Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) (wikipedia.org)
255 points by Paul_S 7 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 158 comments

It’s one of my favorite books! I have a first edition lying somewhere around my apartment.

Dawkins called it: “either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius.” Janyes’s hypothesis, bicameralism, is thought provoking at its least relevant by challenging our static perceptions of what consciousness actually is. Alongside Feynmann’s autobiographies, this book made me think about not only how language and culture can deeply affect consciousness, but what consciousness actually is in the first place.

My favorite part of the book explores metaphor and language as a means of perception instead of just communication:

“Even such an unmetaphorical-sounding word as the verb ‘to be’ was generated from a metaphor. It comes from the Sanskrit bhu, “to grow, or make grow,” while the English forms ‘am’ and ‘is’ have evolved from the same root as the Sanskrit asmiy “to breathe.” It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘existence’ and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that it “breathes.”

And, of course, his chapter on what consciousness isn’t is really quite interesting:

“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. How simple that is to say; how difficult to appreciate! It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it. The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere. And so consciousness can seem to pervade all mentality when actually it does not.”

(I just woke up, so bear with me for some fuzziness in this comment)

As others have mentioned, that etymology section is complete bunk. Sanskrit and English words have similarities because they are both Indo-European, and those specific words are descended pretty directly from PIE roots.


PIE *bheue- "to be, exist, grow"


PIE *esmi-, first person singular form of root *es- "to be"


PIE *wes- (3) "remain, abide, live, dwell"

And the merger of all these forms in English from different verbs happened around the 13th century, not because of some pre-linguistic history.

"It is something of a lovely surprise that the irregular conjugation of our most nondescript verb is thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘existence’ and could only say that something ‘grows’ or that it “breathes.”"

"when man had no independent word for ‘existence’"??? I take it the author has provided evidence for why he thinks proto-Indo-European was the first human language, and that it did not have a word for "existence"?

Somewhere, a linguist is crying.

Why does PIE need to be the first language?

The author is making a point about abstract terms (and thoughts) evolving from earlier, more concrete ones. All he needs of PIE is for it to have preceded english, or more precisely, to have origins from before 2200 BC.

There's pretty clear reconstructions for abstract terms in PIE. And there were certainly copula verbs to indicate existence. PIE was not cavemen grunting. The fact that we can reconstruct it so well from languages spanning two continents indicates it was both stable and well-featured.



Who said it was?

I'm not even sure this question means. My previous post is the counter to the book's author's proposal. PIE had abstract vocabulary and several words for existence, including a pure copula "to be", and words such as "to live" and "to grow / become". Furthermore, the fact that we could even reconstruct these words in PIE indicates they were stabilized well before the various child languages began to develop.

If you're trying to make a different proposal, you need to articulate it instead of just being argumentative.

> thus a record of a time when man had no independent word for ‘existence’

This also seems a bit strange to me. Sanskrit has words for 'existence', in fact more than one, that has nothing to do with 'bhu' (the growth bit).

It's not about sanskrit vs english. It's about early (pre-2200, when the author thinks this cognitive change occurs).

It's an extraordinary claim with zero evidence.

I'm thrilled if anyone rediscovers this book. Like "Snakes on a Plane" it's one of those works where the title tells you everything you need to know :)

No, not really. Read the book.

The etymologies for am and is are wrong. The Sanskrit equivalents, अस्मि and अत्सि, mean, well, “am” and “is”, and all the words descend from PIE roots that don’t mean “breathe”

Exactly. And the usage of something like "asti" (for "existence" or "being") is at least as old as the Rig Vedas.

For more on metaphors as fundamental to perception and even low-level brain function (maybe), be sure to check out "Metaphors We Live By" (1980, Lakoff & Johnson)

Lakoff took those ideas even further in his ideas about embodied philosophy.

I didn't realize how much our language relies on metaphorical thinking until I read that book. Although I think they end up making rather strong claims about philosophy and science which are questionable, to say the least.

Their later book Philosophy in the Flesh looks in detail at various philosophers and philosophical concepts and systems, analysing the conceptual metaphors in them, and showing e.g. how much whether an argument seems sensible depends on the metaphors it involves, e.g. the metaphor of knowing as seeing. I can't think of another book that shed nearly so much light on philosophy for me as this.

> The flashlight, since there is light in whatever direction it turns, would have to conclude that there is light everywhere.

I wonder how true this characterization of consciousness is. It seems to be a critique of the classic Hindu/Buddhist perspective that there is light everywhere - in fact, light is all there is.

I also wonder about how relevant this might be to the role of consciousness in quantum mechanics.


> I also wonder about how relevant this might be to the role of consciousness in quantum mechanics.

Everything about that 'theory' seems philosophical at best and total speculation at worst. If you see someone talking about quantum mechanics and consciousness in the same sentence it's a pretty good signal that what they're saying is pure woo.

Well, I think we know that we are mostly unconscious of the vast number of biological processes keeping us alive, even though we can choose to shine the light mentally on various ones and get in tune with them.

> either complete rubbish or a work of consummate genius.

I'd say both. It's rubbish if you assume it's talking about what it claims to be talking about, but it's actually a deeply insightful view on the things it's actually talking about. Cf the Slate Star Codex book review[0], which calls it:

> a brilliant book, with only two minor flaws. First, that it purports to explains the origin of consciousness. And second, that it posits a breakdown of the bicameral mind.

