The Myth of the Jaynesians

The Jaynesians are a mythical race of human like creatures who lack all capacity for reflection. Never has a Jaynesian stopped to reflect on his or her experience. But they are definitely smart. Their adaptive unconscious makes all the important decisions for them: when to get up, when and what to eat, how to work, whom to sleep with, who to fight, who to fear, and so on. The Jaynesians are verbal, but their talk does not have mental concepts like “mind”, “reflection”, “consciousness”, or “self-knowledge”. They simply exchange information through speaking, but do so with vocalizations that are abstracted from their original sensory presentation. A farmer who needs a new hammer made by the blacksmith emits a series of vocalizations upon seeing the blacksmith and coming within hearing range, and the blacksmith responds to this vocalization with his own vocalization, until both are pleased. Each vocalization allows for the exchange of meaningful information. But when the farmer asked for a hammer, he did not say “I need a hammer for my project”. Instead it was more like “yo! give hammer receive food” or “receive food give hammer” or simply “hammer (points to shop then to himself)…food (points to food, then to the blacksmith)”. All communication was done without mentalistic metaphors. There is no concept for “mind” or “inner consciousness”, no distinction between things “inside” or “outside” the mind. The Jaynesians mainly ordered each other around based on social rankings but also exchanged info about the weather, about food, about sex, about social events, about the gods, about harvest, about life lessons. These exchanges are products of the adaptive unconscious. There is no conscious intent in their speakings, no mental deliberation and rehearsal of what to say, no contemplation on past conversations. The utterances and head nodding involved in day-to-day small talk better illustrates the kind of communication done with the Jaynesians than the type of nervous over-thinking of a typical first-date. It is reactive, not deliberate. The “islands” of speech stand in for different things, but are stored in the unconscious recesses of the mind and strung together into vocalizations without reflective oversight.

If you doubt the plausibility of symbolic communication without reflective oversight, consider the 19th century cases of automatic writing studied by people like William James and various psychical societies. In automatic writing, very intelligent and meaningful writing is produced entirely by the adaptive unconscious, with the conscious self having no clue what their hand is about to write. They have no reflective access to the decision making of the writing; it simply spills out of their hand fluidly, but demonstrates powerful cognitive skills, often of a creative and poetic nature. Many a poet has utilized this unconscious well as their Muse. Words come into their minds and they simply write them down. To imagine the Jaynesian race is to imagine a society of creatures who are always using the unconscious to speak, without any reflective oversight. The words simply come out in appropriate situations, guided by all the knowledge they have gained since birth about when it is appropriate to use what vocalizations.

Without any capacity for reflection, the mental lives of the Jaynesians are best described as “externally oriented” rather than “internally contemplative”. They are doers. Persons of action. Their adaptive unconscious guides them with great care, making decisions for them in such a way as to facilitate the development of civilization. They worship gods and their worship takes the form of ritual, trance states, and hallucination. In the same way that the unconscious brought speech to their mouths, it brings speech to their ears, automatically generating hallucinations of ancestors, gods, demons, and angels talking to them. This is another way for the adaptive unconscious to exercise control over the individual Jaynesians. A voice that is experienced as your dead father is very effective at getting you to do something, especially if you don’t have to ability to rationally reflect and realize that you are hearing a hallucination. You simply hear the voice and believe it is as real as the ground you are standing on. After all, because the voice is a product of the unconscious mind, it demonstrates great wisdom and knowledge, impressing the Jaynesians with its near omniscience, convincing them these gods they hear talking to them are in fact what they say they are: the all powerful rulers of the cosmos who must be obeyed at all costs or ELSE. This is kind of like Achilles obeying Athena:

He was mulling it over, inching the great sword
From its sheath, when out of the blue
Athena came, sent by the white-armed Goddess
Hera, who loved and watched over both men.
She stood behind Achilles and grabbed his sandy hair,
Visible only to him: not another soul saw her.
Awestruck, Achilles turned around, recognizing
Pallas Athena at once – it was her eyes-…
[Athena gives her command]
…Achilles, the great runner, responded:
When you two speak, Goddess, a man has to listen
No matter how angry. It’s better that way.
Obey the gods and they hear you when you pray.”

Achilles represents a more advanced state of consciousness than even the Jaynesians, for the Jaynesians would have never been able to respond to the hallucinations with a dialogue. They would have simply obeyed immediately without hesitation. This was for the best, as strict obedience to the imagined gods held the society together. It was the temples that held the great icons of the gods which were the most powerful inducers of hallucinated command, with the Jaynesian’s own brain tricking them into obeying it by projecting voices into the statues of the gods. We can infer the ancient hallucinatory function of idols from the statues of the god Abu at Tell Asmar:


