Picture:  Julian Jaynes I see that the annual Julian Jaynes Conference took place last month. As you may  know, Jaynes put forward a surprising theory of consciousness which suggested it had a relatively recent origin. According to Jaynes ancient human beings, right up into early historical times, had minds that were divided into two chambers. One of these chambers was in charge of day-to-day life, operating on a simple, short-term emotional basis for the most part (though still capable of turning out some substantial pieces of art and literature, it seems). The occasional interventions of the second chamber, the part which dealt in more reflective, longer-term consideration were not experienced as the person’s own thoughts, but rather as divine or ancestral voices restraining or instructing the hearer, which explains why interventionist gods feature so strongly in early literature. The breakdown of this bicameral arrangement and the unification of the two chambers of the mind were, according to Jaynes, what produced consciousness as we now understand it.

I find this bicameral theory impossible to believe, but it does have some undeniably engaging qualities. The way it gives a neat potential explanation for divine voices and for certain modern mental disorders gives it a superficial plausibility, especially when expounded with Jaynes’ characteristic eloquence and panache. It’s tempting to think of it as a drastically overstated version of  an essentially sound insight, but even if it’s completely wrong, thinking about its flaws is a stimulating exercise.

At this year’s conference, Stevan Harnad gave a speech in two parts, beginning with some slightly disjointed personal reminiscences of Jaynes – he mentions that he found it impossible to write an obituary for Jaynes and you get the feeling that his emotions are still making it a difficult subject for him to talk about – and then going on to a philosophical discussion of the interesting question of whether Jaynes would have kicked a dog, and why not.

Why shouldn’t he? For Jaynes, after all, consciousness was uniquely human; no other creature had gone through the breakdown of a bicameral mind. There’s nothing especially wrong with kicking unconscious objects and since dogs lack consciousness, there should be no particular reason not to kick one; but Harnad was sure Jaynes, a gentle and civilised man, would certainly not have done so. In fact, he had confirmed this in conversation with Jaynes during his lifetime. Jaynes said it was true that dogs in themselves did not deserve the same moral consideration as conscious entities like human beings; but that we should by all means refrain from kicking dogs unnecessarily because of the moral consequences for the kicker and onlookers. Kicking dogs is a bad, desensitising act, unworthy of the moral dignity of human beings even though dogs don’t fundamentally matter.

This is an interesting answer, and I think it’s intellectually tenable. We should, on the whole, refrain from slashing rose bushes to pieces, and from smashing beautiful porcelain, even though plants and pots are not conscious. But as Harnad suggests, we may doubt the sincerity of the argument – it has the air of a rationalisation run up to defend a weak spot in a wider case rather than something sincerely believed. We might think that a better line of argument was available to Jaynes if he had been willing to say that unconscious creatures can still be moral objects, which is surely true.

Harnad, ultimately, wants to say that dogs are indeed moral objects because they have feelings, or so our mirror neurons tell us; and that empathy is enough to make us hold off, even Julian Jaynes. Although I suspect this overstates the role of mirror neurons, he’s surely right to think that the possession of feelings is enough to constitute a moral object. As Jeremy Bentham put it, ‘The question is not, can they reason?, nor can they talk? but, can they suffer?’

What’s particularly interesting is the discussion Harnad provides about feelings (in the loosest sense; any kind of mental intimation, including but not limited to sensory input). He begins by pointing out that Descartes’ cogito ergo sum is not a logical deduction but a claim about the infallibility of certain thoughts or feelings. To think that one exists can’t be a mistake because non-existent people don’t think at all. Harnad scrupulously points out that it’s the existence of the the thought itself which is established, rather than the existence of the more problematic self. However, other feelings have a similar kind of infallibility; we can be wrong about whether we’ve got a bad tooth, but not that it feels like toothache. Harnad notes that a similar kind of infallibility attaches to what we mean or understand. We can of course use words that don’t, in the wider world, have the meaning we wanted, but we can’t be wrong about what we meant internally. Harnad describes this as the distinction between wide and narrow meaning; it largely corresponds with the more controversial distinction between intrinsic and derive intentionality (thoughts have meanings because somehow they just do; books have meanings only because they record and evoke thoughts).

It all comes down to feelings according to Harnad. “2×2=4″ does not feel the same to us as “Kétser kettõ négy”, but if, like him, we spoke Hungarian, they would feel very similar, because they mean the same thing.