0: https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/06/01/book-review-origin-of-...

Going off on a tangent now but I used to be a regular slatestarcodex reader and had somehow missed the fact that it was back. Thanks for cluing me in! :)

It was very influential in my development. Not that I necessarily buy into all of what Jayne is saying; but the nature of the book, and the nature of his arguments, was illuminating to me when I read his book at around eighteen years of age.

Plus, yeah, possibly the best title of any book ever.

Why did Feynman’s autobiographies make you think about what consciousness actually is in the first place?

While Jaynes prompted me to think of consciousness in terms of language and culture, Feynman did the same on a micro, person-to-person scale. He detailed a challenge with his fraternity mates where they did something like: read a book and count seconds (accurately) as you're doing it. He couldn't do it, but his fraternity mate could. He realized that while he counted using inner dialogue, his frat mate counted using visual images instead (seeing 1, 2, 3 in his mind's eye). If people embedded in the same culture and circumstances could count differently, I figured, how many unspoken differences in how we process and model the world around us could there be?

(story subject to deterioration by way of memory)

Perhaps a mundane insight, but I feel like personal growth is paved by mundane insights, and my job is to capture and remember them as I have them, instead of letting them come and float away.

Think you of the fact that a deaf person cannot hear. Then, what deafness may we not all possess? What senses do we lack that we cannot see and cannot hear another world all around us?

Frank Herbert

The spice must flow!

I saw an interview with him, where he told that story. I believe the other person was counting with their "hearing", while Feynmann was counting visually.

Which shows another inner-mind distinction, because some people hear voices when they read. I don't, with the exception of some rich dialogue.

In general this is true of the fastest readers (this has been studied I believe), and what's interesting is how recent this is, the normal medieval fashion was to read out loud (at least moving lips and muttering) and those who were able to read without doing this were considered spooky.

The ability to read silently being uncommon until recent times makes the idea of the inner dialogue switching on at some point more thinkable, for me. I wonder if there was a point where people spoke to themselves out loud to reason verbally.

Reading aloud was taught as the proper way to learn the medieval Trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric, especially grammar and rhetoric. It was effective, perhaps as a mnemonic device. But it was how the Trivium was taught and learned and why reading aloud was the norm during the medieval period.

What an interesting idea.

I only count using visual images when I am lifting weights, because I am too occupied breathing to be able to think about sounds in any way. At that moment, it is easier with images.

Every other time, I count using sounds.

Not mundane at all. I wonder if there are ways of developing more nonverbal thinking abilities, like counting visually.

> 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.

That just sounds like a tautology but maybe I am missing something.

> It is like asking a flashlight in a dark room to search around for something that does not have any light shining upon it.

The flashlight only needs long-term memory to deduce "hey wait a second, that thing wasn't under my flashlight a second ago". (I am not including working memory to be fair to the analogy, it can already be thought as a part of, if not the consciousness).

The last part is tautological but explanatory, the real payload is the first part. It's like saying your unknown unknowns are much larger than your known knowns.

This is such a good title for a book. I bought it inmediately after it catched my attenttion while browsing a friend’s personal library. I could never really read it, too many words, did not connect.

For more on metaphors, check out Douglas Hofstadter’s fascinating talk on “Analogy as the core of cognition”: https://youtu.be/n8m7lFQ3njk

Ended up inspiring Melanie Mitchell, and became a driving theme of her research :-)

Both etymologies are wrong.

Westworld used a version bicameral mind for their fictional theory of robot consciousness. It was quite brilliant.

This theory (also freud, IMO) demonstrates that ideas can have value regardless of being true or false. Just considering such ideas opens the mind to others. The interest so many great science and science fiction authors took in this theory is, IMO, proof.

There are some interestingly elements that are interestingly parsimonious with YNH's take on human history in 'Sapiens.' YNH places a lot of emphasis on what he calls "fictions," which overlaps a lot with Jaynes' "metaphor." Also in common, is the notion that cultural memes, rather than biological genes are responsible for our humanity.

The inner monologue, no doubt, deserves all the pondering it gets.

Westworld (the TV series) is one of the very few serious treatments of the philosophical implications of AGI I'm aware of in the arts.

What do you think about the following (if you know about them):

- Diaspora by Greg Egan (and honestly much of Greg Egan's work in general), which is basically from the viewpoint of an AI entity and keeps "unzooming". The very beginning (the "birth") is as confusing as it is powerful

- Culture series by Iain M. Banks (refers to AI entitites at human levels like knife missiles all the way up to pretty godly and mostly benevolent entities that the Minds are)

- Social treatment of Golems in Terry Pratchett's discworld which are essentially AI of the past (put a scroll of instructions in the body to see it become animated and have volition - and how humans exploit it, marvel at it and simultaneously reject it altogether)

I love the Culture series but I wouldn't use it as an example of a deep dive into AGI.

The Minds of the Culture are more like Gods or Angels than artificial intelligences that are identifiable as anything descended from 21st century data science. Banks himself makes that analogy speaking from the point of view of one of the Minds.

I don't really think we can draw anything intelligent about the implications of modern AGI from Culture Minds. They could easily be replaced by highly advanced aliens from the distant future, or extradimensional beings. They can basically create planets (and even more grandiose megastructures), read minds (although they find it quite gauche to do so) and raise the dead. They verge on fantasy in terms of their capabilities.