Notice the size of the eyes. For many mammals, the “eye staredown” is a way to assert dominance. Whoever lowers their eyes first submits to the mammal with the more powerful stare. Staring is thus is a signal for dominance and control, a signal to obey. Now imagine a Jaynesian as fasting for a week to prepare for the religious spiritual quest he is about to embark on. As he ingests a powerful substance he walks into the temple chamber and falls under the glance of the imposing statue of the god. He looks into the statue’s eyes and a hallucination is easily induced since the ritualistic preparation greatly lowered the threshold for the induction of hallucinations. The Jaynesian experiences the god as literally talking to him, giving him orders and commands. Some of the most common commands were probably orders to bring burial goods. As the wikipedia article on ancient Egyptian burial customs says “From the earliest periods of Egyptian history, all Egyptians were buried with at least some burial goods that they thought were necessary after death. At a minimum, these usually consisted of everyday objects such as bowls, combs, and other trinkets, along with food.” Why was this? I think it was because the god’s orders took the neural form of a human projection experienced as a hallucination, which is unconsciously understood to need food and drink and other goods. This makes sense because the first gods were just powerful dead ancestors, eventually ending up with human god-Kings. When the god-King died, the hallucinations were “copies” in the brain of the personality matrix of the King. As a mortal, the King needed food and drink and pleasures, so it is no surprise that the hallucinated form of the King after his death commanded his followers to bring him food and drink and other daily goods, and these were brought in great loads, introducing the concept of the alter and sacrifice to our ancient ancestors.

One of the more curious features of the Jaynesians’ experience is their visual experience. Without the capacity for reflection, the Jaynesians are unable to step back and ask themselves what they just saw, or what they are currently seeing. This experience is almost impossible to imagine for modern conscious humans. It is hard to reflectively imagine what it is like to not be able to ask yourself what you are currently seeing, because right now as you are reading this your brain is asking itself what it is seeing. This reflection of the brain onto its own incoming visual data stream is what generates “sensations”, which are feelings of seeing. Most animals do not need to feel what they see as this is extraneous information, and unnecessary for the adaptive unconscious to make motor decisions. However, conscious humans do ask ourselves what we see. Our brain is constantly doing this. Modern human adult brains perceive their own perception, and are also capable of perceiving their perception of their perception, or possibly perceiving the perception of perceiving their perception. This ability to mentally travel around your own head, consciously perceiving old memories, current data, or future simulations, is essential to the mental toolkit of the modern conscious human. In his recent book The Recursive Mind, Michael Corballis argues that it is the ability of deeply recursive thought and mental time travel that separates humans from nonhuman animals. He argues that the gestural grammars of referring to noncurrent times and places necessitated the development of recursive thinking, and this in turn allowed for the development of mental time travel (inserting past or future experience into present experience, or injecting near-present experience into present experience, generating feelings of sensation). I think Corballis makes a compelling case.

So the Jayensians are a race of creatures without such recursive embedding of perceptions into perceptions. Their visual consciousness is radically difficult from ours, and is almost impossible to imagine. I think this inability to consciously imagine what it’s like to not be able to have such recursive qualia is what leads many philosophers of mind astray. They experience their own experience and think that the qualia associated with experiencing experience are essential to all experiences, when really it is of course essential only to the experience of experience, and not just experience itself. Because they are unfamiliar with the unique phenomenological characteristics of experiencing experience, many philosophers are left to wonder about how “special”, “ineffable”, or “immaterial” their experiences are. They delight at the pure perception of a red patch, or of the juice of a strawberry, or the painfulness of pain. They mistakenly think that painfulness of pain is intrinsic to all pain experiences when in fact it is intrinsic only to experiences of pain, which is higher-order.

There are a lot of important philosophical lessons that can be had from contemplating the possibility of the Jaynesian race. I have self-consciously styled this post after the thought experiment of Wilfred Sellars about the mythical race of the Ryleans. I think the two cases are similar, but mine is actually historically plausible and fits in with what we know of ancient neolithic experience (c.f. Inside the Neolithic Mind ). The case of the Jaynesians also illustrates the differences between myself and higher-order theorists like David Rosenthal. Rosenthal, from what I understand, wants to deny that it is reflection which generates the specialness of qualia. He claims it is a higher-order thought, which can be prereflective. So Rosenthal thinks we don’t need to be deliberately introspecting to have conscious qualia. Whereas I agree that we don’t need to deliberate in order to have visual qualia based on experience of experience (i.e. higher-order thought), I do think that, evolutionarily speaking, it is the development for the capacity of reflection that eventually leads to the automatic and prereflective higher-order thoughts which generate conscious “what it is like ness”. So we agree that you don’t need to reflectively deliberate to presently have conscious qualia, but we disagree because I think it is the phylogenetic and ontogenetic development of reflection which enables the prereflective higher-order thoughts to get started in the first place. I’m still not sure how major of a disagreement this actually is between us. I think we could actually be quite theoretically close, but only differ in terms of evolutionary implementation details.



Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

3 responses to “The Myth of the Jaynesians

  1. Gary,

    Have you studied the Nagel paper that Matthen describes at .

    Anyhow, I’d be really interested in your reaction to Matthen’s post if you have time to respond over there.



  2. Pingback: Weird Phenomena

  3. Pingback: Blog of Noah Greenstein » Philosophy Carnival #2

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