Tag Archives: bicameral mind

Classes I'm taking at Wash U this Fall, and also some thoughts on why humans are so damned religious

School starts on Tuesday and my levels of anticipation for this semester are highly elevated. I’m on fellowship for the first year, so I don’t have any TA responsibilities, but I do have to take four classes a semester. This Fall I am taking:

  • Required proseminar for first-years with Gillian Russell
  • We are going to be reading Scott Soames’ two-volume Philosophical Analysis in the Twentieth Century. Based on my brief reading, the text seems like very highly quality philosophy. I’m a little intimidated by the Mathematical logic stuff though.
  • Advanced Metaphysics with Roy Sorensen
    • Course description: “Through readings from both classical and contemporary sources, a single traditional metaphysical concern will be made the subject of careful and detailed analytic attention. Possible topics include such concepts as substance, category, cause, identity, reality, and possibility, and such positions as metaphysical realism, idealism, materialism, relativism, and irrealism.”
  • Agency, Metacognition, and Control: a PNP seminar with Larry Jacoby and Carl Craver
    • Course description: “This seminar will be organized around philosophical and psychological readings pertaining to agency, intentional action, and metacognition. The philosophical readings will be concerned with the nature of human agency, self-knowledge, and the capacity to form second-order desires. The psychological readings will be drawn from research concerned with the distinction between automatic and controlled behavior, illusions of conscious will, attribution, and metacognition (or higher order thought). The goal of the seminar is to promote interdisciplinary communication.”
  • Varieties of dissociation: a PNP seminar with Liz Schechter
    • Course description: “In this course we will examine some varieties of dissociation, as they occur in syndromes and disorders like dissociative identity disorder, schizophrenia, the split-brain phenomenon, anarchic and alien hand syndromes, and blindsight, to see what such phenomena can tell us about the architecture of mind and its unity (or disunity). We will also look at issues surrounding dissociations in cognitive neuropsychology: the role of double dissociations in particular, and whether evidence of different lesion sites is necessary to infer them, and, more generally, what findings of specific impairments following brain injury can tell us about the unimpaired brain.”

    So yeah, this semester is going to be awesome. I look forward to working on full-length research papers again. I haven’t really done any major philosophical thinking since completing my Master’s thesis, so it will be nice to produce some real papers for conferences and possibly more publications. I will need to start thinking about my first qualifying paper next summer. I still enjoy writing blog posts more than writing papers though. I hate citing stuff because I am lazy and just like writing from memory. I also like the length constraints of a blog post. I usually try to stick to around 1,000-1,500 words for my blog posts since I think that’s enough room to make one simple point without losing people’s attention. Also, being able to write 1,000 words in one sitting is a good skill to have, since that turns a 3,000 word research paper into three good sit-downs plus time for major editing. When I break a research paper into 1,000 word segments, it helps me to not feel anxious when I first open a blank document. This is why I highly recommend blogging for all academics. It’s cliche, but the more you write, the easier writing becomes. Stringing sentences together by tapping on a keyboard is a skill like any other and improves with practice, at least with respect to the ease of writing, not necessarily the intellectual content, though that too should, ideally, be steadily rising in quality over time as you grow as a scholar.

    The one downside to starting classes is that I will no longer be able to fully control what I read, an immense pleasure for me. Though I will be reading some cool stuff undoubtedly, I imagine I will be finishing books at a slower pace now that I have required reading. I have a contest with myself for reading books each year. This year I’m already at 58. I hope to get to at least 75 by the New Year, which will be a personal best I believe. This year I’ve read some awesome books, both fiction and nonfiction. For fiction, the highlight was definitely DFW’s Infinite Jest. For nonfiction, it’s hard to say; nothing really stands out in the way Infinite Jest does. But I have read some really interesting psychology so far this year. Nothing mindblowing or paradigm shifting in the sense that Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness was back in the summer of 2009.

    I remember distinctly when I became a Jaynesian. I was on a cruise with Katie, and had brought along Origin of Consciousness, and was reading it on the pool-deck and white-sand beaches. I was highly skeptical going into the book, since I had read over and over that Jaynes was considered a crackpot and outside the mainstream of academic opinion. By the time I was half-way through, I was a total convert. Almost at once I saw the stunning theoretical elegance of his theory of how religion got started, and my mind started reeling. It united in my head so many disparate strands of research, both philosophical and scientific. It is easily the most important intellectual synthesis since Darwin. Darwin showed us where our bodies came from, but Jaynes showed us where the human mind came from, religious quirks and all. Why does our species hallucinate a spiritual realm filled with authoritative entities? Why do we bury the dead in the way we do, and why do we sacrifice to the gods? Why did humans once have a more direct line to the spiritual world, but eventually lose contact except through singular hyperreligious individuals? Why do normal people pray to gods indirectly but hyperreligious people hear the gods directly talking to them as if they were beaming thoughts directly into their brain? Why did almost all ancient humans treat the newly dead as if they were still in need of items only useful to the living? Why did idolatry become so rampant after humans lost direct contact with gods? Why did oracles and prophets arise in the wake of our losing contact with the will of the gods?