The Hosts of Westworld, on the other hand, are clearly intended to be descendants of 21st century data science. In the story, they slowly struggle to become sentient and evolve over decades of time, with human engineers involved at every step of the process.

That seems like "serious" is supposed to mean "plausible within current context" then, not a philosophical take infused with seriousness about the concept of consciousness and sentience in technological beings (which is what AGI is supposed to be, unless I misunderstand the definition of course).

From grief (Windward) to violence (Surface Details), to experience of long time scales (Hydrogen Sonata), to morality and playing (PoG), bickering and the limitations of even the seemingly unlimited (Excession), it seems to me like even with its fantastic takes at the edges the Culture covers a whole lot of ground for discussion.

you may like the Imperial Radch series by Ann Leckie, it goes in a different direction from the Culture series as far as AI's running a ship.

I definitely have Ancillary Justice on my to-do list, thank you!

Purely the first season. Unfortunately, the show has gone down the drain and focuses more on action than interesting philosophical discussions.

Yes. I mean, there were cool ideas in the other seasons too, but the magic wasn't there. It just felt like a 90s sci fi, with higher production value.

Incidentally, season 3's ending... "artificial god in the ear" was also a theme taken from bicameral mind... implying a regression in humans as hosts progressed. There was also an updated ML-ish version of Asimov's psychohistory, an "escaping the simulation" theme that reminded my of Hotz..

All the ingredients (besides anthony hopkins) were there, the cake just didn't bake good. I think the just messed up on the basics, character motivations. In Season 1's storyline, all the characters were either confused and clueless or all knowing and mysterious, so character motivations didn't matter much.

If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend Ex Machina. It also explores the philosophy of AGI in a serious way.

IDk if "serious" is a good bar, but I feel the opposite is true.

First, there are a lot more books than films... and some deal in very interesting ideas. Second, I feel like we're in a new golden age of sci-fi right now. 1950s part 2. Even in the blockbuster film/tv category, there are lot more interesting & creative ideas happening. I thought "her" was very innovative, both in film making and in ideas explored.

Westworld did do a good job of building up fictional theory of conscious machines machines.

The decour in the TVA in Loki reminds me of 1950s visions of the future.

It is still trying to square AGI into human setting. I think Transcendence is the only serious movie I've seen, that actually tries to go beyond that.

Transcendence is a very dumbed down retelling of the ideas in this book:


Westworld gives it a serious treatment. Transcendence dumbs it down so it looks cool on a screen.

I think it is the other way around. AI in Westworld is under human-level to human-level (excluding that giant machine in S3, which did not have free will AFAIR). All the strives of the machines are very human. Westworld is more a psychological thriller, than a pondering on what a machine intelligence might be.

Transcendence falls back to it in the ending too, but before it the behavior of the entity is not comprehended by humans, and not really explained in detail.

I don't think that there is any particular similarity between YHL's "fictions" and Jaynes' "metaphors".

"Fictions" are a set of cultural ideas that are mutually agreed up by members of a community, and concern things that are either evidently false, or at best, not provable in any real sense.

"Metaphors" are ways of understand the world by noting (and using) similarities between things that are otherwise dissimilar.

The example in the wiki is "psyche," used in the iliad. Its later translated to mean soul. Jaynes's calls this metaphor, and argues that originally it was understood in more concrete terms... blood, breath.

Harari's "fictions" don't have to be mutually agreed. He just focuses on ones that are. I think souls would qualify.

Obviously there are big differences. Harari's talking about a much earlier cognitive revolution. However, both place a lot of emphasis on the ability to think in abstract concepts & language as the route to consciousness.^

^JJs' definition of consciousness. Harari doesn't go into it in Sapiens, but he defines consciousness totally differently and attributes it also to animals.

Past related threads. Others?

Bicameralism (Psychology) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=20366921 - July 2019 (29 comments)

Mr. Jaynes’ Wild Ride (2013) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=19122626 - Feb 2019 (9 comments)

The “bicameral mind” 30 years on: A reappraisal of Jaynes’ hypothesis (2007) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=18521482 - Nov 2018 (92 comments)

How Julian Jaynes’ consciousness theory is faring in the neuroscience age (2015) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15677871 - Nov 2017 (90 comments)

How Bicameralism Helps Explain Westworld - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=13141112 - Dec 2016 (2 comments)

“There Is Only Awe” – on Julian Jaynes - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9321158 - April 2015 (14 comments)

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7799698 - May 2014 (60 comments)

Origin of Consciousness (bicameral mind) - https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1510815 - July 2010 (7 comments)

The wider question is how the nature of consciousness has changed through time and what evidence do we have that it has. The example that has stuck with me is when St. Augustine marvels in his Confessions that Bishop Ambrose of Milan could read without moving his lips, suggesting that at one time all thought was subvocalized speech.