This is very interesting. The problem of intentionality, of meaningfulness, is one of the principal problems of consciousness, but it tends in my view to be somewhat neglected – perhaps partly because it’s so difficult to find anything worth saying about it. New ideas in this area are very welcome, and on the face of it Harnad’s suggestion is plausible (sincerity and strong feelings seem to go together at any rate). The chief problem, perhaps, is that even if it’s true, this insight doesn’t move us on as much as we should like. There’s no accompanying theory of feelings, and since Harnad has explicitly chosen the vaguest and widest interpretation of the term, we still don’t know all that much about the fundamental nature of intentionality.

My feeling, on the whole, is that in fact the true essence of meaningfulness lies elsewhere; a feeling that x is an invariable accompaniment to believing that x, but does not constitute the belief. Two cheers for Harnad, though, and a third for Jaynes, whose legacy remains so productive.


  1. 1. Stevan Harnad says:

    (1) To believe that “all men are mortal” is (a) to be able to do all the things we can do with men (categorize, interact, manipulate, describe, understand descriptions), to be able to do all the things we can do with mortals, to be able to do all the things we can do with true propositions, such as “all men are mortal, and (b) to be able, alongside all this I/O functionality, to feel what it feels like to believe that “all men are mortal,” as well as what it feels like to do and be able to do (a).

    (2) We will never have a causal theory of feeling because it is impossible to explain the causal role of feelings unless we resort to telekinetic dualism, which is almost certainly false.

    (3) How we treat animals depends on roughly the same considerations as how we treat kin and kind: We may be inclined to favor some over others, but the reason has nothing to do with consciousness, because they are all conscious (i.e. feel).

  2. 2. Peter says:

    Many thanks for commenting, and for some very interesting ideas.

    I must say that I can’t easily give up hope of some explanation of the causal powers of feelings, though it’s true I couldn’t say where we might find one.

  3. 3. peter reynolds says:

    What if the event that united the bicameral mind/brain was the discovery of a robust mirror technology. Babies go through this phase of discovering themselves through mirrors. So if you like – the bicameral brain/mind developed for tool making but it had a latent ability for language and thought – only when mirrors were discovered did humans develop the confidence in their own mental abilities – did they express language and so build a social consciousness which they were able to reflect upon and form a self version of this social consciousness

  4. 4. Lloyd Rice says:

    Peter, One could possibly consider reflections in still water as an early exposure to the sort of meditative experience you describe. But I find that this rather stretches the imagination to believe that humans would experience something in the water that few other animals did. There is good evidence that the physiology for language was well underway 1000s of years before we figured out how to make smooth silvered surfaces. I refer, among other things, to the enlargement of the nerve canal to the tongue which occurred roughly 800,000 years ago. Also, the larynx height changed perhaps 100 or 200 thousand years ago, allowing a wider range of vowel-forming tongue motion. I have to believe that language skills were well underway for other reasons than mirrors. I just heard a story that a particularly wise magpie was seen to act as if it knew it was looking at itself in its reflection.

  5. 5. DJ says:

    Having read the book and sequel, I have to say that I don’t think you have. I’m not filled with confidence by the error in the fourth line of the above:

    >One of these chambers was in charge of day-to-day life, operating on a simple, >short-term emotional basis for the most part (though still capable of turning >out some substantial pieces of art and literature, it seems)

    Jaynes suggested that art and literature are right-brain functions and discusses the feeling that literature is “given” to an individual nonconsciously (e.g. by the “muses”, i.e. a right-brain hallucinated voice). In fact he gives many specific examples and discusses this in depth. So you misidentified a major aspect of his theory 4 lines into your discussion.

    In your bit on bicameralism you frequently use the word “surely” which basically is a non-argument that assumes that our preconceptions are correct.

    Also you say that “Our minds and literature are not filled with gods, but with brand names, advertising slogans, and the clichés of Hollywood and television – but would that justify a future researcher in concluding that we were unconscious robots, obeying the ‘voices’ of large commercial corporations?” which says to me that we just take on the culture around us.. hardly a refutation of the theory and more likely evidence for it.

    Also you say “When I seek an explanation for consciousness, it is, among other things, the processes of imagination and composition which go into the creation of a text which I want to have explained.” So, basically you defined consciousness as something completely different from what Jaynes defined it as (he specifically excludes background processes) and then concluded that the theory is wrong because it doesn’t fit with your (not Jaynes’s) definition. This is pretty intellectually sloppy.