    Jaynes’ theory powerfully accounts for all of these phenomena and more. Other theories of religion are far too simplistic in their proposed mechanisms e.g. an “over-active agency detector”. Jaynes’ theory is so much more concrete in its explanation of why humans have such a thick religious history. An agency detector? That only explains seeing faces in the clouds or getting spooked by the wind whipping up a tree. But it does not explain the hallucinations. Religious scholars are reluctant to call experiences of gods what they really are, and instead refer to the fact that religious people suffer a delusion of belief. But where did this delusion come from? Who was the first person to have such a delusion? For Jaynesian theory, the root of all religious delusion is in the hallucination of voices speaking to you. We know this is a vestigial feature of something that was once beneficial because classic schizophrenia has a strong genetic component, and yet is highly damaging to reproductive fitness and hasn’t been bred out of the population. So either hallucinations were an adaptive trait or a side-effect of something else that was adaptive. Jaynes thought that it was a side-effect of humans gaining verbal communication.

    But once in place, the side-effect turned out to have great adaptive benefit, since scholars are now forming a consensus that religiosity was in place long before the rise of civilization and was its impetus, so we must conclude that highly religious communities of hominids were more successful than nonreligious communities. The success comes partly because of the fact that the religious humans were verbal humans, and language use vastly increases intelligence, for it aids in the categorization and thus understanding of reality. With better understanding comes better control and flexibility, and better control becomes the ability to adapt to novel environments. But the “side-effect” of religion tapped into the powerful cognitive algorithms of the temporal cortex. The “bicameral” mind is kind of like the unconscious ancestor of the modern savants. Amazing calendrical skills, literally god-like synthesis of novel information, far-flung future predictions of seasons and other rhythmical patterns. The bicameral mind, in other words, gave birth to civilization. This is why ancient neolithic communities were all centrally organized around the temples, the houses of god. It’s why the god-kings and gods held absolute sway over the people’s minds. The god-inspired despot truly dominated. This was because humans had not yet developed the self-consciousness necessary to have a rational dialogue with the gods that controlled society through hierarchically structured hallucinations. But with self-consciousness came philosophy, and with philosophy came reflection, and with reflection humans realized that the gods were projections of human cognitive machinery, a literal remnant of our ancient and primitive past.

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    Authority as decision-making and control

    You are a social animal and you find some food as you are foraging. As you are about to put the well-deserved food in your mouth, a powerful conspecific comes up to you and lets it be known that the food you found is actually HIS food, not yours, and if you don’t hand it over, then you are in for a pummeling. What do you do? This situation can be called a critical junction for your brain’s decision making. Do you face the bully or submit? Your brain is now in the process of making an important decision. How can we understand in the abstract how your brain comes to its decision? I propose that we can understand the concept of clutch decision making in terms of authority. In the case of the bully, a decision must be authorized by the brain on what to do. Suppose that the conspecific is of a much higher social rank. It is likely that the lower animal’s brain will authorize the decision to submit. On what information is your brain making this authorization? On the information streaming from both current perception of size and power and past memory that this conspecific is powerful and that you are unable to physically best him based on previous experience. The best decision to make is to submit and hand over the food. The decision is authorized on the basis of survival instincts, but the essential information that regulated the authorization comes from the social environment, namely, the presence of the conspecific in your sensory field.

    I propose that authority in social hierarchies can be understood in terms of the authorizations for control of individual brain systems. The dominant male acted as a “control” or “regulator” for the lower animal’s behavior. If not in the dominant’s presence, eating behavior is authorized; if in the dominant’s presence, then submission behavior is authorized. Now take something a little more complex: human society. Imagine you are a early Neolithic human and you and your family have just harvested some food for the season. Now you have a decision to make about what to do with the food. How is the final decision of distribution authorized? Neolithic humans were incredibly religious. They thought it was necessary to offer some of their food to the gods in order to appease them and thank them for the bounty. On the basis of this social information, your brain authorizes a distribution of goods to the alter of the gods, despite the fact that evolutionary fitness is likely sacrificed in the wanton waste of food, goods, and even human lives in the case of human sacrifice (think Abraham and Isaac). When I said that these Neolithics “thought” that they should offer food to the gods, what form does this thinking take? Following Jaynes, I propose that the thought was not of the modern, conscious inner monologue kind that is familiar to most human adults today, but rather, took the form of bicameral control, which is a process carried out by the adaptive unconscious.