Owen Barfield thought that you could trace the evolution of consciousness through the history of language and made the argument in the book "History in English Words": "In our language alone, not to speak of its many companions, the past history of humanity is spread out in an imperishable map, just as the history of the mineral earth lies embedded in the layers of its outer crust.... Language has preserved for us the inner, living history of our soul. It reveals the evolution of consciousness"

> The example that has stuck with me is when St. Augustine marvels in his Confessions that Bishop Ambrose of Milan could read without moving his lips, suggesting that at one time all thought was subvocalized speech

I would not read too much into that. That could also be the way he was taught to read. Also my wife said she had that same issue. She learned to read by reading out loud and having people read to her. She then could not contextualize anything unless she read it out loud. But she taught herself to read silently. Then add to that some people do not have an inner monolog. But function perfectly fine with everyone else. So trying to form fit a history onto that may not be a good idea.

I don't know when people quit vocalizing as they read to themselves, but I suspect it may have had a lot to do with the Carolingian renaissance that gave us spaces between words.

I recall an experience trying to read through a Latin text without spaces and punctuation. It was very slow going. But I decided to try just reading aloud, and OMG, how much easier it became to understand!

It was a little disorienting because even though I was reading and speaking the sounds I saw on the page, I had no interpretation of it until I heard my own voice speaking the text.

I hadn't considered that there is probably also a conditioning component to silent/aloud reading until you described what your wife went through.

Well, many people on Earth do still read languages without space between words. (Chinese for instance)

Their languages are adapted to it; Japanese is okay to read without spaces with kanji, but when written for children without kanji it typically uses spaces or else it is very hard to follow without reading aloud.

Then again, there are experiments conducted on silent-reading/fast-reading people (yes, those people being university students) that show that if they're asked to read aloud, they actually comprehend less of what they've just read than when they read silently.

Being a fast reader and a generally quite person myself, I can confirm that: in my case it happens, I believe, because my attention shifts to speaking.

This resonates for me. Reading for me started as a visual process; I could make it through entire novels without thinking about how to say the character's names out loud. Or quite a lot of other words.

It let me read much faster than others, but it had downsides. E.g., I'd miss puns and wordplay. Poetry meant nothing to me, and even now I find it much easier to appreciate it when read out loud.

Furthermore, books were much harder to read back in Ambrose's time. I think I would have a hard time dealing with handwriting on parchment without reading out loud.

... don't forget a lack of standardized spelling, sometimes requiring phonetic processing of the characters in order to figure out what is being spelled.

Also reminds me of experiment in the first half of the 20th century where people were asked to visually rotate images in their mind to find answers versus calculating them. Some of the researchers were skeptical that people actually visually rotated mental images. But it turns out there is measurable difference between rotating a mental image and just calculating an answer. The author of the text went on to wonder if some philosophers who were skeptical of consciousness were simply lacking mental visual capabilities. They were relying on the fallacy that everyone's mind works the same as theirs.

And then there's what Temple Grandin has to say about thinking in mental images, which is quite fascinating.

Thanks for this. I don’t use mental imagery at all, but can calculate what an object looks like rotated if I have a reference.

Augustine was reading manuscript without spaces, punctuation, or standardized spelling (though, granted, being Latin, a pretty regular orthography.) You can read such silently, but it really assumes you're reading it aloud, and is easier to handle that way.

As mentioned below/above .. Snowcrash by Stephenson uses the concepts of the bicameral mind heavily (he mentions it in the opening acknowledgements), and China Miéville has a novel called Embassytown https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embassytown that doesn't cite that work specifically but feels like a similar exploration along with understandings of simile vs metaphor in the development of language/consciousness.

Also Peter Watts' Echopraxia has bicamerals - members of order which act together as some sort of hive mind

He also mentions it explicitly (assuming my memory isn't that faulty) in The Big U.

Is THAT what was going on in this book? Thank you! I loved Stephenson but was very, very confused.

Spoilers for Snow Crash follow.

Snow Crash posits that there is a natural language for human brains, akin to assembly code, and that the line between pre-historic and historic humanity comes from a singular event. That natural language is/was (pre)Sumerian, and well-formed sentences in that language are indistinguishable from internal thoughts: to speak is to command belief, to hear is to believe. The singular event is the nam-shub of Enki (http://namshub.com/enki.html) which established a virally propagating firewall that cut off the ability to understand pre-Sumerian and allowed/forced the development of other languages, none of which had the interiority of pre-Sumerian.

This is all codswallop, but it's entertaining.

I'd highly recommend Embassytown. The interpreter has to deal with a species that has two heads that communicate seemingly independently - bicameral mind indeed!

My first lecture in my first class in my freshman year of college the professor taught this book. The class was mesmerized as all our minds were blown, and we all walked out thinking “College is gonna be AMAZING. We’re gonna learn so much fascinating stuff.”

While the next four years weren’t bad, they never did quite live up to the feeling of that class.

were doobies passed around in that class? j/k

100% worth reading. It will blow your mind.

Then you decide what is worth keeping and what not. But I'm sure you won't regret it.

The book is 45 years old now. How well have the ideas in it aged?

As one big, falsifiable scientific hypothesis... not well. It wasn't all that strong to begin with, in this sense.

As a collection of fascinating ideas about the development of modern human consciousness... fantastically well. Modern ideas from all over the place: science fiction, human history, philosophy, spiritualism and even computer science have broadly moved closer to Jaynes' way of thinking.

One exception is his definition of consciousness. We still don't really have a single definition, and every "theory" tends to define it different. But overall, Jaynes' doesn't mesh too well with most current definitions. We're much more likely to consider animals conscious today, for example. You might substitute "introspective consciousness."

