The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"

The Bicameral Mind

The studies conducted by the US psychologist Julian Jaynes (and, before him, by the German classicist Bruno Snell) gave credibility to the idea that consciousness may be a recent acquisition of our mental life, or at least that consciousness was not always what it is today, that it was and still is evolving.

By reviewing historical, archeological and biological documents from ancient civilizations, he concluded that until about 3000 years ago human beings were still devoid of consciousness. They still relied, like all other primates, on learned reactions. The people of even the most developed civilizations before 1000 B.C. (ancient Assyria, Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Egypt) were not “truly” conscious. Ancient books such as the Iliad and the Bible were composed by non-conscious minds that explains why they could not distinguish between real and imagined events. The characters of those books act unconsciously in making their decisions and always rely on "voices". They tend to speak in hexameter rhythms, which are characteristic of the automatic processing of the right-hemisphere brain. Schizophrenics often tend to speak in the same rhythm. These stories are all action and no introspection.

Ancient people, because non-conscious,  did not feel responsible for their actions. They had no concept of good and evil. They had no conscious memories. They had no interest in history (past). They had no interest in progress (future). They had no sense of themselves.

Human beings did already employ language to communicate with other human beings, and to cooperate and to build societies and civilizations, but, in each individual's head, that language did not serve as conscious thought: it served as communication between the two hemispheres of the brain. Human beings were guided not by conscious reasoning, but by "hallucinations". Hallucinations would form in the right hemisphere of the brain and would be communicated to the left hemisphere of the brain, which would then receive them as commands. This is what Jaynes refers to as the “bicameral mind”. Human beings were led by these voices in making their important decisions. "God" is one manifestation of the bicameral mind. God is the main voice that would drive individual and social behavior. With the emergence of oral languages, the hallucinating voices for performing fundamental actions became standardized and consequently societies became increasingly organized.

A conscious mind appears in the Odyssey and the most recent part of the Bible, about 3000 years ago. Those writings gradually shifted from non-conscious actions to conscious decisions. In the Odyssey characters are aware of the moral and physical consequences of their actions. In the West, moral issues started spreading in written languages around the sixth century B.C. Chinese literature moved from the bicameral mind to the conscious mind about 500 B.C. with the writings of Confucius. Indian literature shifted to consciousness around 400 B.C. with the Upanisad.

At that time, the bicameral mind began breaking down under the pressure caused by the complexity of the environment (mainly, society).  The hallucinated voices became confused, contradictory, and ultimately counterproductive.  They no longer provided automatic guidance for survival. At the same time, the development of writing, and the permanent recording of procedures, in 2,000 B.C., progressively reduced the need for guidance from the hallucinated voices and replaced them with a much more effective means of organization. Consciousness was therefore invented by human beings through a process that entailed the loss of belief in gods and natural selection itself, which started rewarding conscious individuals over non-conscious ones.

Jaynes thinks that, today, governments and religions, and psychological phenomena such as hypnosis and schizophrenia, and artistic practices such as poetry and music, are vestiges of that earlier stage of human consciousness, when action was guided by the bicameral mind, because these are all manifestations of an instinctive tendency towards seeking directions, or, in general, automatic guidance, from others.

Today, these two minds still coexist: the non-conscious bicameral mind that seeks guidance from "authorities" for important decisions in complex situations (such as those related to society); and the conscious mind that creates its own decisions in more local and manageable conditions.

Jaynes' concept of consciousness was revolutionary. First of all, intelligence (or, more appropriately, cognitive faculties) and consciousness are not the same thing and they are only vaguely related. Consciousness is not necessary for concepts, learning, reason or even some elementary  forms of thinking. Non-conscious beings can develop sophisticated civilizations.

Secondly, awareness of an action tends to follow, not precede, the action. Awareness of an action bears little or no influence on the outcome. Before one utters a sentence, one is not conscious of being about to utter those specific words.

Thirdly, consciousness is an operation rather than a thing. Consciousness requires metaphors to express one thing in terms of another. Consciousness is being able to construct one's narrative in terms of metaphors. Consciousness requires analogy to transform things of the real world into meanings in a metaphorical space. The mental space is created through metaphors and analogies.

Metaphors and analogies map the functions of the right hemisphere into the left hemisphere and make the bicameral mind obsolete. Metaphors of "me" and analogies of "i" enabled a greater understanding of the world and of other individuals. In turn, consciousness expanded by creating more and more metaphors and analogies. Ultimately, consciousness is a metaphor-generated model of the world.

Jaynes thinks that consciousness could not have been invented if language had not evolved to the point of facilitating metaphorical thinking. And, while oral languages developed around 70,000 B.C. and written languages began about 3000 B.C., metaphorical structures did not appear until about 1,000 B.C. Early writings in hieroglyphic and cuneiform forms reflect a non-metaphoric and non-conscious attitude.


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