What We Talk About When We Talk About Consciousness

Previously: What If God Was One Of Us?

Last time we discussed the radical the idea that “consciousness” arose relatively late in human history, roughly around the time of the Late Bronze Age Collapse in the Mediterranean.

Now, its important to understand that when Jaynes uses the term “consciousness, he is talking about something very specific. It’s not simply being responsive to one’s exterior surroundings (sense perception), but being aware of them and filtering them though a some kind of “inner life”. Jaynes contends that this sort of meta-awareness arrived relatively late in human history, and that we can pinpoint this change in comprehension through a careful reading of ancient literature, especially sacred literature and epic poetry.

Think of it this way: you see an apple; the color waves hit your eyes, which send signals to your brain via the optic nerve. You “choose” to reach out and grasp it. A nerve signal goes out from the brain to your arm and hand. The apple is touched. Nerve fibers in the hand sends signals from the hand to the brain, describing the temperature, texture, firmness, and so forth. All of these signals are processed various areas of the brain which we can see by the neurons firing in those areas in an fMRI scan.

Jaynes isn’t talking about any of that stuff. That’s the process of sense perception. He’s talking about something else entirely. As Marcel Kuijsten of the Julian Jaynes society describes:

[2:30 -3:57] “In a nutshell, what Jaynes argues is that, as humans evolved language, along with language the brain was using language to then convey experience between the two hemispheres which were operating in a, let’s say, a less integrated fashion then they are today.”

This idea is a little shocking to people initially, because behavior was then directed by what we today call an auditory hallucination. But there’s a lot of evidence that he presents for this. The ancient literature is filled with all of these examples of people’s behavior being directed by what they interpreted as the gods, idols that they used to illicit these commands, and just quite a bit of evidence that he gets into explaining all this.”

“From that he realized that consciousness was not what people generally assume to be a biologically innate, evolved process, but it was something that was learned, and it was based on language. So after language got to a level of complexity, then we developed this ability to introspect. So he places the date for the development of consciousness much more recently than traditional ideas.

“[10:18] Most of the critiques of the theory are based on misconceptions…[11:04] The most common mistake is that they are criticizing what Jaynes is saying based on their own view of consciousness rather than how Jaynes defines it. And consciousness is defined so differently by so many people that when you go to conferences on consciousness you see all these people giving lectures and they’re all really defining it in very, very different ways.”

Julian Jaynes and the Bicameral Mind Theory (This View of Life Magazine)

Jaynes himself acknowledges the inherent difficulty of using our own conscious mind to come to an intellectual reckoning of, well, itself!

Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of. How simple is that to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade a mentality when actually it does not. p. 23

Again, consciousness is not simply the sense perception of the world around you. It’s not required to do basic things like eat, sleep or have sex. It’s not even necessary for talking. Chimpanzees (and gorillas) have been taught to “talk” using sign language. Unless we attribute reflective self-consciousness to great apes, then clearly language—in terms of expressing simple desires and notions about the world using nouns and verbs—is not, strictly speaking, only an act that only conscious beings can do; at least how Jaynes is describing it. All animals communicate in some fashion, whether they are self-conscious or not.

Also, it’s thought that language actually evolved in humans primarily for gossip, and that gossip evolved as a method of social bonding and coalition building, and not, please note, for ruminative thought or reflective self-awareness:

Human language didn’t evolve to name things but for gossip — our equivalent of primates grooming — which developed to maintain the bonds of trust in the ever growing social groups our ancestors formed to protect themselves against predators as they moved ‘out of Africa’ to survive…We continue to gossip today — approximately 65% of modern talking time is taken up by it, irrespective of age, gender or culture. The topics tend to be extreme events (both good and bad) that we struggle to make sense of alone. By engaging our peers we are better able to understand and act in the world around us.

The Problematic Storytelling Ape (Medium)

Nor is consciousness strictly necessary for a large-scale social organization to develop. For example, there are many examples of eusocial and prosocial species among earth’s various types of animals. Ants, bees, and wasps are among the most successful animal species on the planet, engaging in agriculture, building large nests, raising each other’s young, engaging in organized war, and living in vast “cities.” Are the hymnoptera conscious in the same way humans are? It’s highly doubtful. And yet they live in complex societies and many of their behaviors are similar.

