I was planning to comment on the writeup that Slate Star Codex did on The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes, which I was surprised had not been covered before. I suppose I’ll do it sooner rather than later, since Slate Star Codex has since been taken down. I guess that means I’ll be commenting on both topics.
As most of you are probably aware by now, the New York Times was planning on running an article about the blog that would have revealed the author’s real full name. The author, who blogs under the pen name Scott Alexander, claimed that the Times was going to “doxx” him, and that he needed to remain anonymous for professional reasons. As he describes it, removing the blog was the only way to stop the story from going out.
Now, I think the reasons he wished to remain anonymous were 100% legitimate: as a professional, there are certain ethical standards that you have to uphold, and if you have patients, having them able to read your opinions probably would color the doctor/patient relationship, which is particularly important with something like psychiatric counseling. And he also thought that being named in the New York Times would make him easier to locate, and that this would endanger the housemates he lives with, because he has received a number death threats in the past which he apparently believes are credible (as an aside: can anyone express an opinion today without receiving death threats? What does that say about our society?)
I don’t know about using the term “doxxing” though; that seems intentionally hyperbolic. From my understanding, “doxxing” implies malicious intent. It’s deliberately publishing details about a person’s offline identity in order to threaten, harass, intimidate, or bully that person. The Times was doing no such thing—for better or worse, their policy was to use people’s real names unless there was a compelling reason to maintain a person’s anonymity (such as informants, whistleblowers, etc). You can certainly argue whether or not that’s a good policy (and I’m sure a lot of people think that it isn’t), but I’m sure the Times had their reasons, and there was no deliberate intent to harm Alexander or anyone else as far as I can tell form the story. For what it’s worth, I suspect this will eventually prompt the Times to change their policy, and the blog will be up again at some point in the future, so if you’re a fan of it, I wouldn’t worry.
Now, I’m hardly unbiased in this case. I too blog under a pseudonym, but for different reasons. I don’t have professional reasons to not use my real name, as I don’t have patients or clients. I do often have knowledge of confidential projects in my area, but I stringently make sure never to discuss my job or any of my professional work on this blog. And I’ve never received death threats, but even if I did, well, I live alone so if someone did decide to take me out, all that would happen is that I’d end up as dead on the outside as I am on the inside. It might even be doing me a favor.
Rather, I do it because I need to earn money to survive, and I don’t want potential employers to Google my name and find this blog or any of my opinions, even though I think they’re hardly radical or extreme. It’s sad that I have to worry about this, but that’s the world we live in. It also calls into question just how much “freedom’ we really have in modern capitalist societies, but that’s a larger topic for another time. I’m scared shitless what would come up if I actually did google my real name, so I’ve never done it. When Jim put up my recent interview on The Attack Ads! Podcast, he initially published my real name, but he was kind enough to remove it and replace it with my pen name (kinder, it seems, than the New York Times!)
I have been doxxed in real life, however, and it was not a pleasant experience. I might as well go ahead and tell the story.
The last job I had before the one I have now was for a local architecture firm, which allowed me to practice again. I put the name of my employer on my Facebook profile (I know, I know, but we’ve all done stupid things in life that make us go ‘what were you thinking?’ in retrospect).
I had an acrimonious exchange on Facebook with some random asshole, but what I didn’t know was that this random asshole happened to know one of my co-workers at this firm (who was also an asshole). Thus, armed for revenge, he sent the exchange to this scumbag, who subsequently printed it out and literally took it from desk to desk around the entire firm, and directly to the firm’s managers/owners befoe I even knew what was happening. Clearly this person was an absolute sociopath, who—like so many Americans—enjoys destroying people for sport and twisting the knife simply because he can. I was sternly reprimanded by the firm’s leaders, and I’m sure it was a major factor in my eventual dismissal, effectively ending my professional career. Oh, and this incident exactly coincided with my mother’s final months dying of cancer.
So doxxing isn’t a good thing.
And it’s not like this was an isolated incident, either. I’ve had many, many experiences like this over my professional career and in my life experience—enough that’s it’s routine by now. Perhaps I just attract bullies. Incidents like this have convinced me that people are inherently cruel and evil, and will absolutely hurt you the minute they get the chance. It has led to my developing misanthropy and paranoia. I still have many PTSD symptoms including nightmares about that job.
Of course, I immediately deleted my Facebook profile. I do currently have one under a false name, but only because I still needed to sell some of my mother’s hoarded stuff online. I don’t post anything there or have any personal info, of course. In order to have access to the Marketplace, you need to have what Facebook considers to be a valid profile (presumably to deter scammers), so I signed up for a couple of groups to make the algorithm think I’m a real person and let me have access. One was about Cardinals. The other was a Julian Jaynes discussion group.
