Tag Archives: bicameralism

Book review: John Geiger's The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible

Have you ever wondered where the archetype of a “guardian angel”, “vision guide”, “helper”, or “Third Man” comes from? Why, in extreme survival situations, is it common for people to report the experience of a “presence” assisting them? John Geiger’s book The Third Man Factor is a comprehensive compilation of reports from mountaineers, explorers, sailors, adventurers, divers, and other persons faced with death in extreme survival situations who all report strangely similar accounts of a “presence” helping, comforting, motivating, or advising them, a phenomenon often dubbed the “Third Man Factor” from Ernest Shackleton’s famous report that during his harrowing travels in polar regions “it seemed to me often that we were four not three”. It’s call the “Third Man” factor not the “Fourth Man” factor because T.S. Eliot thought a trio was more poetic when he channel’s Shackleton’s story:

Who is the third who walks always besides you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I looked ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you.
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or woman
– But who is that on the other side of you?

The Waste Land

The Third Man Factor is one of the most riveting books I have ever read. This is not only because of the nature of the extreme survival tales but because the Third Man factor is one of the most interesting psychological phenomena ever recorded. Allow me to quote some first-hand descriptions of the Third Man factor:

“It was something I couldn’t see but it was a physical presence. It told me what to do. The only decision I had made at that point in time was to lie down next to Rick and to fall asleep and to accept death. That’s the only decision I made. All decisions made subsequent to that were made by the presence. I was merely taking instructions…I understood what it wanted me to do. It wanted me to live.”

“It seemed to me that this ‘presence’ was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was not until Camp VI was sighted that the link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped.”

“Then all at once I became aware of something new and strange, a consciousness of a ‘presence’, a feeling that I was not alone.”

“I could feel his invisible presence sitting there comfortingly beside me in that lonely little raft lost so hopelessly in the vast Atlantic.”

“Two hours later, he was awoken with a start by a stern voice: ‘Get up. It’s your turn at the helm.'”

“I didn’t pray, and I’m not a religious man usually, but for the whole voyage I’d had the strange feeling that someone else was with me, watching over me, and keeping me safe from harm.”

“…a strange sensation as if someone were in the boat with me. How can I explain it –not a mystical experience, just a calm feeling of assurance that someone was there helping and sharing tasks. Looking back, I do not feel that my mind became deranged — I was just quite certain that I was not alone.”

“It was then that he became acutely aware of a presence with him. Venables felt that it was an older person: ‘I never identified him, but this alter ego was to accompany me on and off for the rest of that day, sometimes comforting me and advising me, sometimes seeking my support.”

“I don’t often talk about my companion watcher these days…After the Breach when I first spoke of him to people, they reacted quite predictably: “What an imagination!”…At first I persisted in my stand: ‘He was real. There in the flesh or at least in some concrete form I could see.’ Now I know this and say this to you: He was there and as real as you or I.”

“I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours of this day? Transparent forms in human outline – voices that spoke with authority and clearness.”

Clearly this is a very real psychological phenomena. I see no reason to believe that these reports are somehow getting the phenomenology wrong. What interests me is how the Third Man factor is closely intertwined with religious history. For ages, religious persons have reported experiences of “guardian angels” assisting them or comforting them. Almost all primitive cultures believe in various spirits or ephemeral beings, and the concept of seeking out such beings on “vision quests” is quite familiar. I think atheists and skeptics can learn a lot about the epistemology of religious belief from understanding the Third Man factor. Many atheists assume that believers are irrational in using “mere subjective experience” to argue for the rationality of their belief in supernatural phenomena. Arguably, it is less rational in today’s modern scientific society with ample brain-based explanations, but to understand the persistence and appeal of religion in modern times we have to understand its origins in prescientific eras. I see no reason to think that the Third Man factor is a modern phenomena. Likely it has a hardwired biological underpinning that would have been present in humans long before we knew anything about how the brain works. Consider this telling quote from the book:

“Once again I became aware of what I can only describe as a Presence, which filled me with an exaltation beyond all earthly feeling. As it passed, I walked back to the ship, I felt wholly convinced that no agnostic, no skeptic, no atheist, no humanist, no doubter, would ever take from me the certainty of the existence of God.”