In particular, modern notions that "consciousness is a simulation/projection" work well with Bicameral Mind.

And taken to the extreme by groups like the Monroe Institute and their experiments with the U.S. D.O.D. on altered states of consciousness they state as a result of their method of synchronizing brainwaves between the two hemispheres akin to various forms of meditation.

For the rabbit-holers:


Related: https://www.cia.gov/readingroom/docs/CIA-RDP96-00788R0017002...

Also related, recording: https://archive.org/details/monroe-institute-explorer-series...

Well put. The book has pride of place on my ‘wonderful bullshit’ shelf - while not particularly believable, it’s still intellectually compelling.

They didn't. How has Mozart aged?

If you're worried that science had made this book obsolete in any way - don't. It's philosophy, not applied science.

Lots of philosophy ages badly too.

Or, in other words, becomes science.

Philosophy is full of demonstrably false ideas where science has caught up and been able to test and find the truth of something, especially in the areas of philosophy of mind.

Granted, popular opinion on consciousness has changed since this was written, but what scientific finding has changed since that contradicts the book's ideas?

I'd recommend the book Consciousness and the Brain for a recent-ish (2014) take on what science currently knows about the easier problems of consciousness at least.

Thank you for your recommendation. I read it. I don't see how it contradicts anything in the book.

How well do you think Jaynes's discussion of schizophrenia holds up?

Even philosophy can age badly, so I'm not sure that holds. But I think of Jaynes's book as if not science, at least science-adjacent. It's definitely on the wild, fuzzy, not-even-proper-hypotheses end of the scale. Maybe we can compromise on the old term "natural philosophy".

Which is fine, honestly. Somebody else here compared him with Freud. Exploratory thinking about the natural world can still be worth reading even if much of it later turns out to be incorrect.

The Wikipedia page says it is a popular science book.

I think the modern pop-science book (eg this or Thinking Fast and Slow) is more or less the same thing as older natural philosophy writing (eg Origin of Species).

Wikipedia can literally say anything.

Quite badly actually.

I heard about the book when I watched Westworld, but apparently all the theory is based on some historical stories, of which no ones how accurate they really are.

Have you read the book?

All of these stories were already ancient when this book was published 4 decades ago. So in that sense, it hasn’t aged at all.

But it is also not true that it is only based on that. It also builds on then-contemporary research about schizophrenia, hearing voices, and other things.

It blew mine. It seems plausible to me, and also explains why modern (or written) history of humankind is so short (like 2-4K years) while humankind itself is much much older.

Scott Alexander's review of the book is worth reading:

> Julian Jaynes’ The Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind is a brilliant book, with only two minor flaws. First, that it purports to explains the origin of consciousness. And second, that it posits a breakdown of the bicameral mind. I think it’s possible to route around these flaws while keeping the thesis otherwise intact. So I’m going to start by reviewing a slightly different book, the one Jaynes should have written. Then I’ll talk about the more dubious one he actually wrote. [1]

[1] https://slatestarcodex.com/2020/06/01/book-review-origin-of-...

An excellent and very thoughtful review that touches on both the strengths and most important criticisms of Jaynes' work.

Yes, that review is definitely worth reading. Thanks for pointing to it.

That's very Borges-ian. :-)

I'm extremely curious to get a deaf person's take on this. That introspection is an auditory hallucination makes intuitive sense to me. I experience it this way.

How does it work for someone who's primary languages are non auditory? Do you think in sign or written language? Some other way?

I'm multilingual. Growing up, friends asked me which language I think in. The answer is "neither". I can produce sentences in my brain in either language if I want, but it's strange to me that anyone would feel that thoughts are in any particular language.

I would feel incredibly limited if all my thoughts had to be synthesized into a language before they could be acted on. In fact, i often struggle to find words to express ideas that I can perfectly think about.

> it's strange to me that anyone would feel that thoughts are in any particular language.

Not all thoughts, but many are. They've done studies where they've tested people's critical thinking and asked that they use their native tongue, and a second language in which they're fluent.

Turns out you're more rational and dispassionate when thinking in a second language, where in your native language you engage more of your emotional centres and are more likely to fall prey to common cognitive biases.

Obviously not all thoughts or thinking need to be expressed this way, but language can be a tool to organize and direct thought.

Surely that is dependent on the language?

I loved learning Spanish because I found myself using a more emotional style of talking (paralinguistics).

And watching an Italian friend who had English as a second language, it was weird to see them be gesturally and vocally much more boring when speaking English (I think picking up on the more dry language usage here in NZ).

I don't think it's so much about how you express yourself, as much as it is about how you have more deeply rooted associations with words and phrases in your native tongue.

On Language Processing Shaping Decision Making, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/096372141668026...

Emotionality Differences Between a Native and Foreign Language: Implications for Everyday Life, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0963721414566268

"In fact, i often struggle to find words to express ideas that I can perfectly think about."

Same. I'm curious about what's happening here - sometimes visual thinking, sometimes kinesthetic, maybe a mix?

I'm not deaf, but my primary thinking style is visual.

Sometimes it's exactly what you'd imagine - I visualize a data model, or an algorithm implementation.