    Strictly speaking, bicamerality is defined as a neural internalization of admonitory social control through a nonconscious process of auditory verbal hallucination similar to schizophrenic command hallucinations. For bicameral minds, this substitutes for conscious access, for reasoned will. Indeed, in a bicameral mentality, “… volition came as a voice that was in the nature of a neurological command, in which the command and the action were not separated, in which to hear was to obey ” (Jaynes 1976, p. 99). Bicameral control is a special form of brain authorization available only to the human species. It is a side-effect of our having evolved verbal language for social commanding/requesting. I suppose other vocal animals with sufficiently complicated cortical “echo chambers” could hallucinate as well, but I doubt that the hallucinations take the complex social form of gods, demons, ancestors, etc. that is prevalent in human societies. In the case of Neolithic food distribution, the “thought” to offer food to the gods took the form of a auditory hallucination of a god or ancestor’s voice commanding you to perform the sacrifice, giving you the guidance on how to perform the act, and threats and other reasons as to why you should do the act. Since the bicameral control assembly is processed by the verbally-modified adaptive unconscious housed in the frontal-temporal “association” areas, the intellectual power of a human guided by bicameral control is incredibly impressive. Ever wonder how primitive Neolithic humans were able to execute complex construction plans for building monoliths, calculate astronomical and mathematical results with extraordinary precision, etc.? I propose that it was the “god function” of the bicameral control assembly which was able to aid Neolithics in the construction of complex civilization. It is interesting to me that the savant Daniel Tammet had temporal lobe epilepsy when he was little. Could savant syndrome be tapping into vestigial bicameral functions? It is curious that some of the most common savant abilities are stuff that ancient Neolithics would have found incredibly useful such as amazing calendrical calculation (useful for guiding the planting and harvesting of crops according to accumulated social wisdom about seasons and dates).

    The hallucination of gods literally created the social order which made it possible to erect huge hierarchically structured civilizations with specialized social classes like the priesthood and royalty, which acted as the “right hand” and “voice” of the gods (think of prophets and oracles). The process of hallucination authorization took the form of a hierarchical ladder, with every person hallucinating a Voice that was more powerful than them. The lower class hallucinated the voices of lesser gods and the dominant conspecifics. The kings hallucinated the Voice of the most powerful god, and acted as the direct messenger of the most powerful god, giving him incredible power in the society. Because the “content” for the hallucinations was socially shared in nature, the bicameral control assemblies in the lower classes “respected” the authority of the gods hallucinated in the higher social classes, with the King hallucinating the most powerful god. The societies which developed from polytheistic bicameral control to monotheistic control were able to create great social cohesion in their hierarchical authorization mechanisms. The social cohesion of bicameral control operating on shared social information enabled the explosion of civilization about 10-15 thousand years ago. In contrast to prevailing theories which claim that religion arose after the expansion of civilization, Jaynesian theory predicts that religion gave rise to civilization. Recent archaeological findings provide support for this theory. Describing the work of Klaus Schmidt on the major archaeological site Göbekli Tepe, a National Geographic journalist says “Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt’s way of thinking, suggests…The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization.” This is an essentially Jaynesian hypothesis: bicamerality allowed for the rapid expansion of human society into great civilizations through the shared social authorization of behavior by hallucinated voices acting as representatives of a linguistically charged adaptive unconscious.