How can you argue against that? You can’t really. Now imagine the epistemic situation prior to the invention of brain science. If you experienced a Third Man, then you would be quite rational in explaining that experience in terms of your local cultural narrative whether Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, or animism. For Christians, they would have explained it in terms of the Biblical concept of an angel. For some Christians, the Third Man could also take the form of Jesus or God himself rather than just a “lower” entity like an angel (or demon). From an epistemological perspective, the Third Man factor is extremely interesting. It explains why many believers are “certain” that God exists and that nothing could ever change their minds: they have experienced the Third Man. I have no doubt the Third Man factor is also at play in alien abduction experiences.

Of course, there is a perfectly rational explanation for such phenomena if you accept the findings of modern neuroscience and philosophical naturalism. As Geiger discusses several times, one of the most promising theories to explain the Third Man is Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism. On the basis of multiple sources of evidence, Jaynes argues that at the dawn of history, humans had a much lower stress threshold to trigger hallucinations. Moreover, he argues (convincingly, imo) that such hallucinations could have had an adaptive function reinforced by natural selection. Such “hallucinatory control” is a type of decision making that manifests psychologically in the form of hallucinations, particularly of authoritative voices giving commands. Jaynes argues that command hallucinations allow for a novel form of self-stimulation and self-regulation (I can’t prove it, but I suspect this is where Dennett got his own ideas about self-stimulation from in Consciousness Explained, albeit stripped of the hallucination aspect). Such self-stimulations replaced the promptings by others (e.g. leaders) that would have triggered stereotyped behavioral patterns. By prompting oneself internally, humans would have been able to engage in more complex, “time-delayed” behaviors in the absence of verbal promptings by others. As Jaynes says,

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narratizethe situation and so hold his analog “ I ” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely, by a repeated ‘ internal ’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (Jaynes, 1976, p. 134)

This might sound implausible, but consider the jury-rigging or “klugeish” nature of evolutionary tinkering. Evolution could have taken a preexisting language system and redeployed it to be used to issue commands, not externally with a voice, but internally to oneself. Such “promptings” could act as a jury-rigged memory buffer system. With such machinery in place, humans would have been able to achieve feats of complex culture building. Religious narratives would have co-evolved along with the expansion of this self-stimulation system, giving birth to modern religious concepts.

We already have good “proximal” explanations of the Third Man in terms of brain science. But what we lacked, and what Jaynes offers, is an “ultimate” explanation of the Third Man, one that gives an evolutionary story in adaptationist language. Whether or not Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism is fully corroborated in all its minute details (to the extent that it can given its historical hypotheses), I believe Geiger’s brilliant and compelling book is just another piece of evidence in support of Jaynesian ideas. On the theory of bicameralism, the Third Man is a vestigial remnant of a preexisting system of behavioral self-stimulation that used internally generated hallucinations as a way to transfer linguistic information to other, “encapsulated” areas of the brain.

If you are interested, Geiger has setup an online forum for people across the world to share stories of their own Third Man experience. Check it out:


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Most groundbreaking psychology text of the last decade?


Although I am only 110 pages in, I think the answer is Ian McGilchrist’s The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. The book is ridiculously well researched. The second chapter alone, where McGilchrist synthesizes an enormous amount of data concerning the functions of each respective hemisphere, has a staggering 525 endnotes, each citing one or more scientific studies. The scholarly work that went into this book is epic.

What drew me to the book was its Jaynesian thesis: the brain, and hence the mind, is fundamentally divided. McGilchrist basically argues that we can make sense of the history of human civilization in terms of how the left and right hemispheres functionally developed over time, with the right hemisphere being the “Master” and the left hemisphere being the “Emissary”. This idea of a master-slave relationship is more or less similar to the Jaynesian distinction between the god-complex and the human-complex, respectively. The rise of modernity occurred when the Emissary increasingly isolated itself from the Master, locking itself into a self-determined logical cage, viewing the world through an objective, mechanical lens.

Like I said, I am only 110 pages in. But this book has already stunned me in its scope and significance. We can no longer talk about brain function without recognizing the fundamental asymmetries between the left and right hemispheres.


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Bicameralism and Auditory Verbal Hallucinations

People often think Jaynes’ bicameral control hypothesis is imaginative yet implausible as an actual mechanism of cognitive control. Well, if you look at the research on schizophrenic voice hearing, it becomes quite clear that bicameral control is a reality for a small percentage of the population.

