Did ancient peoples have a fundamentally different consciousness than modern people?
It’s a question I think deserves serious attention. Of course, this leads to a discussion of what the heck “consciousness” even means—does it mean self-awareness, or self-conscious introspection, or our perception of consensus reality? What constitutes “reality?” Are dreams and hallucinations “real,” for instance? And what does “self-awareness” really mean, anyway? Solipsism? Or something else?
Even in a secular age, consciousness retains a mystical sheen. It is alternatively described as the last frontier of science, and as a kind of immaterial magic beyond science’s reckoning. David Chalmers, one of the world’s most respected philosophers on the subject, once told me that consciousness could be a fundamental feature of the universe, like space-time or energy. He said it might be tied to the diaphanous, indeterminate workings of the quantum world, or something nonphysical.
These metaphysical accounts are in play because scientists have yet to furnish a satisfactory explanation of consciousness. We know the body’s sensory systems beam information about the external world into our brain, where it’s processed, sequentially, by increasingly sophisticated neural layers. But we don’t know how those signals are integrated into a smooth, continuous world picture, a flow of moments experienced by a roving locus of attention—a “witness,” as Hindu philosophers call it.
Do Animals Have Feelings? (The Atlantic)
As one commenter to the Atlantic article above article on Reddit points out:
“Consciousness” is an archaic sort of catch-all phrase without much empirical definition and usefulness. Sort of like how physicists used to use “ether” to describe things. Of course we’ve upgraded our concepts (and respective language) for a more enriched understanding, not needing the idea of “ether” anymore.
As the Atlantic article referenced above describes, “If one of the wasp’s aquatic ancestors experienced Earth’s first embryonic consciousness, it would have been nothing like our own consciousness.” But the question we’re pondering today is whether even our own remote ancestors had a consciousness very different than our own.
To deal with this question, let’s take a look at the 1979 book, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by psychologist Julian Jaynes.
The idea is that in these ancient Mediterranean civilizations, the typical human had one or more ‘gods’ — spirits, agents, separate intelligences — living alongside the conventional ‘self’ in the brain. In other words, the dominant pattern was to maintain two separate, verbally-intelligent control centers in the same brain — one for the ‘gods’ and one for the ‘humans’/’mortals’/’selves’.
Jaynes refers to this arrangement as bicameral, which means two-chambered. That’s because he postulates that the gods and conventional selves were headquartered in the two chambers of the brain — the right and left hemispheres (respectively). I think this is plausible enough, but Jaynes admits that it’s speculative, and it’s not strictly necessary for the rest of his theory. What matters is only that the human brain is (empirically!) capable of something like this arrangement.
In other words, the gods took on some of the functions we think of as the “will” or volition. (But not the conscience; that would only later become a function of a very different kind of god.) Here’s Jaynes:
“The gods were in no sense ‘figments of the imagination’ of anyone. They were man’s volition. They occupied his nervous system… and from stores of admonitory and preceptive experience, transmuted this experience into articulated speech which then ‘told’ the man what to do.”
Think of it this way. Today we have a lot of mental phenomena we can’t really account for, like “intuitions” or “gut feelings.” … Now imagine that “bad feeling” in the form of a voice telling you, “Be careful! Don’t agree to anything!”
Mr. Jaynes’ Wild Ride (Melting Asphalt)
Of the theory, Ran Prieur says, “I’m sure that ancient people had different consciousness than modern people, but Jaynes thought it was *really* different: that they were basically all schizophrenic, hearing voices and seeing visions, which they interpreted as gods.” That is, “Julian Jaynes believed that ancient people experienced their gods as auditory hallucinations.”
The experience of multiple personalities or hearing disembodied voices is extremely common even today, and not only in people suffering from acute schizophrenia:
As much as 10% of the population hear voices at some point in their lives, much higher than the clinical incidence of schizophrenia (1%)…And around 65% of children say they have had ‘imaginary friends’ or toys that play a sort of guardian-angel role in their lives.