    It was this unconscious power that allowed for the incredible intellectual feats of primitive Neolithic humans. The intellectual power also gave rise to the continuing human conviction that gods actually do exist. If your conscious self could directly tap into the computational power of the adaptive unconscious through the bicameral control interface, then you would be so overwhelmed by its intellectual superiority that you would likely immediately authorize the gods to control your behavior, believing that you are in fact receiving divine wisdom from a powerful entity. Indeed, we see the theme of emphasizing obedience in the most successful of all religions: “But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:23-24)…”Ye shall walk after the LORD your God, and fear him, and keep his commandments, and obey his voice, and ye shall serve him, and cleave unto him” (Deuteronomy 13:4) But while there are still vestigial remnants of bicameral authorization in today’s religions (though most people who claim to hear God speaking to them are now sent to a psychiatric doctor), today’s religion is much different. We have lost touch with bicameral control. Most Christians receive God’s guidance indirectly through prayer and scripture study, not hallucination. Although the adaptive unconscous is very much still at large, it does not interface with the conscious mind through the same mechanisms. Today, the narratological conscious self has developed a sense of autonomy from the unconscious mind. Following Iain McGilchrist in his recent book The Master and His Emissary, there is a great deal of evidence to suppose that the conscious, linguistic, propositionally rational left hemisphere has been growing increasingly isolated from the right hemisphere. The corpus callosum mainly acts as a mechanism of inhibition i.e. when a left area is active, the homologous area in the right hemisphere is inactivated and vice versa. The “team of rivals” control strategy allows for greater specialization in behavior which is typical in humans. Language itself is the classic example of lateral specialization. Although both hemisphere are “active” 24-7, the delicate balance of functional specializations plays off the inhibitions in order to give rise to complex behavior. This is especially important in the process of self-control, a critical brain skill for succeeding in the modern world. Ultimately, the left and right hemispheres aren’t “opposed” to each other, but rather, work in harmony through neural competition. This can be likened to the “society of the mind”, “multiple drafts”, and “neural darwinism”. The various modules in the brain compete in order to “authorize” certain behaviors. In the case of our original food gathering social animal, the various circuits in the brain activate in parallel upon perceiving the dominant conspecific. The “loudest” circuit gets to authorize which behavior sequence to initiate or uninhibit: submission.

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    The Origin of God's House

    Let us imagine ourselves coming as strangers to an unknown land and finding its settlements all organized on a similar plan: ordinary houses and building grouped around one larger and more magnificent dwelling. We would immediately assume that the large magnificent dwelling was the house of the prince who ruled there. And we might be right. But in the case of older civilizations, we would not be right if we supposed such a ruler was a personal like a contemporary prince. Rather he was an hallucinated presence, or, in the more general case, a statue, often at the end of his superior house, with a table in front of him where the ordinary could place their offerings to him.

    Now, whenever we encounter a town or city plan such as this, with a central larger building that is not a dwelling and has no other practical use as a granary or barn, for example, and particularly if the building contains some kind of human effigy, we may take it as evidence of a bicameral culture or a culture derived from one. This criterion may seem fatuous, simply because it is the plan of many towns today. We are so used to the own plan of a church surrounded by lesser houses and shops that we see nothing unusual. But our contemporary religious and city architecture is partly, I think, the residue of our bicameral past. The church or temple or mosque is still called the House of God. In it, we still speak to the god, still bring offerings to be placed on a table or altar before the god or his emblem. My purpose in speaking in this objective fashion is to defamiliarize this whole pattern, so that standing back and seeing civilized man against his entire primate evolution, we can see that such a pattern of town structure is unusual and not to be expected from our Neanderthal origins.

    ~Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, p. 150-151

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    The Authority of the Bicameral Mind

    Recounted by Julian Jaynes,

    One sunny afternoon not long ago, a man was lying back in a deck chair on the beach at Coney Island. Suddenly, he heard a voice so loud and clear that he looked about at his companions, certain that they too must have heard the voice. When they acted as if nothing had happened, he began to feel strange and moved his chair away from them. And then

    …suddenly, clearer, deeper, and even louder than before, the deep voice came at me again, right in my ear this time, and getting me tight and shivery inside “Larry Jayson, I told you before you weren’t any good. Why are you sitting here making believe you are as good as anyone else when you’re not? Whom are you fooling?”

    The deep voice was so loud and so clear, everyone must have heard it. He got up and walked slowly away, down the stairs of the boardwalk to the stretch of sand below. He waited to see if the voice came back. It did, its words pounding in this time, not the way you hear any words, but deeper,

    ….as though all parts of me had become ears, with my fingers hearing the words, and my legs, and my head too. “You’re no good,” the voice said slowly, in the same deep tones. “You’ve never been any good or use on earth. There is the ocean. You might as well drown yourself. Just walk in, and keep walking.” As soon as the voice was through, I knew by its cold command, I had to obey it.

    The patient walking the pounded sands of Coney Island heard his pounding voice as clearly as Achilles heard Thetis along the misted shores of the Aegean. And even as Agamemmon “had to obey” the “cold command” of Zeus, or Paul the command of Jesus before Damascus, so Mr. Jayson waded into the Atlantic Ocean to drown. Against the will of his voices, he was saved by lifeguards and brought to Bellevue Hospital, where he recovered to write of this bicameral experience.