Fowler et al have noted that, in those who have experienced trauma, auditory verbal haclluinations (AVHs) typically involve critical comments or comments about the person’s day-to-day experiences. This observation is consistent with the conclusion of a study of AVH phenomenology in patients with schizophrenia and in those without any psychiatric diagnoses, by Leudar et al.This study concluded that AVHs are “focused on the regulation of everyday activities” (p. 896). Similarly, Nayani and David note that 46% of their sample of patients with schizophrenia said their AVHs had come to replace their “voice of conscience” (p. 185) and that a proportion relied on their AVH for making decisions. (link)

Here we have a perfectly clear clinical example of bicameral control. Such patients have subconsciously authorized the auditory verbal hallucinations (AVH) to control their behavior in times of decision making. The same process of authorization is also evident in hypnosis. The hypnotized person will authorize the hypnotist to automatically control their behavior with verbal commands. With hypnosis, the voice is everything; it is the direct link to the behavior of hypnotized person. AVHs are simply this process but internalized by means of stored admonitory wisdom. In times of decision making or stress, the stored admonitory wisdom is triggered and experienced as an AVH. The internal commands and judgements serve to control behavior by means of linguistic self-regulation. This is something normal people can do through conscious inner speech mechanisms. The neural code of language is capable of representing patterns of action that can control behavior when neurally active. These would be stored in terms of what cognitive scientists called “action-oriented representations”. We can quite literally “tell ourselves what to do”. It is the same with AVH except that instead of conscious inner speech we have subconscious admonitory wisdom stored in terms of a personality (usually a social authority) that is capable of commanding, judging, critiquing, guiding, cursing, etc. So, far from being simply an imaginative hypothesis based on speculation, the bicameral control hypothesis is actually grounded on sound neuropsychological observation and self-reports.

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The God That Is Our Brain: Bicameralism and Theology

One of the great unanswered questions of science is why belief in gods is so ubiquitous in human societies past and present. Why is our species naturally inclined towards believing in the reality of the spiritworld? And the experience of this spiritworld is not just an abstract theoretical “belief” based on some “intentional stance”, but rather, an essential component of many peoples’ fundamental reality-map i.e. how the cosmos is meaningfully parsed. Where do spirits and gods come from? What is the neurological substrate for these experiential realities? Many theorists would like to answer these questions without invoking any notion of altered states of consciousness.  But as archeologists David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce rightly point out in their book Inside the Neolithic Mind: Consciousness, Cosmos, and the Realm of the Gods, “Complex human consciousness is not an ‘optional’ extra that archeologists can ignore. The assumption that all human behavior can be accounted for on rational, ecological or adaptive grounds is unwarranted: extracting the means of daily material life from the environment is not always an entirely ‘rational’ matter’.”

Anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I am a big fan of Julian Jaynes’ theory of bicameralism, especially when it comes to explaining religious phenomena. Accordingly, I was shocked to find that Lewis-Williams and Pearce failed to cite Jaynes despite their book being focused on how hallucinatory and altered states of consciousness played a large role in spurning the development of complex Neolithic civilization. This is, of course, a Jaynesian thesis. But I take this in stride. The fact that the impeccable research of  Lewis-Williams and Pearce independently comes to strikingly similar conclusions as Jaynes is strong evidence that bicameralism is more or less true, or at least highly corroborated.

For those who don’t know, bicameralism says that before the development of modern consciousness there was a preconscious mentality wherein voluntary will was underwritten by a totally different neural control mechanism. Instead of going “offline” and narratizing alternatives to behavior through conscious, articulate reasoning, the bicameral mind was unconsciously controlled by internal voices. As Jaynes puts it, “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.” We see evidence of this ancient control structure in modern schizophrenic command hallucinations wherein the person is assaulted by admonitory voices who issue condemnatory judgments and behavioral commands. The difference between an ancient voice-hearer and a modern one is that the modern person has developed a voluntary consciousness which can resist the hallucinated instructions and think more or less independently (until the power of the voices becomes overwhelming and they finally give in and obey). In ancient man, there was no option of disobedience. Our original relationship of gods was that of unremitting obedience. It wasn’t until we ate from the Tree of Knowledge that our original union with the gods was split.

Why were these gods so powerful? Why did they appear to humans as all-knowing and all-wise? Because the gods were housed in the vast network that constitutes the unconscious mind. The cognitive unconscious was completely in charge. Until recently, modern humans were under the delusion that consciousness constitutes the entire mental economy. Now we know however that consciousness is but the tip of the iceberg. Compared to the virtual serial machine that is our consciousness, the cognitive unconscious is automatic, fast, and emotional. It can synthetically process huge amounts of context-sensitive information without breaking a sweat. Accordingly, the gods were experienced as all-powerful precisely because in comparison with the pitiful resources available to the “human” complex, the god-complex was infinitely more wise. The gods within us were able to look at the totality of the situation and process action-oriented meaning in relation to a larger context. This generates the experiential component of omniscience when “experiencing God”.

