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Julian Jaynes On What Consciousness Is(n’t)

Again, I’m reading Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind because it’s an odd and influential work, described as genius and madness by the same people. I’ve found it a very accessible and interesting read, regardless of the literal truth claims.

 

Metaphors and Understanding

 Generations ago we would understand thunderstorms perhaps as the roaring and rumbling about in battle of superhuman gods. We would have reduced the racket that follows the streak of lightning to familiar battle sounds, for example. Similarly today, we reduce the storm to various supposed experiences with friction, sparks, vacuums, and the imagination of bulgeous banks of burly air smashing together to make the noise. None of these really exist as we picture them. Our images of these events of physics are as far from the actuality as fighting gods. Yet they act as the metaphor and they feel familiar and so we say we understand the thunderstorm.

So, in other areas of science, we say we understand an aspect of nature when we say it is similar to some familiar theoretical model.

Theory: relationship of the model to the things the model is supposed to represent. “Bohr’s theory was that all atoms were similar to his solar system-like model.” The theory is not true. But a model is never true or false. “A theory is thus a metaphor between a model and data. And understanding in science is the feeling of similarity between complicated data and a familiar model.”

Consciousness has often been poorly defined by metaphorical thinking. Geological metaphors and the subsumed unconsciousness, chemical metaphors thereafter (James Mill, Wundt, Titchener), mechanical/steam-powered metaphors, etc.

Finally, an analog is a model, but a special model wherein every point is generated by the thing the object is an analog of. Example: a map, which is not a hypothetical metaphor to an unknown, like Bohr’s model is.

 

What Consciousness Isn’t

Obviously not:

  • Consciousness is not “Reactivity” (the thing you also lose when you get knocked on the head and “lose consciousness”)
  • Consciousness is not “The sum total of mental processes occurring now” (Titchener’s definition) As Jaynes later says, “Consciousness is a much smaller part of our mental life than we are conscious of, because we cannot be conscious of what we are not conscious of.”
  • It is not behind all of the operations we perform (we don’t want acute finger awareness while playing the piano, or acute letter awareness while reading- they are supposed to be lower-level operations than where our focus is).
  • Probably not a property of matter, or protoplasm, or a metaphysical imposition. Not convincingly a helpless spectator.

Less obviously:

  • Consciousness is not a copy of experience: can you really recall extremely familiar rooms with eidetic detail? Are your memories even in the first person, looking out of your eyes? Or do you imagine some vague version of yourself as others presumably see you?
  • Consciousness is not necessary for an idea of “concepts”. You may have a concept of a “tree” as far as you’re concerned, but so does (evidently) a dog or a squirrel. “Every bee has a concept of a flower” as far as a generalizable category of things.
  • Consciousness is not necessary for learning. Pavlov.
  • Consciousness is not necessary for thinking. “One does one’s thinking before one knows what one is thinking about.”
  • Consciousness is not necessary for reason. Incubation, for example.

If our reasonings have been correct, it is perfectly possible that there could have existed a race of men who spoke, judged, reasoned, solved problems, indeed do most of the things that we do, but who were not conscious at all.

The question Jaynes suggests is “if consciousness isn’t any of these things, what is it and does it even exist? Jaynes believe it does exist. The next chapter goes into Metaphors, which I started on Monday.

 

The Features of Consciousness

  1. Spatialization: “The first and most primitive aspect of consciousness is what we already have had occasion to refer to, the paraphrand of almost every mental metaphor we can make, the mental space which we take over as the very habitat of it all. […] When we introspect (a metaphor of seeing into something), it is upon this metaphorical mind-space which we are constantly renewing and ‘enlarging’ with each new thing or relation consdousized.”
  2. Excerption: “In consciousness, we are never ‘seeing’ anything in its entirety. […] We excerpt from the collection of possible attentions to a thing which comprises our knowledge of it.”
  3. The Analog ‘I’: “A most important ‘feature’ of this metaphor ‘world’ is the metaphor we have of ourselves, the analog ‘I’, which can ‘move about’ vicarially in our ‘imagination’, ‘doing’ things that we are not actually doing.
  4. The Metaphor ‘Me’: Our third person vision of ourselves.
  5. Narratization: We build stories out of our own analog “I”. A stray fact is narratized to fit with some other stray fact.
  6. Conciliation: “What I am designating by conciliation is essentially doing in mind-space what narratization does in mind-time or spatialized time. It brings things things together as conscious object just as narratization brings together things as a story. […] In conciliation we are making excerpts or narratizations compatible with each other, just as in external perception the new stimulus and the internal conception are made to agree.
    [example, because this one is odd]: If I ask you to think of a mountain meadow and a tower at the same time, you automatically conciliate them by having the tower rising from the meadow. But if I ask you to think of a mountain meadow and an ocean at the same time, conciliation tends not to occur and you are likely to think of one and then the other. You can only bring them together by a narratization. Thus there are principles of compatibility that govern this process, and such principles are learned and are based on the structure of the world.”

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