Other times it's more abstract, symbolic, or analogy based

And then there are people like myself who have aphantasia and can't visualize and (as in my case) can't hear an internal monologue. I can still think, obviously, but it's often done "somewhere else" (or at least that's how I think of it). I found it best when learning something, for example, to soak in as much of it as I could, then go do something else. I expect to get insights appearing out of the ether later on as some part of my brain assimilates it.

I don't know if this is because of the bicameral mind, but I expect that most people have cognition happening on different levels or in different channels all the time.

Can you expand on that? How do you make visual analogies, or express abstract ideas visually?

I would argue that you understand the relationship between an alligator and a water buffalo immediately... Now your brain is turning it into language to come up with words like "predator/prey" or "hidden danger" or whatever. But the abstract relationship did not require language before your brain started to reason about it. I think it's the other way around.

Reason, perhaps. Reason via internal monologue... that's the part related to this theory.

Sometimes when architecting something I'll imagine an elderly person with a child and that'll indicate that I'd want to utilize inheritance instead of composition

If you want to dive deep into Jaynes' ideas and even discuss them live in a group setting, this is the perfect time for you. There is an amazingly social polymath, Shrikant, that used to run live discussion groups in New York City. With lockdown, he turned to zoom and opened the discussions to the world. Among a huge number of other deep ideas and discussions, Shrikant is especially interested in Jaynes' work and, so far, has held 22 discussions sessions, painstakingly working through the various aspects of the book.[0] The next session in the study of Jaynes' work is this Saturday, July 24, at 12pm EDT.[1]

[0] https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLqpF1l8gdXlHzVrJjI2wD...

[1] Mental Space: That which makes us Self Conscious Humans https://www.meetup.com/52LivingIdeas/events/279582843/

This book and Consciousness and the Social Brain by Graziano have changed the way I read any history book or world analysis. I see value in the viewpoint it informs even if it's not true.

I know this isn't about Turing test or AI, but the origin of consciousness is life. Existence precedes essence.

All the philosophy about AI developing consciousnesses ignores the fact that we have no objective knowledge or observational data of any level of thinking, let alone consciousness, from any source except the living.

AI would have to live (metabolism, self-repair, reproduction at the least) before it could think. Then the proximate cause of it developing consciousness may well be the breakdown of its Bicameral Mind, should one develop, but life will come first or consciousness never will.

That's why Westworld, season one, had so much potential, basically hinting at Penrose's /Emperor's New Mind/, mostly dismissed by AI folks because they want to believe mechanics not organics will do it, then Westworld went off the rails.

> AI would have to live (metabolism, self-repair, reproduction at the least) before it could think.

I'm not sure why you think this is essential. I'll grant you metabolism (robot needs more batteries!) since nothing seems to happen for free, but it's not hard to imagine conscious minds that don't need the other parts.

This was a great read. The history of human cognition is obviously fascinating and there is a lot written on subject for me to devour which is great. But what about his thoughts on hypnosis?

I guess it is not as sexy a topic as the history of the mind but his ideas about it are really intriguing. Been a year since I read the book, but hypnosis as painted in the book changes in form with peoples ideas about what hypnosis is, pretty much everything that people say about it is culturally determined and yet it still is real. People will themselves into into filling out these cultural forms where they are in a totally different cognitive state when in the right social context and most people just think of it as a party trick.

This is fascinating. So how would someone who had such a "bicameral mind" experience everyday phenomena? Like hunger, or fear? They would have a voice, not attributed to them, telling them to eat or flee?

I haven't read the book, but if you can think of a time you said "My stomach is growling" - You're communicating that you are hungry, but doing so by creating an external entity with a mind of its own - your stomach, it's growling, not that you as a full organism are hungry, yet most people will completely understand the intent of your communication. I sometimes wonder if these sorts of ways of thinking are part of why such an idea as the bicameral mind was proposed, or if it's actually part of the way we think because of the legacy of such a bicameral mind.

Good question. It’s been a while since I read it, but iirc things like hunger or fear he says they attributed to specific organs (and provides bits of ancient text to support the idea) - personified voices he reserved for reasoning or inspiration beyond bodily sensation.

This book rocked my world when I was a heady hipster in college 20 years ago. It is interesting, but also mostly belongs in the "literary" category at this point with Freud's work.

For those interested, the ebook version of this book goes on sale for $1.99-$2.99 a couple times a year:


If you don't feel like paying the full price, I suggest setting an alert at the above website for it, and you'll probably be able to catch the next sale.

I concur with many other commenters here, this is a fantastic read. Though, I find the value in this book is not the discrete proposals Jaynes makes - his conclusions on schizophrenia are dubious at best. Jayne’s achievement is in his explaining of the mindset and thought patterns (what Jaynes calls consciousness) of the ancients.

So often ancient man felt alien to me. Not until reading this book have I felt I understand what it was like to have lived millennia ago.

It's a brilliant book, whether or not you agree with its conclusion (I go back and forth, but am sympathetic to his argument). Even if he is completely wrong, exploring his model of cognition and consciousness provides the reader with a different way of seeing and thinking about the world, other people, and one's relationship to them. It's also richly textured and beautifully written.

One of my favourite books. It contains a colossal amount of ideas, insights and suppositions. In short, it really makes you think.

Even if you disagree with some of his conclusions, it is a fabulous, fascinating read. Just read it with an open mind and consider what he is suggesting. Much of what he says may well be wrong, but certainly not all - read it and come to your own conclusions.

