His theory was rejected on apriori grounds as conceptually incoherent, biologically impossible, and probably also morally suspect (cf. Sleutels 2006).

Today the situation is quite different, however. In the late 1990s the landscape started to shift towards a view of the mind as being contingent upon a variety of external factors. The so-called EEE approach (Embodied, Embedded, Enacted Cognition) drew attention to the ecological and cultural context of psychological competencies, while varieties of the Extended Mind hypothesis pointed up the importance of external tools (including language technologies) for the developmentof cognitive skills (Clark 2008). Critics of evolutionary psychology are questioning the presumption of psychological continuity that goes with essentialism (Sleutels 2013), while philosophers such as Hutto (2008) argue that our current self-understanding as thinking, conscious agents (our ‘folk psychology’) is contingent on socio-cultural practices.

In this paper I will situate Jaynes’s view of the origin of modern consciousness in the newly emerged landscape. I review some of the most pertinent developments in the philosophy of mind, including work in cognitive archaeology (Malafouris2008) and so-called ‘radically enactivist’ theories of mind (Hutto and Myin 2013).
I conclude by proposing a general argument for the contingency of mind that underscores the importance of Jaynes for future research.

Consciousness, Plasticity, and Connectomics:
The Role of Intersubjectivity in Human Cognition
by Micah Allen & Gary Williams

These “zombie” skills suggest that our cognitive system can automatically carry out intentions without the need for meta-conscious oversight, while also demonstrating the subtle dynamics of embedding “top” reflective intentions within active practice. The point is not that automobile drivers are asleep while they drive. Rather, the driver often steers automatically while his or her reflectively conscious mind is ruminating on something else. Thus, their prior and ongoing reflective intentions structure and guide their experience of driving. Similarly, we can see how intersubjective, prereflective elements structure the reflective observation of and interaction with a tool (as in Heidegger), or in Husserl’s famous comparison of the first experiences of a Scandic anthropologist in Greenland and those of a naïve tourist. We literally “see intentions” and “experience thoughts” and these explanada are intimately interwoven within one another.

Furthermore, prereflective reactivity is subjective, and through development and interaction comes to be structured by the cultural–linguistic constructs such as the self, the mind, and other folk psychological narratives (Hutto, 2008). We argue that the conceptual categorization afforded by self-reflective folk psychological narratives greatly enhance our capacity for self-reflective action within an internal “mind-space.” We thus agree with accounts of language as a form of highly evolved tool use or extended cognition (Tylen et al., 2010).