  6. 6. Peter says:

    I believe it’s not as simple as you think, DJ. Yes, in Jaynes’ view inspired, unpremeditated poetry and the like come from the right-brain – but the left side in its more pedestrian way can also crank out literature. See Page 374: “The oral becomes written by the poet himself, and written it should be added, by his right hand, worked by his left hemisphere.” Yes, that refers to the post-bicameral situation, but even in the earlier period, at least as I read him, Jaynes sees certain texts coming from the non-divine left brain. Really it would be a bit odd if prayers and invocations to the deity came from the chamber which is itself identified as god, wouldn’t it?

    I’d say it’s ifs and buts like this that tend to put one off Jaynes in spite of his charm and originality: he likes to stay in a vague area of generality, well away from the nitty-gritty, where any sign of duality in any form and in any era can be recruited as evidence for bicameralism while no absence of two-sidedness can ever be taken as a hit against him. But it’s not my aim in the piece above to refute him, or even discuss him, really.

    I do indeed use the word “surely” to invite the reader’s agreement, and I have every intention of continuing to do so.

    I think you’ve missed my point about our modern minds being full of commercial voices – or do you think that’s evidence that we’re still bicameral right up to the present?

    Surely, neither philosophy nor science would get very far if we were obliged to accept the definitions laid down by our predecessors? Indeed, Jaynes himself would never have been able to express his theory, since he would have been bound to defer to – who knows, Aristotle? I reserve the right to criticise anyone’s definitions – surely an important part of the process of ensuring our theorising is intellectually tight?

  7. 7. fgbouman says:

    It’s been a long, long time since I read Jaynes on this subject but he instantly came to mind when I learned of the Third Man factor.

    Jaynes certainly did not think through his theory as completely as did Darwin nor did he marshal the powerful evidence in its favor that Darwin did. Nevertheless I think that he is on to something.

    In my reading of life in primitive conditions severe hunger and often severe thirst are ever-present companions and these are often augmented by threats from animals and/or humans. This condition would seem to be an ideal situation for provoking the “third man” to reveal itself.

    Interestingly a superficial look at an area where living was relatively easy, South and Southeast Asia, did not develop, so far as I can tell, develop the sort of always-with-you personal god that did develop in the much harsher conditions of the Middle East. They did, of course, learn to prompt mystical experiences by intensive self-denial, exposure to harsh conditions, etc.

    The time period chosen by Jaynes for unification may coincide with improvement in the climate and/or agricultural techniques in the Mid-East. According to Byzantine records, the coastal regions of the Mediterranean including what are now Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Israel experienced an exceptionally rainy period during the years 440 to 480 which was followed by forty more years of normal rain but exceptional warmth. This may have been enough to reduce the stresses experienced by the general populace that the Third Man stopped showing up and so lost his grip on the popular mind. by the time he returned after several generations of plenty he may then have been viewed as a manifestation of an abstract god rather than the personal god of earlier times. This latter view is then he one that has been carried down to this day by believers in the Abrahamic religions with some exceptions.

    This is all hypothetical, of course, but it offers a means of reconciling the core of Jaynes’ hypothesis with observed reality.

  8. 8. peter reynolds says:

    I think Narcissus tells of the story of the first man to make a good connection between Amygdala and frontal cortex. – Thus attributing feelings to his image in the mirror. These feelings after Damasio are the ‘self’
    I believe that the story is told after the discovery and manufacture of the first good mirrors at Miletus where both events occurred.
    Jaynes is describing the change in consciousness that the widespread use of mirrors brought with it. The Egyptians developed the mirror – espeecially the pharoahs -as they were expensive. This is wahat imparted godlike qualities on them as opposed to their (bicameral Subjects). Narcissus and Jesus might have been epileptics with an unusual neural connection between Amygdala and frontal cortex. Both had strong emotive attachment to their image. However in the case of Jesus -he had a good mirror rather than water whereupon the neural correlate of self became robust.
    Magpies have not got the prerequisite gestural language of bipedal hominids for mirrors to imprinnt a self.
    Before the ‘self’ as derived from mirrors, the only fixed refence for an outward looking (rather than introspective consciousnes) were the stars etc.
    The discovery of an emotive attachment to ones own mirror image, was profound resulting in all the great religions.
    We now take it for granted that reflections in water were strong enough to imbibe self – but this is only because of a herculean religious connection with ones mirror image with the advent of mirror technology.
    I posit that reflections in water and shadows were basically subconscious as there was no ‘self’ from which they would arise.