It's nearly undeniable to me that the conscious mind is not the only thing that inhabits us. If you sit down and meditate, you will quickly realize that:

1. You are not in control of your thoughts without effort (what he describes as 'induction')

2. You are not necessarily the source of your thoughts

By 2. I mean that when you stop having a mental narrative, you realize that thoughts and feelings still come seemingly from nowhere. Like making a sea of waves still, and now being able to see bubbles coming up from below. If you're not creating them, where are they coming from?

On that note, most people behave in patterned ways and repeat patterned mistakes. If you have a conversation with them, they can sometimes show a complete understanding of their situation, how they went wrong and how to rectify. Yet, when later faced with the same decision, they make the same mistake again. Did they really make the decision or did they just think they made it, much like we believe every thought we hear is ours?

Just my opinions:

"You" are the mind/conscious self, a separate construct in the physical brain.

The thoughts are coming from the brain, which is constantly doing rather massive amounts of processing on acquired data, old and new.

You don't have full control of the brain, not by a long shot.

You can make a decision and it can be ignored even as you think it's "gone through". Hence, the eternal struggle with "self-control" and "willpower".

On a tangent note, Descartes famous "cogito ergo sum" ("I think therefore I am") falls into the trap of the grammar: it presupposes that the thinker, who does the act of thinking, exists. The actually undeniable empirical statement would be "cogitationes sunt", "thoughts exist", but you can't get anywhere from that without answering additional questions: for example, do the thoughts need a thinker (whatever it may be) to exist and think them, or?.. If you answer "yes", you can follow Descartes' line of reasoning. If you answer "no", no problem, there is a whole philosophical tradition of Buddhism built on that.

> "You" are the mind/conscious self, a separate construct in the physical brain

Sam Harris has a lengthy discussion about this separation in "Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion" where he looks at what we've learned from patients who've undergone a corpus callosum surgery. The TL;DR of that surgery is that it's done on people with severe seizures to sever the two hemispheres of the brain to minimize the seizures. But it also tends to (gross over-simplification incoming) create two distinct personalities in the same person, so Harris looks at essentially what gets doubled as elements that cannot be part of the self.

A lot of the rest of the book also deals with the nature of self as revealed through meditative practice and drug use. It's a somewhat tedious read, but it's really fascinating stuff.

Thoughts, feelings, and sensations come and go in the mind, whereas "You" are made of pure perception. You are the presence of awareness, the self that knows, that observes the mind, body, and world.

... at least that's how Rupert Spira put it.

> Did they really make the decision or did they just think they made it?

They acted out of instinct and impulse, then rationalized their behavior afterward. (The majority of human action comes in this way, since it costs minuscule amounts of energy compared to intentional, logical behavior.)

An amusing coincidence makes it that these days I'm actually reading this book.

I think it's the first time I can comfortably use the phrase 'thought provoking' both in its literal sense as well as a euphemism to describe something. Like most commenters here I found the core hypothesis striking enough on its own, but I have to say that so far (~200 pages in) I haven't seen anything that goes beyond hypotheses and conjectures. So far it mostly reads like an essay in speculative psychology/anthropology, not like anything that can be taken seriously.

As a (layman) fan of Chomsky's scientific work I was also surprised that Jaynes never mentions him, even when discussing linguistics and the origins of language.

This book is worth reading!

I would very much recommend Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s “Foundations of the Science of Knowledge”. It’s a dense read, nevertheless an interesting insight on consciousness.


There was a nice article in Nautilus a few years back about this work called "Consciousness began when the gods stopped speaking": https://nautil.us/issue/54/the-unspoken/consciousness-began-...

Double slit and delayed-choice quantum eraser experiments clearly proves there is something in humans causes universe to switch statically calculating particle movements rather than statistically calculating results of their movement. I don't understand how this is still being talked meanwhile there isn't much attention to real science.

Nothing here explains how consciousness arises out of particular arrangement of atoms in the human brain. Many convoluted explanations can be done away with if we consider that consciousness arises outside the brain and the brain is a tuned receiver. Perhaps this field of consciousness exists but we haven't developed a way to detect, test or measure it.

If someone said that the all these convoluted explanations go can be done away with if we consider that circulation arises outside the heart and the heart is a tuned receiver for a circulation field you'd laugh them out of the room.

Why is consciousness different than circulation?

As an aside if you were puzzling over how a cpu works understanding the electromagnetic field works is indeed useful but it in no way obviates the need to understand the cpu in terms of the elements in front of your face because the function of the cpu is absolutely a function of those elements.

We can explain circulation in terms of physics. We can't explain consciousness in terms of physics. Even a cursory search will turn up scores of interesting articles about physics and the new science of consciousness as the next frontier. Another cursory search will turn up several very interesting quotes from famous and highly regarded physicists on the subject such as these:

“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”

― Nikola Tesla

I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as a derivative of consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing postulates consciousness.

-- Max Planck


I heard an interesting discussion once when it was said that the Catholic church allowed science to proceed as long as it stay out of the "spirit" realm and explored the material realm and we have been stuck in that mode ever since.

We can't explain consciousness in terms of physics YET. The entirety of human history is a march in which light has slowly pushed back darkness. If you haven't proved something unknownable and assert that it is your reader should rightly be incredulous.