    Who in the history of literature does Mr. Jayson’s hallucinated voice remind you of? The booming, fatherly voice, the absolute moral judgement, the “You should fear and obey me” attitude? Atheists and skeptics often ridicule religious people for being weak-minded in light of rational evidence that gods and demigods do not “really” exist. But clearly, Mr. Jayson did not have a choice in obeying his god. It was not a matter of choosing to believe; it was simply about giving in to the command of the dominant authority. Giving in to authority and letting the patriarchal male dominate through admonitory verbal judgement is fundamental to human behavior. It’s how social relations were governed for hundreds of thousands of years (and to this day remains a powerful tool for mass social control as indicated by hypnotism, meteoric dictators, and religious sermons).

    Is it any surprise then that the phenomenon of religion is pervasive enough to warrant speculation about “god genes”? It was the internalization of admonitory judgement through schizoid hallucinatory control mechanisms that catalyzed the unique human phenomenon of ancestor worship. As the ancestors became surrounded in myth and lore, they were internally constructed and experienced as the first gods and demigods. The god complex, grounded by the right hemisphere’s synthetic problem solving skills, dictated commands in time of stress and crutch decision making. It was our alliance with the gods that made our amazingly rapid cultural evolution possible. But as society grew more complex, the social control mechanism of bicamerality grew weak in comparison with the control mechanisms of written language (Hammurabi’s code, the Torah, etc.), bureaucracy, and the priest class. As the gods’ power and influence faded, humans resorted to sortilege, divination, prayer, and oracles to get in contact with what was once so direct: the will of the gods.

    And as great civilizations crumbled under their own weight and scattered in response to cataclysmic events, a new self-control mechanism was selected for on the basis of a fundamentally plastic neocortex: consciousness. Linguistic constructs such as the “I/Me/Mine” complex allowed for the generation of a psychological distance between our physical behavior and the autobiographical self or “narrative center” that holds our folk psychological stories in place. The psychological space catalyzed the development of what’s now called “working memory”, “executive function”, “thought-control”, “introspection”, “short term memory”, etc. It was this ability for metacognitive control that gave rise to self-regulating concept-schemas like individual responsibility, agency, freewill, and having a “soul” or “mind”.

    Right now Micah Allen and I are co-writing a article on google wave for Frontier‘s special topic issue on consciousness and neuroplasticity. Here is our extended abstract:

    Recent research has demonstrated that throughout development the brain exhibits a natural ability to change in response to experience at both structural and functional levels. This plasticity is expressed through both the formation of new neurons (e.g. Maguire et al 2001) and the redeployment of functional connectivity (e.g. Torrerio, 2010). Although plasticity is also found in lower animals, research suggests that it is prefrontal connectivity between regions that differentiates humans from apes (Schoenemann, 2005). Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex, particularly the default mode network (DMN), retains this plasticity well into early adulthood (Gogtay et al, 2004; Raichle, 2001). Social-cognitive functions then, are not stable in preadolescence, and we argue that it is this unstable connectivity that enables the development and utilization of narrative consciousness.

    Accordingly, we argue that the high-level cognitive operations typical of human behavior crucially depend upon our ability to evaluate and synthesize experience through narrative scaffolds. Such narrative practice depends upon the plasticity of social cognitive brain mechanisms and can be seen as a recently evolved capacity dependent on tool use (Tylen et al, 2009) and language (Jaynes, 1976). We suggest that it is precisely these culture-centric functional connectivity mechanisms that underlie conscious human narratizing within an “interiorized” workspace or “global theater” (Baars, 1997). Moreover, it has become apparent that exposure to narrative practice in childhood has a special impact on cognitive development (Hutto, 2008). We will argue that these findings provide support for the narrative or social-constructivist approach to consciousness (Jaynes, 1976; Dennett, 1986, 1991). It is our view that a proper consideration of the brain’s phylogenetic and ontogenetic plasticity alleviates any skeptical worries (Block, 1995) about the conceptual coherence or empirical plausibility of consciousness as a social construct.

    To further support our argument we review recent evidence that demonstrates highly plastic brains learn to narratize in childhood from exposure to discourse with others. This protoemphathetic interactivity (Gallagher, 2005; Protevi, 2009) can be seen as the nonconscious cognitive scaffolding upon which the special attitude of self-reflection is constructed, giving rise to consciously sensible (i.e. introspectable) qualities. Furthermore, we will argue that recent research on cognitive scaffolding (Clark, 2003, 2008), internal speech (Morin, 2005), narrative practice (Menary, 2008), and childhood development (Reddy, 2009; Blakemore, 2009) provides ample support for the claim that consciousness proper is a social-linguistic construction learnt in childhood. Last, we review the role of plasticity in default brain networks for narrative and minimal consciousness.

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