“I’ll take the example of the leaf cutter ant,” [economics professor Lisi] Krall explained … “They cut and harvest leaves, and then they feed the leaves to their fungal gardens, and they themselves then feed on the fungal gardens,” she said. The ants “develop into vast, vast colonies that have highly developed, profound divisions of labor.” Sound familiar?…”We engaged a kind of social evolution, that started with agriculture, that put us on a path of expansion and interconnectedness and ultimately, in humans, hierarchy, and all that kind of stuff,” she said.

Humans are more like ants than lone wolves (Treehugger)

Even writing existed for thousands of years as simply a mnemonic device for recording straightforward things like genealogies and inventories—”lists, lists and more lists,” as James C. Scott put it. There’s no indication that writing, strictly speaking, requires self-consciousness.

Agriculture, villages, towns, even cities and empires arose without the benefit of writing. The earliest forms of cuneiform writing consisted of clay tablets recording market transactions and tax records with [no] moral, political or legal lessons for future generations… These were mnemonic devices, no better and no worse than a string tied around the finger or rather more sophisticated sets of knots created by the Incans [sic]. The tablets circulated as bills of exchange, carrying a symbolic value as money rather than a historical value as something-to-be-preserved. Their symbolic function served, the tablets were simply thrown away in the trash. Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain p. 57

Animals have also constructed dwellings like hives, mounds, and nests, and made artwork: “Animal-made works of art have been created by apes, elephants, cetacea, reptiles, and bowerbirds, among other species.” (Wikipedia)

Chimpanzee wins $10,000 prize for abstract painting (The Guardian)

It used to be thought that reflexive self-consciousness was necessary for any sort of complex culture to exist, and that cumulative cultural evolution was something unique to humans. However, in 2014 researchers managed to induce cumulative cultural evolution in baboons. In 2017, it was found that homing pigeons can also gather, pass on and improve knowledge over generations. Then, whales and dolphins (cetaceans) were added to the mix. Then came migrating ungulates (hoofed mammals). Last year, researchers even detected evidence of it among fruit flies!

Primatologists have taken to regularly attributing the differences in chimpanzee behavior in various troops across Africa to “culture” rather than biological instinct. And tool use has been documented in a wide number of animals:

The suggestion that humanity is distinct by virtue of possessing a culture subject to Lamarckian evolution is more problematic than it may appear. The glitch lies in the fact that humans are no longer considered to be the only species to possess culture.

The idea that other animals have culture has been circulating for nearly three decades and has reached a point of media saturation that partially obscures the challenge created by the fact of animal culture. Although early studies focused on the apes and monkeys who make tools and wash sweet potatoes, culture does not end with primates.

Birds’ songs and migration routes are learned and transmitted culturally rather than genetically. Some groups of dolphins manipulate sponges to protect their noses while foraging and teach the practice to their offspring. The crows of New Caledonia clip twigs to create hooked tools that are used to retrieve insects from crevices. As with chimpanzees, the types of tools used by crows vary from one group to the next, suggesting that the very use of tools is transmitted through culture. Daniel Lord Smail: On Deep History and the Brain; p. 87

So, more and more, we are finding that self-reflective consciousness is not strictly necessary for many of the behaviors we used to think were uniquely human. Cumulative cultural evolution was there all along just waiting for us to find it! To a drastically lesser degree than us, of course, but it was there nevertheless. We were just too arrogant and self-absorbed to look properly.

So, then, what exactly do we mean when we talk about consciousness? Unless we consider baboons, chimps, orangutans, dolphins, whales, pigeons, crows, bighorn sheep, ants, termites and fruit flies as all conscious the way we are, we must look elsewhere, or else redefine what it is that we are truly searching for in the first place.