Jaynes thought children evolve from bicameral to conscious, much as Piaget thought young children are by nature animist (ie they attribute consciousness to things, and may attribute special consciousness to favourite toy-companions…
Gods, Voice Hearing and the Bicameral Mind (Philosophy for Life)
This Aeon article is a fascinating overview of how psychologists have tried to explain how our “inner voice” integrates our personality over the course of our development. It describes the research of Charles Fernyhough, a leading researcher of inner speech and auditory hallucination at Durham University in the United Kingdom:
It’s possible to inner “hear” your own voice rather than speak your own voice,’ … Here, people listen to their own voice in their heads, perceiving the same sonic characteristics as expanded speech, but without the agency. Such experiences have been recalled by participants as their voice ‘just happening’, as ‘coming out of its own accord’, as ‘taking place’ rather than ‘being uttered’.
Some people passively experience inner speech in voices not their own – essentially as auditory hallucinations that they cannot control. Founding member of the Beach Boys Brian Wilson described the experience to Larry King in an interview on CNN in 2004: ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to hurt you’, an inner voice had continually repeated to him since his initial experiences with LSD in the 1960s. The value of understanding such hallucinations is self-evident: they are a hallmark of schizophrenia, a condition that affects almost 24 million people worldwide.
Of great fascination, Fernyhough has concluded that a small but significant part of the general population also experience auditory hallucinations – a phenomenon the researchers call ‘voice hearing’ to distinguish it from schizophrenia. Such voices have been reported by noted individuals throughout history, says Fernyhough. The Greek philosopher Socrates described what he called a ‘daemonic sign’, an inner voice warning him that he was about to make a mistake. Joan of Arc described hearing divine voices since childhood – the same ones that influenced her motivation to help in the siege of Orleans. The 15th-century mystic and autobiographer Margery Kempe wrote about inner conversations with God. Sigmund Freud was not immune: ‘During the days when I was living alone in a foreign city … I quite often heard my name suddenly called by an unmistakable and beloved voice.’
All this leads to another, confounding question: are verbal thoughts reaching awareness just the tip of a mental iceberg, offering only a glimpse of the unconscious mind?
The inner voice (Aeon). Or are verbal thoughts themselves consciousness?
It’s not as crazy as it sounds on first blush. In fact, we commonly experience all sorts of “altered” mental states throughout our lives—hypnotic trances, hallucinations and visions, flow (a.k.a. “being in the zone”), fever delirium, getting stoned or drunk, orgasm, dizziness, out-of-body experiences, and most obviously, dreams and nightmares. Then of course, there are our moods (anger, excitement), and feelings (ennui, jealousy).
Here are a few examples to get started: tunnel vision, runner’s high, ‘flow’, déjà-vu, daydreaming, and orgasm. Then there are spiritual or religious experiences, which are characterized by a suppressed ego and a heightened sense of unity…Then there are the states attending to physical illness — stupor, delirium, lightheadedness, or (in extreme cases) out-of-body experiences. Moods and emotions also correspond to states of consciousness: sadness, fear, surprise, laughter, joy, lust, anxiety, guilt, anger, shame, pride, boredom, and nostalgia.
Drugs put us into all kinds of interesting states…let’s not forget all the weird things that happen around sleep. Drowsiness, hypnagogia, hypnopompia, the Tetris effect, and of course dreaming itself. Every night we spend an hour or so cavorting around in a rich hallucinated fantasyland — and we think nothing of it. But this should give us pause. A brain that’s capable of dreaming should be capable of almost anything.
And all of this is only the tip of the iceberg — the states that most people have experienced at some point in their lives. In fact the brain is capable of many more and stranger things, especially if we admit into our catalogue all the states attending to brain damage, mental illness, torture, and sleep- or sensory-deprivation. Alien hand syndrome and face-blindness are but two examples.
Accepting Deviant Minds (Melting Asphalt)
The author of the above piece speculates that in our age of constant digital distractions and stimulation, we may one day lose our ability to let out mind wander—that is, to daydream (interestingly, the first sign of self-consciousness in the androids of Westworld is the “Reverie,” which is a synonym for daydreaming). If something like that were to happen, future humans would have a hard time trying to understand what the heck daydreaming once was, even though it’s well attested to in literature. People who engaged in such behaviors in the future would be considered “deviant” or “mentally ill” and in need of treatment. Descriptions of this behavior in the past would be considered as some sort of archaic collective psychosis, if not downright fantastical.
It’s not hard to imagine a world — 500 years from now, say — in which adults have lost the ability to daydream. Children, even infants, will grow up immersed in computer-mediated reality and be bombarded every waking moment with ‘optimal’ stimulation. In such a saturated world, a normal human brain may well become incapable of “day-dreaming” — of pulling up anchor from reality and drifting off into aimless daytime fantasies.