Moreover, bicameral theory is poised to naturalize the mystical experience of  God and the feeling of oneness, unity, and the breakdown of subject/object thinking. In the metastable flux that is mystical union, the autobiographical self – our narrative mind – drops out and we are thrown into the other-referential networks of allocentric processing which more or less resonate to the “whatness” of reality. In neurological terms, we can speculate that the dorsal-parietal self-referential networks of body ownership phase out and the ventral-temporal networks of whatness amplify. This ventral stream is associated with other-referential processing and object-recognition. Moreover, the temporal lobe system is capable of parsing context out of messy variables, synthesizing oodles of information into a unified whole which can be then transferred to other areas of the brain in terms of action-commands.

What’s interesting about the temporal lobes is that the left temporal lobe is the seat of language whereas the corresponding areas in the right temporal lobe don’t seem to be as highly specialized.But Jaynes thought that the corresponding right temporal areas did have an important function, otherwise it would be devoted to making the critical skill of language bilaterally redundant (as with all other important brain functions). What then is the function of the right temporal cortex? Jaynes hypothesized that “The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods”. Indeed, this god-language is the source of the auditory hallucinations which once guided our ancestors in times of stress and crutch decision making and still guide/judge/order people today who suffer from florid schizophrenic symptoms.

It was these gods that commanded the kings and god-stewards to build great monuments. And the kings became gods themselves after death, with their subjects hallucinating their voices in terms of commands e.g. the command to build a magnificent burial tomb, to mummify, bathe, feed, and give gifts for sustenance in the after-life. Indeed, in the following relief we can see the god Shirruma guiding King Tudhaliya’s hand:

Bicameralism understands this relief to depict a story of hallucinatory self-regulation. And look at this scene:


The Egyptian god Khnum is forming the future king with his right hand along with his spirit-twin, the Ka, with his left hand. The Ka was a spiritual double that was born with every man and survived his death. For Jaynes, the Ka is representative of the bicameral, linguistically grounded god-function. The verbal function of the Ka is suggested by how it is pointing to its mouth in the above picture. The Ka essentially functioned as an ancient form of conscience. It guided the man through commands and suggestions experienced as auditory verbal hallucinations. Vestigial evidence of this function can be seen in the ubiquity of imaginary companions in children today and the surprisingly high prevalence of auditory verbal hallucination in both psychotics and nonpsychotics.

Moreover, when the neural power of the bicameral voices began to fade as bureaucracy and written language took over as the dominant method of social-control (e.g. Hammurabi’s code), the gods were no longer able to provide immediate guidance. New means of contacting the subliminal gods was needed. The flight of the gods necessitated the development of prayer, shamanic trance rituals, idol worship, divination, sortilege (casting lots), oracles, and the list goes on. Almost all modern religious phenomena can be explained within the context of bicameral theory. I am aware of no other theory can provides a comprehensive explanatory framework for understanding both the origin and development of religion and the vestigial traits of our theocratic ancestry in the form of schizophrenic verbal hallucinations and modern religious phenomena.


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The Hypothetical Evolution of Hallucinatory Self-regulation

I just reread Julian Jaynes’ chapter on the brain in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and it’s really fascinating. He raises some incredible questions. First, he notes that almost all important brain functions are represented bilaterally in the brain. This makes evolutionary sense because functional redundancy is a survival skill in the event of injury. But curiously, language is not bilaterally represented yet it is perhaps the most important function in human existence, separating us from the animals. We would not be human without it, as feral children sadly demonstrate. Moreover, the left hemisphere is often called the “dominant” hemisphere because most people are right-handed, and thus have a left-hemisphere dominance in voluntary control (and there is even a right eye field dominance).

There must be a good reason then why something as important as language wouldnt have been bilaterally represented during evolutionary development. We know from lesion studies that if we take out the Wernicke’s area in the left hemisphere during childhood, the whole mechanism of language will transfer to the right hemisphere. So it isn’t that the right hemisphere corresponding to left language areas is incapable of bilateral language redundancy, it’s that it must subserve some other function that is even more valuable for us than language. Jaynes asks, what is this function? His answer:

The selective pressures of evolution which could have brought about so mighty a result are those of the bicameral civilizations. The language of men was involved with only one hemisphere in order to leave the other free for the language of gods. (103-104)

This is Jaynes’ hypothesis of the “bicameral mind”. The bicameral mind is based on the metaphor of a divided house, like two selves housed in one brain (similar to split-brain patients). On the right side is the god-complex, grounded in the right temporal cortex. It’s function was to solve problems by synthesizing complex information and relaying linguistically-coded behavioral instructions to the other side, the mortal-complex, grounded in the left temporal cortex. The gods obeyed and the humans heard. And to hear was to obey. This function substituted for voluntary will in our preconscious ancestors.That this might be true is evidenced by the fact that the temporal lobes have their own private communication channel: the smaller anterior commissures. Moreover, articles like these:

show that the neural substrate for schizophrenic hallucination is the the right temporal cortex, as per Jaynes’ theory.