What is does not mean is what’s usually called “operant conditioning.” All animals are capable that. Jaynes himself dismisses ideas of operant conditioning as indicators of the type of consciousness that characterizes human beings. After describing standard experiments in which he “taught” everything from plants to microbes to reptiles to complete various tasks, he realized this had nothing whatsoever to do with the type pf conscious behavior he was looking for:

It was, I fear, several years before I realized that this assumption makes no sense at all. When we introspect, it is not upon any bundle of learning processes, and particularly not the types of learning denoted by conditioning and T-mazes. Why then did so many worthies in the lists of science equate consciousness and learning? And why had I been so lame of mind as to follow them?…

It is this confusion that lingered unseen behind my first struggles with the problem, as well as the huge emphasis on animal learning in the first half of the twentieth century. But it is now absolutely clear that in evolution the origin of learning and the origin of consciousness are two utterly separate problems…

Is consciousness…this enormous influence of ideas, principles, beliefs over our lives and actions, really derivable from animal behavior? Alone of species, all alone! We try to understand ourselves and the world. We become rebels or patriots or martyrs on the basis of ideas. We build Chartres and computers, write poems and tensor equations, play chess and quartets, sail ships to other plants and listen to other galaxies – what have these to do with rats in mazes or the threat displays of baboons? The continuity hypothesis of Darwin for the evolution of the mind is a very suspicious totem of evolutionary mythology… pp. 7-8

The chasm is awesome. The emotional lives of men and other mammals are indeed marvelously similar, but to focus upon the similarity unduly is to forget that such a chasm exists at all. The intellectual life of man, his culture and history and religion and science, is different from anything else we know of in the universe. That is fact. It is as if all life evolved to a certain point, and then in ourselves turned at a right angle and simply exploded in a different direction. p.9

Jaynes controversially rejects the idea that consciousness is necessarily a part of human thinking and reasoning, as we commonly assume it must be. He cites the work of the Würzburg School of psychology in Germany and their discovery of so-called “imageless thoughts.”

The essential point here is that there are several stages of creative thought: first, a stage of preparation in which the problem is consciously worked over then a period of incubation without any conscious concentration upon the problem; and then the illumination which is later justified by logic. The parallel between these important and complex problems and the simple problems of judging weights or the circle-triangle series is obvious. The period of preparation is essentially the setting up of a complex situation together with conscious attention to the materials on which the striction is to work. But then the actual process of reasoning, the dark leap onto huge discovery, just as in the simple trivial judgement of weights, has no representation in consciousness. Indeed, it is sometimes almost as if the problem has to be forgotten to be solved. p. 44

Jaynes points out that not only is consciousness not necessary for performance of routine daily tasks, it can actually be counterproductive! Self-conscious reflection puts us on notice of “watching ourselves” from an observer’s point of view, and thus our performance often degrades. That is, we involve our “ego self” in what we happen to be doing at the moment. You can see this all the time with athletes. Once they start to want to win, they trip up and stop winning. The best sports actions are performed without a certain lack of self-reflection (dare we say, a lack of conscious introspection) leading to a sense of spontaneity. We might almost call it a trance, as in the Taoist tale of the dexterous butcher. There is a word for this “non-conscious” state in Chinese philosophy: wu-wei, or non-action. Ted Slingerland, and expert in ancient Chinese philosophy has written a whole book about this concept called Trying Not to Try.

It’s clearly a different sort of consciousness that Jaynes is after. It is something uniquely human, but we don’t seem to be able to find it anywhere we look, except by degrees of magnitude over various other animals. Even art, culture, building, reasoning and communication are not immune!

Nor does the “self” or “consciousness” have any sort of fixed anatomical location, inside your noggin or anywhere else for that matter, as we seem to assume. Many ancient peoples located their conscious selves in the heart, not in the head. The ancient Greeks did so, seeing the brain as merely a cooling organ for blood, like a car radiator. Out-of-body experiences also testify that consciousness can locate itself anywhere, not even within the physical body itself!

Where does consciousness take place? Everyone, or almost everyone, immediately replies, in my head. This is because when we introspect, we seem to look inward on an inner space somewhere behind our eyes. But what on earth do we mean by ‘look’? We even close our eyes sometimes to introspect even more clearly. Upon what? Its spatial character seems unquestionable…

We not only locate this space of consciousness inside our own heads. We also assume it is there in others’. In talking with a friend, maintaining periodic eye-to-eye contact (that remnant of our primate past where eye-to-eye contact was concerned in establishing tribal hierarchies), we are always assuming a space between our companion’s eyes into which we are talking, similar to the space we imagine inside out own heads where we are talking from.