I’m not putting this forward as an actual prediction of what’s likely to happen, but merely as a hypothetical “what-if” scenario.
So what would this future society think of the few remaining people who are prone to “day-dreams”? Theirs will be the brains that, by definition, don’t respond in the normal way to environmental conditioning. It will be easy and tempting, then, to classify such people as mentally ill — to diagnose them with Aimless Imagination Disorder, perhaps. And surely there will be drugs to help keep them attending to reality, i.e., to what’s happening on their screens.
Accepting Deviant Minds (Melting Asphalt)
We would treat these daydream believers in much the same way as we treat the people who “still” hear voices in their heads today. For example:
In the 1980s, a Dutch psychiatrist called Marius Romme was treating a 30-year-old voice-hearer called Patsy Hague. She was on tranquilizers, which failed to stop the voices and made it difficult for her to think. She became suicidal.
Then Romme happened to lend her a copy of Jaynes’ book. It made her think perhaps she was not ill so much as ‘living in the wrong century’, and also gave her confidence that her voices were ‘real’, or as real as the invisible God that Romme and others believed in. Hague told Romme: ‘You believe in a God we never see or hear, so why shouldn’t you believe in the voices I really do hear?” Why not listen to what the voices had to say, rather than dismissing them as meaningless pathological symptoms?
Romme set up a meeting between Hague and other voice-hearers, who enthusiastically swapped stories and shared their sense of helplessness, vulnerability and alienation from their society. A sort of peer-led support network emerged, and has continued to blossom since then…
Gods, voice hearing and the bicameral mind (Philosophy for Life)
So who is to say what is ultimately “real” and “not real” when it comes to mental states? Our “sense of self” is just as imaginary a construct as all those ghosts and demons and other assorted imaginary friends, as this writer points out:
The brain…is capable of some pretty weird stuff. It’s not just a blank slate holding symbolic impressions of what’s happening out in the world…
I’ve spent a lot of effort…preparing us not to reject the idea of hallucinated gods out of hand. But now I ask that you keep just one thing in mind as you continue to read about Jaynes — namely, this objective fact about our species:
The human brain is capable of hallucinating voices.
Yes, hallucinated voices are weird — but they really happen. And sometimes we can even be quite cavalier about them. Every night, for example, we spend an hour or so immersed in a rich hallucinated fantasyland — only to dismiss it, when we wake up, as “just a dream.”
Wait a minute. “Just” a dream? If a dream wasn’t perfectly normal, it would be the weirdest thing that ever happened to you.
When we accuse a hallucinated voice, or the spirit that takes over during a possession, of being unreal, on what do we base the accusation? Both voices and spirits are, as we’ve seen, neurologically real — they correspond to a real pattern of neurons capable of exhibiting real intelligence. Both can be treated as agents, i.e., the kind of thing toward which it’s productive to take the intentional stance.
If anything, our objection lies in the fact that voices and spirits don’t have any reality in the world outside our minds. But there’s something else that has all these properties: the self. I, ego, myself, my conscious will. A neurologically real agent with no physical reality outside of the mind.
Hallucinated Gods (Melting Asphalt)
In fact some people even go so far as actively trying to cultivate their inner voice. This is a part of both Eastern esoteric traditions (e.g. Tibetan Buddhism) and Western (e.g. Magick). Many otherwise “sane” people with addictions often describe their addiction as a separate consciousness from their own which “makes” them drink, or do drugs, or whatever, with their “real” selves going along for the ride. These are “drives,” or “sub-personal agents” which our minds possess. Even today we refer to our personal “demons”—a telling expression, I think. Sometimes people even go so far as to give their addictions or inner voices a name. Maybe in the past, they called the voices things like “Utu“ or “Osiris” or “Aten” or “Apollo”:
…there’s no objective sense in which one of your voices could be the “same” as one of my voices. The process of naming/identifying one’s voices is strictly a symbolic, interpretive act — and as such it would have been fraught with social and political implications. There were personal gods, household gods, state and local gods, each a meaningful token of a different kind of loyalty.