  9. 9. peter reynolds says:

    The story of mirrors is two fold. Firstly they arose naturally – probably as pyrites and caused the explosion of early humans out of Africa. Secondly the technology of beaten metal -especially gold – solidified the reflection making it versatile – I suggest the nobility of Egypt carried around in Ankhs.
    Jaynes is monitoring the spread of mirror technology and the self – from which we escaped a version of what he called -The Bicameral mind.

  10. 10. peter reynolds says:

    The ‘God Spot’ and its neural equivalents arise because of this religious attachment to mirrors and the ‘self’ which they generate.
    All these events – the discovery of mirrors and self will be marked genetically FOXP2 and its varients with their uniquely human expressed proteins. As the self and conssciousness both derived from the first use of reflection in mirrors.
    Self confidence- reading writing etc arose out of the same event. These occupied the brain. They did not evolve. And these other things than self generated consciousness – the outward looking habitat of the self.

  11. 11. peter reynolds says:

    ps -I don’t think Jaynes is correct – as I describe.- I believe the pre-self conscious (mirror person) had not solid reference frame for his outwardlooking consciousness other than the stars.
    This was associated with a lack of metaphorical thinking. Hence the world premirror appeared divided into elements.
    Only with the advent of the mirror person self was there a fluid reference for this outward looking consciousness.
    So the self created more robust qualia which could evolve with the reading writing which arose simultaneously from the mirroretc. which modified them.
    Note that recently it was discovered that reading only arose about 5000 years ago.
    We mustn’t anthropomorphise premirror man.
    The self of the magpie is probably generated by reflection – but thats unfortunate for the magpie. Birds do have foxp2 and presumably the equivalent of epilepsy.

  12. 12. peter reynolds says:

    ppps – the God spot would previously have been and in some cases now been associated with other uses but with the advent of mirrors, like reading, it is an area of the brain taken over by attachment to mirrors and the self.

  13. 13. peter reynolds says:

    The reason that consciousness itself -qualia etc. might be elusive is the very fact that they ‘invaded’ the brain. (as shown with reading)Thus the structure and logic of the brain up until that point had evolved. However – the superior self and its simultaneously produced counterfoil consciousness – are alien to the evolved structure and system of the brain – which we may consider as ‘unconscious’ or more precisely ‘lacking consciousness’ as I suggest unconscious processes are different in kind to consciousness.
    One might say that the self and consciousness are not a part of the biological process of evolution and are therefore difficult to approach from an evolutionary perspective.
    Self and consciousness had to ‘make do’ with what it found in the brain, Computation might augment and transform self and consciousness into another phase such that it will be able explain itself to the biological substrate. This will involve genetic manipulation.

  14. 14. peter reynolds says:

    I’ve updated this idea on Newscientist website (blogs) – concerning self and autism.
    The first hominids to become human did so through the accidental discovery of mirrors. They did not know that mirrors instantiated consciousness in them. (gave them consciousness) This gave rise to a spoken language.
    Perhaps crystals of pyrites were given to the children to play with.
    This caused consciousness from meditative fascination with their own reflection.(simultaneously coordinating the emotive centres with the prefrontal cortex).
    In the fight for survival – mirrors were then overlooked for 10′s of thousands of years until the pharoahs again discovered them by accident. They (mirrors) followed the development of metallurgy as metals produced highly reflective surfaces. Particularly gold – which the pharoahs related to their sun god.
    However the pharoahs came to worship (expensive) mirrors recognizing the self consciousness they instilled – and carried them around in Ankhs such as those seen in the British museum.They believed that these Ankhs literally contained their souls and so were the source of eternal life.
    This gave the pharoahs godlike powers as compared to their subjects who had bicameral minds as described by Julian Jaynes.
    Before mirrors, all civilisations worshipped the stars as these provided a fixed reference frame around which their cyclical lives revolved.
    Mirrors allowed man to map a self and in doing so gave him belief, identity, and confidence to develop language particularly through mapping sounds to the movement of his lips. This process was an emotional experience as it gave vent to express feelings which had never been expressed. As he also derived precise dextrous contol and coordination – so writing and reading developed. Thus evolved the great religious texts describing this emotive expression.
    Jesus arived on the seen as someone with atypical neural connectivity between frontal cortex and amygdala whereupon he discovered the new technical innovation of the mirror and upon seeing his own reflection in one (the Holy Grail) he was able to turn away from it whilst retaining his own ‘self’.
    Mirrors allow the exquisite coordination of neural discharge with the chemistry of the body (in particular the neurons imprint memories in the body’s chemistry at the synapse (Peter Reynolds Newscientist Letters 2001 Chemical Memory) – i.e. neurons are regulated by the body’s chemistry and vice versa, providing a communicative link between mind and body.
    This chemical imprint allows thought to control actions as such chemical imprint does not distinguish between the type of neuron it interacts with.
    Such chemical signals are the origin of feelings and allow the body to direct bloodflow to parts of the brain which create consciousness.
    Thus consciousness is the focus of neural activity by directing bloodflow in the brain -corresponding to the tracking of the relevance of signs in the environment – an ability instantiated in the brain by the study of mirrors- whence the hominid tracked the signs of his own emotions in his face in particular – and produced maps – remembered in patterns of metabolic response – communicated by neural imprints of the chemistry at the synapse.
    This ability is encoded genetically and learned anew when the infant goes through a phase wherein connection is made between the emotive centers -Amygdala and frontal cortex.
    This occurrs only when the individual components have developed to sufficient maturity.
    Lacan observed this mirror phase – but although like Julian jaynes, one accepts Lacan’s observations – like Jaynes he had the wrong interpretation of his observations.
    Lacan based his interpretation of the self upon Freudian percepts which are wrong.
    I suggest it is caused by the connection and precise coordination of Amygdala with frontal cortex which the mirror allows.

  15. 15. peter reynolds says:

    I think that mirrors gave rise to the first humans storing a ‘mirror-person’.
    Incoming data was subsequently stored differently than it had been before.
    Images of others (the first humans) were overlaid on images of animals. As a consequence -
    All humans worshipped half man half beasts.
    Or animal gods –
    Likewise top was confused with bottom.
    There was a preceived reality in the sky whereas previously there were only stars.
    Whereas previously there had only been memory of tracking habitat and prey.
    There was now a reality in the future rather than the past.
    All civilisations built toward a real perceived future in the sky.
    Hence stonehenge, the pyramids (only being visible from the sky) Likewise the Nazca patterns – the Mayan pyramids.
    Sacrifice was not perceived as such.
    The heavens appeared equally as real as earth. Moreover there was a perceived reality in the future and there was only one way to get there.
    The worship of mirrors by the pharoahs restored the balance.
    No longer did the future seem so real, nor the reality in the sky.
    Civilisations stopped buildinng pyramids and started to live in the here and now.

  16. 16. peter reynolds says:

    I think this happened because our perception of the world is probably organised fundamentally in a horizontal left-right sense as our primary sense organs are arranged in this plane, and other senses must support this – fastest percepting sense.
    So they must be preorganised in a left right manner so as to support new data from sight.
    Sight must be arranged within a slower framework of sense data.
    Thus the instantaneous visual peception of our own mirror image is juxtaposed upon an array of sense data which acts to orient sight within the wider ‘a priori’ world.
    Thus whilst sight can react instantaneously to our mirror image – our other senses cannot. Nor are they affected by the mirror.
    Particularly gravity will determine the up and down directional context of the perceived mirror image. And this sense of gravity must feed into or tag visual data overriding corneal inversion and a perceived mirror inversion.
    Hence our ‘mind’ is mapped into us -first as mirror memory images.
    So when we see our external mirror image – we are seeing ourself as our own minds’ see us.
    I think it therefore probable that before the pharoahs – the mirror image would have not been perceived in the same way that we perceive it today.
    Perhaps there was no mirror reversal.
    Writing would not have been seen reversed.
    An orange in our left hand would not appear immediately adjacent to our left hand holding the orange – in the mirror.
    Mirror reversal as we see it today would not have occurred.
    Perhaps we could not focus on our mirror image in the way we find it so easy to do today.
    Perhaps thats why we could no write prior to the pharoahs.
    Perhaps our visual acuity was not sufficient for writing.
    Mirrors focussed our mind.

  17. 17. peter reynolds says:

    writing would not have appeared to be reversed in a mirror before the pharoahs. or even both handedness and writing reversal would have developed during the pharonic ear progressed

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