And this is the very heartbeat of the matter, for we all know perfectly well that there is no such space in anyone’s head at all! There is nothing inside my head or yours except physiological tissue of one sort or another. And the fact that it is predominantly neurological tissue is irrelevant. pp. 44-45

Let us not make a mistake. When I am conscious, I am always and definitely using certain parts of my brain inside my head. But so am I when riding a bicycle, and the bicycle riding does not go on inside my head. The cases are different of course, since bicycle riding has a definite geographical location, while consciousness does not. In reality, consciousness has no location whatever except as we imagine it has. p. 46

In the end Jaynes concludes with regard to consciousness:

We have been brought to the conclusion that consciousness is not what we generally think it is. It is not to be confused with reactivity. It is not involved in hosts of perceptual phenomena. It is not involved in the performance of skills and often hinders their execution. It need not be involved in speaking, writing, listening, or reading. It does not copy down experience, as most people think. Consciousness is not at all involved in signal learning, and need not be involved in the learning of skills or solutions, which can go on without any consciousness whatever. It is not necessarily for making judgements or in simple thinking. It is not the seat of reason, and indeed some of the most difficult instances of creative reasoning go on without any attending consciousness and it has no location except and imaginary one! The immediate question therefore is, does consciousness exist at all? pp. 46-47

Jaynes concludes that it does, but to understand what he means, we have to start thinking about it in a totally different way. And for that reason, we can’t find it simply by studying physical processes in the brain. We need to engage in a bit of existentialist philosophy:

The trick to understanding his model is first understanding what he means by “consciousness”. I don’t think he means what most of us mean when we talk about say the “hard problem” of consciousness. In modern considerations of consciousness, I think we largely refer to subjective experience – the “what it is like” to be aware of the world. Jaynes however dismisses this as mere sensory perception. He is more interested in what it is to have an internal “mindspace”, an “analog I” that experiences the world. Jaynes argues for the emergence of this sense of self and an inner mindspace from language. He sees the infinite capacity for metaphor inherent in human language as a means by which we can build similarly infinite concepts and ideas about our relationship with the external world.

That is, when we introspect upon our experience as selves in the world, we construct an inner self, an “I” that exists within our mind’s eye which is what it is that has these experiences, these relationships. This inner self is an analog for what our senses perceive and how we react and is what gives us a sense of the first person in how we view the world. I guess Jaynes is thinking here of some kind of conscious interiority, a feeling of being “in here” rather than “out there” (or perhaps nowhere at all).

Jaynes observes (as have many others) that this kind of awareness rests upon language. Human language has two distinctive features – the capacities for metaphorical representation and infinite recursion. With these basic tools, human beings can build infinitely complex models of self and experience. We can also use language to communicate – share – these models. In fact, over time it is this sharing that helps to construct commonly held models of experience that shape the course of cultural progress.

Julian Jaynes and the Analog “I” (Science Philosophy Chat Forums)
The key to this is how the brain uses language to construct the self:

It is through language that we construct models of the self and through translation of our intuitions into words and ideas that we learn the limits of this language and the limits of our own particular perspective.

Through language we learn to differentiate between ourselves and others from a young age even if consciousness is not a concept that we ever learn explicitly or ever truly “know” our self.

It is in natural language — the spoken word, novels, poetry, vague metaphorical speech, descriptions of made-up things like love and self and consciousness — that we have our greatest tool to share our subjective experiences. A powerful tool to build a common roadmap to create better selves.

The self may be a fiction but in that case it is all the more vital that we embrace fiction, and by extension natural language, to communicate with each other at an ever deeper level.

The Problematic Storytelling Ape (Medium)

Thus, language is crucial in constructing the “self” i.e. the concept of the individual “I” that we normally all carry around all day inside our heads—the homumculus who has no material existence we feel like is “in there” somewhere. But—it’s important to note—the mere presence of language and writing by itself does not necessarily indicate that such introspective thinking exists. Rather, the self—the analog I—is a “concept” that utilizes our innate capacity for language, but is independent of it:

The analogue-I and analogue-me refer to mental self-relevant images that take a first-person vs. third-person perspective, respectively. Mental self-analogues are essential for goal setting, planning, and rehearsal of behavioral strategies, but they often fuel emotional and interpersonal problems when people react to their analogue selves as if they were real.