No doubt identification was influenced by all sorts of factors in the child’s life: his parents, priests, and peer group; norms about whether it’s OK to ‘invent’ new gods; where he spent his time; where he heard his voices. If a child hallucinated one of his voices with particular strength at the temple of Osiris, while bathing in the imagery, mythology, and personality of Osiris — well, it only makes sense for that voice to ‘be’ Osiris.
Hallucinated Gods (Melting Asphalt)
Nor is this just ancient history. Yesterday I was reading an article in The Guardian about a British lady named Amanda Feilding who is leading a one-woman crusade to legalize psychedelic drugs around the world for use in the treatment of serious mental disorders. Of her childhood, there’s this fascinating tidbit:
Before the light outside goes, Feilding insists that we have a wander around the grounds, where the seeds of her curiosity were sown. Out among the ancient hedges and ponds she points out the mound and tree stump that she believed housed a private god figure; her game, aged five or six, was to find ways to make that god laugh, “that kind of orgasm experience that I think a lot of young children have and then forget”.
Feilding did not forget. She wanted afterwards, she says, to recreate that childlike intensity of experience…As Feilding explains this former life, in digressive fits and starts, fretting a little that she is saying too much, she leads me through the twilit garden, over well-trodden stepping stones, pointing out a pond she dug “based on sacred geometries”, with a half-submerged colonnade as if from a forgotten civilisation…
Incidentally, the idea of spirits inhabiting a particular inanimate object or place is called a tutelary deity in theology, and is quite common across cultures. It appears to be an outgrowth of animism:
A tutelary (also tutelar) is a deity or spirit who is a guardian, patron, or protector of a particular place, geographic feature, person, lineage, nation, culture, or occupation. The etymology of “tutelary” expresses the concept of safety, and thus of guardianship. (Wikipedia)
It’s interesting to contemplate the fact that in ancient literature–religious or not–humans are almost always depicted as communicating directly with the deities! For example, in every ancient legal code I’m aware of, the laws were received directly from the gods by the lawgiver, like dictating to a stenographer. Moses is one case, but hardly the only one. What if this was more than just simply colorful metaphor?
Aeon has a fascinating piece up on the origins of monotheism, which seems to have arisen more-or-less simultaneously in both Egypt and in the Hebrew culture. While many have speculated that one must have influenced the other (such as Freud), there is no record of any direct contact.The change in religion happened rapidly, over just a few decades, rather than by gradual evolution, contends the author. What’s especially interesting is the author’s speculation of how a direct communication with the deity brought about the monotheistic revolution:
My theory is that Akhenaten himself very early in his reign (or even just before) experienced a theophany – a dream or some sort of divine manifestation – in which he believed that Aten spoke to him. This encounter launched his movement which took seven to nine years to fully crystallise as exclusive monotheism.
Great idea, but based on what evidence? Mention has already been made of the two major Aten Temples called Gemet Pa-Aten constructed at Karnak and Akhet-Aten. A third temple by the same name was built in Nubia. Three temples with the same name is unprecedented, and suggests that its meaning, ‘The Aten is Found’, was vitally important to the young king’s religious programme. Could the name of the three sanctuaries memorialise the dramatic theophany that set off the revolution?
Akhenaten also uses the same language of discovery to explain how he found the land where he would establish the new city, Akhet-Aten. The aforementioned boundary inscription records Akhenaten’s words when travelling through the area that would become his new capital:
“Look, Aten! The Aten wishes to have [something] made for him as a monument … (namely) Akhet-Aten … It is Aten, my father, [who advised me] concerning it so it could be made for him as Akhet-Aten.”
Later in the same inscription, the king again repeats the line: ‘It is my father Aten who advised me concerning it.’ These texts point to an initial phenomenological event in which the king discovered the new form of the sun-god and then, through a later revelation, Aten disclosed where his Holy See should be built.
The first God (Aeon)
Interestingly, Islamic monotheism began in a similar fashion century when the Arabic merchant and trader Muhammad heard a voice commanding him to “Recite!” That voice was later attributed to the archangel Gabriel, depicted as the messenger of God (Allah) in Islam.
This is naught but a revelation revealed,
taught him by one mighty in power,
very strong; he stood poised
being on the higher horizon,
then drew near and suspended hung,
two bows’-length away, or nearer,
then revealed to His servant that he revealed.
