What Is Consciousness Made Of? Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Apr 23 2012 @ 7:37am

A reader writes:

Since one of your readers recommended a book on the subject, I feel compelled to do the same. The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind was written about 35 years ago by a psychologist named Julian Jaynes. One of his premises is that human consciousness as we know it today originated fairly recently, sometime between the events of The Iliad and The Odyssey. He compares the writing styles of these books as well as some of the books in the Old Testament to show a profound difference in introspection between these times. He ties in hypotheses about the role of consciousness from religion, schizophrenia and autism, and hearing the voices of gods and the recently deceased.

At the time it was written, there was little direct neurological evidence to support or refute his arguments. Modern neuroscience has subsequently found data points that support some pieces of Jaynes' puzzle. In some ways, he was in a position similar to that of Darwin, who discovered and wrote about evolution with no information about the underlying mechanisms of heredity and mutation (DNA). Wikipedia has a good summary of his theories, but reading his book will naturally give a far better understanding of his arguments.

One of the more interesting parts, to me, was his examination of the role language complexity may have had in the development of the ability to be introspective. We know now that learning things, anything, changes the brain's circuitry by "strengthening" some synapses preferentially, making it easier for these synapses to fire again in the future. He suggests that the requirements of an increasingly complex language helped to break down the division between the two hemispheres of the brain, and that this led to the birth of introspection, the ability to reflect upon one's own self. He is careful to differentiate between introspection (and thus consciousness, by his definition) and other cognitive processes like memory, perception of the external world, etc.

It's not an easy read at times, but for anyone interested in consciousness I think it's well worth it.

Update from a reader:

I take issue with the Jaynes boosterism. Jaynes' scholarship is reductive in that particular, aggressive way of evolutionary psychology, a discipline that I think has very little to tell us generally, and less about literature.

Just to give one example, one of the distinctions that Jayne highlights in the two epics: the Illiad's "Sing, goddess, the anger" which in the Oddysey becomes "Tell me, Muse, of the man" – a change that Jayne would have portend a fundamental change in the mode of human consciousness, are in fact authorial choices tied to the central point that the two epics are attempting to make. The Illiad is a story about the rage of the gods – the ways that powerful and chaotic forces outside the bounds of civilization break into and disorder our frail communities, and so the author chooses to represent the story as sung through him by the will of those forces.

The Odyssey, in contrast, is a story about the cleverest man alive, who succeeds by his wits in thwarting those forces of chaos and returning to his home in civilization. Homer in this case uses "tell" instead of "sing", which is fitting for a poem about a man. The evidence that Jaynes presents as support for his theory of consciousness actually indicates just the reverse: a work coming to us across the ages, written or sung by consciousnesses much like ours, telling us things we can see the truth in, if we actually listen.

I sometimes fear that we are moving toward a world where the entirety of literature is subsumed by linguistics and evolutionary psychology to the point where we lose the fundamentally human transaction in books like the Homeric epics. Homer, whether a single poet or representative of a poetic tradition, was trying to tell us how the ancient Greeks saw the world: small, isolated islands of civilization that human beings hold against the awesome, chaotic power of the gods. The humanity of this message, and the fact that we can feel it (or at least some of us can) across the millennia that separate us from its author, says something more piercing about human consciousness than Jaynes could ever hope to articulate within the bounds of his discipline.

At the end of the Odyssey, the man himself visits his father, Laertes, where the old man is at work tending a garden, carving order out of the wild, knowing that at some point soon he will fail, and the weeds will grow back in. But meanwhile he keeps at it.


As always, I am loving your recent posts on consciousness! The PBS show "Closer To Truth," has a huge online archive of conversations on consciousness with many philosophers, scientists, and theologians.