Accordingly, we might be able to tell the following “Just So” story. First, emphasize that the first complex societies were authoritarian through and through, or at structured by a rigid social hierarchy. Moreover, we could assume that the development of narrative skills would have been to (1) allow the dominant fathers and chieftons to more easily give complex commands in terms of dense linguistic codes (2) allow people to better remember and recount what their fathers, and their father’s father, had instructed them to do in times of need. This generational chain of command was more important and sacred than anything else. The fathers and chieftons would remember the instructions of their father and chiefton on how and when to plant the crops, how to be brave and fight when the time comes, how to live in the Dorian mode and die a honorable death (so that your fame will live on), etc. At this early point in our social evolution, we can assume that language was represented bilaterally in the brain given its importance for keeping the cultural traditions alive and the social control mechanisms operating smoothly.

Granting all this, we can then hypothesize that a scaffolding effect arose as a result of the linguistic control mechanisms. The scaffold was this: everyday, day after day, our ancestors’ brains would have been directly sculpted by the following habit schema: leader commands, I obey. After so many years, this voice would have sculpted the motor pathways in the brain such that hearing it would always result in obedience, much like modern day hypnosis. Such was life; authoritative to the core. Next, we can suppose that these ingrained obedience patterns might have started “looping” in the brain, like a melody or thought that gets stuck in your head all day. As Jaynes says

Let us consider a man commanded by himself or his chief to set up a fish weir upstream from a campsite. If he is not conscious, and cannot therefore narrative the situation and so hold his analog “I” in a spatialized time with its consequences fully imagined, how does he do it? It is only language, I think, that can keep him at this time-consuming all-afternoon work. A Middle Pleistocene man would forget what he was doing. But lingual man would have language to remind him, either repeated by himself, which would require a type of volition which I do not think he was capable of, or, as seems more likely,by a repeated ‘internal’ verbal hallucination telling him what to do. (p. 134)

It was the unique behavioral opportunies of enduring-attention that provided the selection pressures for the right hemisphere language centers to be readapted for hallucinatory self-regulation. This would explain why schizophrenia has such a strong genetic component and why it remains with us today despite being so dysfunctional in a modern society (answer: because it was once kept people alive to listen to their voices). New evidence is even indicating that auditory hallucinations are more common in “normals” than previously supposed, especially in children (e.g. imaginary companions).

Now, in our imagined society, linguistically-coded verbal commands from fathers to sons dominated the social control mechanisms of behavior regulation. A son grows up everyday listening to his father command him like a puppet. The father himself grew up obeying his father, in addition to the tribal chief (and so on for centuries). The chiefton dies suddenly. We don’t have a concept of death. His body is lying there motionless but he isn’t giving orders anymore. How can we get the chiefton to command us once more? We take his body and clean it, dress it, and prop it up as if he were doing his normal day to day business. We give him food and drink and all his favorite material possessions, trying to appease his spirit so that he will command us again. Wait! A voice belows. The body speaks again! He commands once more! But now it is different. Now he is directly talking to us, more powerful and more authoritative than ever. We cannot refuse his voice; we cannot stop it from compelling us. The voice is heard even when the chieftons body is not around. We cannot close our ears to the thunderous voice. The gods and demigods are born. True ancestor worship begins. Sophisticated burial rituals to induce commands from dead bodies show up in the archeological record. Such work has routinely discovered disembodied heads and scenes of daily life in burial tombs. Why would they mess with the dead bodies of their leaders? To induce auditory hallucinations. Such began religion and the priestclass. Such began schizophrenia and the bilteralization of language on the left, body-controlling side, and the all-knowing language of the gods on the right side, stepping in to command us during times of stress and crutch decision making. The trigger for hallucination is stress but for most moderns, the threshhold is high. For some, however, it is low, far too low (hence schizophrenia).


Filed under Phenomenology, Psychology