Which finally brings us around full circle to the real subject matter at hand. I’m writing this now because I have to go from memory, as the original post is obviously no longer online.
Alexander begins by “rewriting” the book along similar lines, keeping the parts of the premise he thinks are valuable, and omitting the parts that he thinks are incorrect or speculative. This allows him to summarize the book that he thinks Jaynes “should have written.”
I actually enjoyed this approach. Unlike most Julian Jaynes fans, I’m not a Jaynes absolutist. I’ve noticed that most Jaynes enthusiasts accept 100% of his thesis and tend to treat the book as holy writ. I like to pick and choose what I think is correct.
Alexander claims that what Jaynes was actually describing was the beginning of Theory of Mind, rather than consciousness in the Jaynesian sense.
Now, I do think that Jaynes’s choice of the term consciousness is problematic. Jaynes’s supporters will always point out that he goes to great lengths to define what he means by consciousness, and they’re right—he does! But the thing is, if you have to go to such lengths to define what you mean by a term, then the term is poorly chosen. For the average person, consciousness is just the state of being awake, and when they hear that Jaynes is claiming that ancient people lacked consciousnesses, even though he explains what he means by that (their awareness was different than ours), most people will still reject the thesis outright. In other words, merely by choosing this term, you start out in a hole, and you have to spend a lot of time digging out of it before you can even do the heavy lifting. And when you’ve got a thesis as “out there” as Jaynes does, that’s even more of a problem.
I wrote about Theory of Mind in my series of posts about the Origin of Religion. From my understanding, Theory of Mind is the ability to understand that others have thoughts, feelings and ideas different than your own. From this perspective, then, Jaynes would be arguing that an ancient Greek person would be unable to perceive that his fellow Greeks had different thoughts or possessed different knowledge than he did. Put another way, an ancient Greek person at the time of Homer would fail the Sally-Anne test.
But as far as I can tell, that’s not what Jaynes was saying at all! I find it hard to believe that the author got this concept wrong, considering he’s allegedly a psychiatrist. Maybe there’s some confusion of terminology here. Voice hearing has nothing to do with this ability. As far as I know, voice hearers and schizophrenics are still aware that other people have minds of their own.
Instead, the term I would use for what Jaynes is describing is meta-consciousness, or meta-awareness. This would mean that the book’s title would be The Origin of Meta-consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which I think is clearer. That concept is is different than Theory of Mind. I would define meta consciousness as being conscious of one’s own mental states. In this paradigm, consciousness is a thing that can be thought about and contemplated separately from one’s direct experience; whereas before thoughts are just thoughts–there is no conceptual entity that these thoughts are assigned to that allows you to stand back from one’s own thoughts and reflect on them. It would be like trying to see your own eyeball without a reflection.
When people did have thoughts expressed as language inside their own heads (as opposed to verbalizations), they assigned these thoughts to a conceptual entity that has come down to us as “gods.” With the slipperiness of language, it’s possible that word “god” simply referred to this inner voice, rather than a “real” person as often depicted. To aid this conception, this inner voice was assigned a persona–the persona of the god. Statues were made of these imaginary entities who were the source of such voices. They became cultural touchstones. Both temples and statues were expressly designed to “call forth” this inner voice and hear the god’s command (i.e. induce hallucinations).
What they did NOT have was a conception of “inner self” or “soul” that these inner vocalizations could be assigned to. At least, not yet. Over time, they developed this conceptual framework though the expansion of metaphor, and this entity became the source of these nonverbalized thoughts rather than a “god.” They heard this voice, then, not as a hallucination commanding them to do things (or, rather, what we would term a hallucination), but more of a voice that was under their conscious control as surely as the ones that gave rise to verbal communication between their fellow men. “Consciousness is (a mental process creating) an introspectable mind-space.” That “introspectable mind space” is different than theory of mind, which has to do with how we perceive others.
Previously, I suggested that this was somehow related to the mind’s ability to grasp recursion, based on Douglas Hofstadter’s ideas about the recursive nature of consciousness. Once the mind could grasp the principle of recursion, it could develop meta-awareness, which is turning thoughts back on oneself as if in hall of mirrors. This allowed for the development of a new kind of counsciousness which allowed people to perceive the voices in one’s head as as originating from the ‘self’ rather than a ‘god.’ I noted that the few populations who do not seem to have recursive structures in their language do indeed seem to have very fluid and undefined senses of self by our standards, and are prone to what from our vantage point would be hallucinations. This is speculation, however.