What struck me in the passage above is how it does seem as though Akhenaten is being compelled to do various things by some sort of commanding entity, just as Jaynes hypothesized. Akhenaten even implies that the the god Aten is his “father” (monotheism is suffused with patriarchal ideas). Of course, Moses is also depicted as speaking with God directly in the Scriptures. Again, we “moderns” interpret this stuff as simply poetic license. But if Jaynes’ suppositions are to be taken seriously, it could have been much more than that!
Put another way, the “self” may not be something intrinsic to the brain’s function, but something that is wired up in the environment (or not), depending on the circumstances. That is, it’s environmentally constructed. After all, the human brain is uniquely plastic, and, unlike most animals, does much of its “hardwiring” in the first twenty or so years of life outside the womb:
If we accept that the brain is teeming with agency, and thus uniquely hospitable to it, then we can model the self as something that emerges naturally in the course of the brain’s interactions with the world.
In other words, the self may be less of a feature of our brains (planned or designed by our genes), and more of a growth. Every normal human brain placed in the right environment — with sufficient autonomy and potential for social interaction — will grow a self-agent. But if the brain or environment is abnormal or wrong (somehow) or simply different, the self may not turn out as expected.
Imagine a girl raised from infancy in the complete absence of socializing/civilizing contact with other people. The resulting adult will almost certainly have a self concept, e.g., will be able to recognize herself in the mirror. But without language, norms, shame, and social punishment, the agent(s) at the top of her brain hierarchy will certainly not serve a social/PR role. She’ll have no ‘face’, no persona. She’ll be an intelligent creature, yes, but not a person.
Neurons Gone Wild (Melting Asphalt)
A real-world example is that of Helen Keller:
Another way to think of this is to imagine what would be in our heads without language. What would be left of you, had you no language with which to express your experience to yourself? I suggest no “you” at all, beyond the immediacy of existence. In this respect, it is instructive to recall Helen Keller’s words in her essay Before the Soul Dawn:
“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.”
And her awakening upon beginning to know language, when she first appreciated the relationship between a finger-movement against her palm and the idea of ‘water’:
“That word startled my soul, and it awoke, full of the spirit of the morning, full of joyous, exultant song. Until that day my mind had been like a darkened chamber, waiting for words to enter and light the lamp, which is thought.”
(As an aside, notice here the striking contrast between the non-world of conscious unconsciousness first described and the bounding, fulsome world of metaphor that springs forth in that final paragraph).
Julian Jaynes and the Analog “I” (Science Philosophy Chat Forums)
In this way, the “self” takes on a structure that depends on (and reflects) the environment it was raised in. Perhaps auditory hallucinations and split personalities are something like vestigial behaviors such as goosebumps, or the palmar grasp reflex, that were part of our brain’s deep evolution. Their manifestation (or lack thereof) depends on the particular environment, genetics, and certain complex personality dispositions.
This presents tantalizing connections with the work of a long-forgotten Soviet psychologist named Lev Vygotsky. He work was eventually suppressed and forgotten in the West until the 1980’s according the Aeon article above. Therefore, Jaynes may not have heard of it. But one wonders whether he could have incorporated Vygotsky’s ideas on the inner voice being a product of the environment into his research:
Lev Vygotsky…said the human mind was shaped by social activity and culture, beginning in childhood. The self, he hypothesised, was forged in what he called the ‘zone of proximal development’, the cognitive territory just beyond reach and impossible to tackle without some help. Children build learning partnerships with adults to master a skill in the zone, said Vygotsky, then go off on their own, speaking aloud to replace the voice of the adult, now gone from the scene. As mastery increases, this ‘self-talk’ becomes internalised and then increasingly muted until it is mostly silent – still part of the ongoing dialogue with oneself, but more intimate and no longer pronounced to the world. This voice – at first uttered aloud but finally only internal – was, from Vygotsky’s perspective, the engine of development and consciousness itself.
The Inner Voice (Aeon)
So is the “integrated self,” with its inner voice simply a bunch of neurons firing in the brain, or is it a product of particular environmental circumstances? And did it emerge as the dominant mental paradigm fairly recently in recorded history, perhaps as recently as the Bronze Age? And, prior to that, was our inner voice considered to be a numinous experience by ancient peoples, one that they related to the only way they could (because of theory of mind)–as another sort of living being (daemons, manes, spirits, angels, jinn, elves, and so forth)?
We’ll be considering that next time. But, before that, we need to consider what we talk about when we talk about consciousness.