The Analogue-I and the Analogue-Me: The Avatars of the Self (Self and Identity)

Behavioral scientists have studied how this self interacts with the world. In fact, behavioral science has confirmed that there is not one, unitary “self” consistent over time, but multiple selves! In fact, these selves are often present at the same time, although separated in space. This mindblowing idea alone should cause us to reject the idea that the self is just a biological process inside our heads and not a mental construct. In a recent study on willpower, the authors of the study propose a conflict between multiple overlapping selves: “Simply put, you in the present is different than you in the future.” (Treehugger)

The second class of models posits multiple coexisting selves. This view holds that decision makers behave as if they were a composite of competing selves with different valuation systems and different priorities.

One “self” craves instant gratification (e.g., “I want to eat a cheeseburger! Yum!”), whereas another “self” is focused on maximizing long-term outcomes (e.g., “I want to eat a salad and be healthy!”). Self-control conflicts are the consequence of a present-oriented valuation system disagreeing with a future-oriented valuation system

…Evidence for multiple system models comes from functional MRI (fMRI) studies showing that self-controlled choices were associated with lateral prefrontal areas of the brain, whereas more impulsive choices were associated with the ventral striatum and ventromedial prefrontal cortex.

Beyond Willpower: Strategies for Reducing Failures of Self-Control (Sage Journals)

Given all this, Jaynes finally lists what he believes are the core characteristics of the kind of human introspective consciousness awareness he’s talking about:

1. Spatialization – We tend to describe reality in terms of spatial visualization. “If I ask you to think of the last hundred years, you may have a tendency to excerpt the matter in such a way that the succession of years is spread out, probably from left to right. But of course there is no left or right in time. There is only before and after, and these do not have any spatial properties whatever – except by analog. You cannot, absolutely cannot think of time except by spatializing it. Consciousness is always a spatialization in which the diachronic is turned into the synchronic, in which what has happened in time is excerpted and seen in side-by-sideness.” p. 60

2. Excerption (screening, or filtering) Our perception of our reality is necessarily limited. “In consciousness, we are never ‘seeing’ anything in its entirely…we excerpt from the collection of possible attentions to a thing which compromises our knowledge of it. And this is all that is possible to do since consciousness is a metaphor of our actual behavior.”

3. The Analog ‘I’“…the metaphor we have of ourselves which can move about vicarially in our imagination doing things we are not actually doing…In the example of…spatialization, it was not your physical behavioral self that was trying to ‘see’ where my theory ‘fits’ into the array of alternative theories. It was your analog ‘I'” pp. 62-63

4. The Metaphor ‘Me’“We can both look out from within the imagined self at the imagined vistas, or we can step back a bit and see ourselves perhaps kneeling down for a drink of water at a particular brook.”

5.Narratization: We construct narratives to understand the world: “In our consciousness we are always seeing our vicarial selves as the main figures in the stories of our lives. In the above illustration, the narratization is obvious, namely, walking along a wooded path. But it is not so obvious that we are constantly doing this whenever we are being conscious, and this I call narratization.”

6. Conciliation: We comprehend new things by fitting them within established patterns. “…a slightly ambiguous perceived object is made to conform to some previously learned schema, an automatic process sometimes called assimilation. We assimilate a new stimulus into our conception, or schema about it, even though it is slightly different…assimilation consciousized is conciliation. In conciliation we are making excerpts or narratizations compatible with each other, just as in external perception the new stimulus and the internal conception are made to agree…”

To this I would also add that the human mind seems to have an inherent instinct for meaning or purpose. It tends to be quite good at self-deception. And, we’ll later explore the human mind’s ability for recursion.

To get some clues about how this all developed, we”ll take a look at some theories of how the modern human brain evolved from earlier hominins next time.

BONUS: Robert Sapolsky: Are Humans Just Another Primate?

2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About Consciousness

  1. If you are seriously interested in the evolution of human consciousness, I would recommend the following authors:

    Jean Gebser: The Ever Present Origin (difficult read; requires some knowledge of myth, art, literature, etc). The idea for the book came to him in an intuition.

    William Irwin Thompson: The Time Falling Bodies Take to Light; Coming Into Being; Self and Society

    Erich Neumann:The Origins and History of Consciousness

    JJ Bachoven: Myth, Religion and Mother Right

    Ken Wilber: Up From Eden; Sex, Ecology and Spirituality

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