Alexander claims that Jaynes pins the breakdown on bicameral consciousnesses on increased trading during the Bronze Age, and the requirement to deal with other people in order to trade. To negotiate deals, you need to be able to put yourself in the mind of another person. Since he is operating on the assumption that Jaynes was talking about theory of mind, this makes sense. But Jaynes wasn’t really talking about this at all.
Although Jaynes does mention the increased trading during the Bronze Age, it is more the need for novel behaviors in general that he pinpoints, rather than just the need to trade per se. Jaynes argues that bicameralism was useful in world where routine behaviors were the norm, and that people would hear the voices of their leaders in their heads commanding them what to do. In contrast, when such top-down command structures did not work—such as dealing with outsiders—it called forth new types of behavior, and this is what caused the breakdown of bicameral consciousness, not simply trade.
What’s also odd is that an even bigger culprit in Jaynes’s view is the advent of the written word, which Alexander omits completely. Oral cultures would favor bicameralism, because orders are passed down vocally from the leaders, who then become gods in their heads commanding them. But with the written word, one takes command of one’s own inner voice. You use your brain in a completely different manner in the act of reading than you do in a world where 100% of interpersonal communication is via speech. This seems like a much more likely explanation of the shift in brain function than just trade alone. Why not mention it? He also omits many of Jaynes’s ideas about the value of metaphor in language. Language is what allows us to construct the metaphorical self and the “Analog I.”
Alexander briefly mentions that Jaynes’s conception of the split brain was based on Micheal Gazzinaga’s research (and through him Roger Sperry), and that a lot of this research has been debunked or superseded. He offers no sources to back up this claim, however. I was surprised by this, because one would have thought that if anyone, a psychiatrist–who is a doctor that specializes in the brain after all–would have more qualifications here than anywhere else. From my readings, it appears that a good portion of Jaynes’s claims about how the mind processes language across the hemispheres has comported with newer research, even if the entire concept of bicameralism has not been.
There is also no mention of the reassessment of Jaynes thesis by an cross-disciplinary team in 2007 that expressed qualified support for it: The bicameral mind 30 years on: a critical reappraisal of Julian Jaynes’ hypothesis. From what I recall from Charles Feryhough’s The Voices Within, there has been some empirical support for Jaynes’s model of how the brain hears voices in recent research.
Neuroscience Confirms Julian Jaynes’s Neurological Model (The Julian Jaynes Society)
Split-Brain Researchers Are Split (Psychology Today)
There is also no mention of Jaynes’s ideas on hypnotism, which is strange. Most people associate Jaynes’s ideas with schizophrenia, which is the hearing of voices, after all. But Jaynes also claimed that his ideas explained hypnotism—hypnotism was a throwback to bicameral consciousness where verbal commands would trigger a trance mode. Both schizophrenia and hypnotism are “throwbacks” to bicameral consciousness, he argued. He even claims that there is no other valid explanation for this hypnotic state in the psychological literature; rather, it’s just handwaved away. As he writes:
…hypnosis is the black sheep of the family of problems which constitute psychology. It wanders in and out of laboratories and carnivals and clinics and village halls like an unwanted anomaly. It never seems to straighten up and resolve itself into the firmer properties of scientific theory. Indeed, its very possibility seems like a denial of our immediate ideas about conscious self-control on the one hand, and our scientific idea about personality on the other. Yet it should be conspicuous that any theory of consciousness and its origin, if it is to be responsible, must face the difficulty of this deviant type of behavioral control.
I think my answer to the opening question in obvious: hypnosis can cause this extra enabling because it engages the general bicameral paradigm which allows a more absolute control over behavior than is possible with consciousness. (original emphasis)
Whether he’s right or not, conventional psychology really does offer no good explanation for hypnotism, reinforcing his point. Hypnotherapy is a legitimate method of therapy nowadays, yet we have no real idea how or why it works!
Finally, Alexander does raise an objection I’ve always had, namely that if Jaynes’s thesis is correct, then anthropologists should have discovered a true bicameral culture somewhere in the world by now, especially in very remote cultures that have been cut off from the wider world. He notes that there are a lot of strange things going on with consciousness detailed in the anthropological literature, but nothing that rises to Jaynes’s description. He also notes that anthropological descriptions that comport somewhat with Jaynes’s description may have been published in various later books.
I believe he’s referring to Gods, Voices, and the Bicameral Mind: The Theories of Julian Jaynes, which is published by the Julian Jaynes society. I’ve been wanting to get a hold of that book, but have been reluctant due to recent events. But I’ve heard Jaynes’s partisans claim that bicameral consciousness has in fact been documented in the anthropological literature, and that the book contains some papers documenting this. So maybe I’m off base here.
Yes, it does seem that something exceptional is going on with the consciousness of pre-contact peoples, but nonetheless, it’s still a bit different than the scenario Jaynes describes in the book. People will mention the Pirahã for example. And while it’s true that there are any number of anomalous events recorded in descriptions of them, they are still different than the bicameral civilization as Jaynes outlines it.
This is often explained by claiming that bicameral consciousness was not a trait of small tribal peoples, but only began with the shift to larger societies during the Mesolithic period. They will point to the construction of large structures like the recently discovered prehistoric circle of shafts near Stonehenge as a sign of the onset of bicameralism. In chapter 1 of book two, he writes:
With but few exceptions, the plan of human group habitation from the end of the Mesolithic up to the relatively recent eras is of a god-house surrounded by man-houses.
Adding on to the idea of god houses, he also pinpoints this as the reason for the elaborate burials of deceased god-kings with grave goods:
The burial of the important dead as if they still lived is common to almost all these ancient cultures whose architecture we have just looked at. This practice has no clear explanation except that their voices were still being heard by the living, and were perhaps demanding such accommodation…these dead kings, propped up on stones, whose voices were hallucinated by the living, were the first gods. (p. 379)
Just about all ancient cultures, from the Near East, to Mesoamerica, to China, look after the departed with goods, food and offerings, and Jaynes claims this is because bicameral man still hallucinated the voices of the dead god-kings in their heads. These elaborate burials and town layouts do not occur with scattered bands of hunter-gatherers such as the Pirahã, or Australian aborigines, or any of the isolated cultures were are likely to find, goes the argument. In Jaynes conception, “early cultures develop into bicameral kingdoms.” And so it’s no surprise that we wouldn’t find any such civilization that we can document anthropolgically, say Jaynes’s defenders.
But I still insist we would have found something similar to this by now. There’s a lot of anthropological literature across a wide range of cultures across the entire world. In this conception, bicameralism is a transient phenomenon which arrives with the onset of larger cultures, and then disappears when those cultures come into contract with outsiders, or become literate. This would mean that bicameralism is a phenomena lasting only a few thousand years at most. I don’t know if I’m willing to accept that.
Overall, aside from my quibbles above, I think the review did a good job of describing Jaynes’s ideas and taking them seriously on their own terms. I particularly liked how the author wrote how the standard depiction of the numerous depictions of gods and men speaking directly to each other as simply metaphorical is basically “kind of cheating”–in a way it is. If we take these phenomena seriously just as they were described, and didn’t use the cheats and dodges of “it’s all just metaphorical” then we come to very different conclusions.
For what it’s worth, I have an alternative concept of Jaynes that I’ve been meaning to write up for a while now. This obviously isn’t the time or the place. But my argument is essentially that, to borrow from Ran Prieur, “ancient people weren’t schizophrenic, they were tripping.” I think Ran’s basically correct. They weren’t literally tripping, of course–its just that their brains were working in way more similar to a modern person on psychedelics than a modern person’s everyday consciousness. Of course, tripping people often hear voices and “see” entities as a matter of course. Any state of consciousness that the brain can achieve with a drug it can achieve without that drug.
The descriptor of this comes from Robin Carhart-Harris’s work on psychedelics in the treatment of psychological disorders. He uses the term “entropy” to describe the differences in how the brain works on a psychedelic versus “normal” consciousness. Entropic brains have a much less defined sense of self, and process the world around them in a fundamentally different way than less entropic ones. I think the way ancient people processed the world was something closer to the entropic brain on a psychedelic, or to the way children perceive things (incidentally, meditation has been shown to increase brain entropy). Why this was the case I’m not sure, but it may have to do with the fact that our own brains probably produce DMT, and that the level may have dropped over time. This could be because instrumental rationality became more adaptive to environments where our major challenge was dealing with other people rather than with nature directly as societies grew larger and more complex. This changed our style of thinking from “primary consciousness” to “secondary consciousness”:
This article proposes that states such as the psychedelic state, REM sleep, the onset-phase of psychosis and the dreamy-state of temporal lobe epilepsy are examples of a regressive style of cognition that is qualitatively different to the normal waking consciousness of healthy adult humans. We will refer to this mode of cognition as “primary consciousness” and the states themselves as “primary states.” To enter a primary state from normal waking consciousness, it is proposed that the brain must undergo a “phase transition”, just as there must have been a phase-transition in the evolution of human consciousness with the relatively rapid development of the ego and its capacity for metacognition. This implies that the relationship between normal waking consciousness and “primary consciousness” is not perfectly continuous.
The entropic brain: a theory of conscious states informed by neuroimaging research with psychedelic drugs (Frontiers in Neuroscience)