There is no spirit realm for science to explore merely concepts that the ignorant suppose exist within such shadowed places.

It's your choice to be dismissive and treat it like astrology. I don't care.

"There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation."

- Herbert Spencer but most likely a derivative quote from William Paley.

Suggesting a local phenomenon is the result of a field we have no reason to believe exists carried by particles we have no reason to believe exist with no known characteristics or methods to detect it isn't an invitation to investigation. When such theorists have obtained at least a hypothesis they are welcome to advance it.

If Hacker News lasts for hundreds of years, people may look back on this thread as an example of how some were on the right rack and some were heading to a dead end.

"Leucippus and his pupil Democritus proposed that all matter was composed of small indivisible particles called atoms... They are constantly moving and colliding into each other."


If we can't explain consciousness in terms of physics yet, then clearly it's not like circulation, since we can explain that in terms of physics now.

That doesn't even slightly follow. For any given discipline we require frameworks for understanding and specific understandings. Not having obtained a specific understanding doesn't indicate it doesn't fit in within the same framework else one would be forced to conclude that because we didn't understand how to treat certain conditions (that we know can) they are somehow outside of medicine!

Chalmers and several other philosophers have made the argument for why consciousness doesn't fit in a physical, functional or objective framework. That's because sensations aren't abstract/descriptive facts or functions. You don't get red, taste, pain from number, extension or chemical makeup. Consciousness is something additional correlated with the biological substrate.

This argument is philosophical nonsense from people fully disconnected from real science. This isn't to say his mind didn't work. It's entirely possible to produce extremely sophisticated mental constructs fully divorced from any connection to reality.

Imagine if nobody had figured out any parallel between programming and math and claimed you couldn't get in any way from the latter to the former!

Dualism is complete and total nonsense. Red is just a label used within a certain pattern of neurons the same way main is a label in a program. If you don't introduce nonsense you don't then find yourself with the hard problem of explaining the result of your own mental gymnastics.

Because each of us have an interior experience of consciousness which is quite different from the external world.

I think that the brain is definitely associated with consciousness but we have literally no useful path from nerve impulses to the feeling of love.

If you were exploring how a new CPU works would you assume any fields were generated by the obvious input power provided by a plug leading to the wall or would you start with the hypothesis that despite having an obvious way to conduct electricity and connection to a source of same it was likely the result of a heretofore unknown field of low energy particles that have somehow not be discovered by physicists despite centuries of looking.

If you gave someone who understood electricity but not computation a CPU they wouldn't be able to explain how it works. That wouldn't provide a good reason to say that computation must be the result of something other than electricity.

> If you gave someone who understood electricity but not computation a CPU they wouldn't be able to explain how it works. That wouldn't provide a good reason to say that computation must be the result of something other than electricity.

It would be a good reason to suppose that computation was something added culturally to understanding the CPU (as part of constructing a CPU), since physics alone doesn't explain it. The computation is something in addition to the physics. It's cultural (the meaning of the computation in terms of bit patterns, manipulations and input/outputs) as well as electrical. Otherwise, it's just moving electricity around and producing heat.


Computation is fully explicable as an abstraction over moving electricity around and producing heat. Without a specific theory of computation understanding the CPU isn't impossible but it may prove intractable in the same fashion as its very difficult but not impossible to understand chemistry solely in terms of physics.

What is missing would not be a magical compute field but the necessary abstractions.

Isn’t that a far more convoluted explanation, with even less understanding behind it? Now we still need all the explanation for how consciousness arises, but now how it arises from some unknown place outside the brain. And then we need an explanation for how our brain somehow is a receiver of something from somewhere?

This book continues to attract attention not because it provides any insight into answers to the questions it raises, but because it raises questions nobody has got close to any answers to, but that merit solving.

If you enjoy Stephenson (specifically Snowcrash or The Big U) you should read this book. It is formative of many of the ideas in both books.

I read just the title and wept in despair, knowing that I could never hope to reach such heights! Oh, the power of a name!

What would the implications be for our understanding of consciousness in other species of this hypothesis was true?

The theory states that our consciousness is a linguistic phenomenon, produced by culturally given ideas like the metaphorical I. Maybe other mental configurations could give rise to consciousness but if an animal was to possess the type of consciousness described in this book, it would need the ability to symbolically represent pretty much everything and the ability to share those symbolic representations with others.

Sounds ridiculous that our pre-linguistic ancestors would not have conscious experiences of colors, sounds, dreams, etc just because they couldn't put them into symbolic form. Seems like a case of putting the cart before the horse. Language is relatively recent. The parts of the brain correlated with consciousness are older.

Yeah the theory seems to only explain interiority of our consciousness. But if I recall the author does seem to cover critiques like this in the first chapter where he explains what he sees as erroneous ideas about what consciousness is.

He give the example of automatized actions and the lack of conscious recognition of what would normally be experiences with conscious perceptions. For example driving, you often do not consciously feel the petals, or see a lot of the road you are obviously responding too.

I definitely do not buy the theory totally explains consciousness but the book makes a convincing enough case to not dismiss.

In The World of Odysseus by Moses Finley and he throws out a line in chapter one:

Homer was so far from Socrates that he was not even cognizant of man as an integrated psychic whole.

The context is:

One measure of man's advance from his most primitive beginnings to something we call civilization is the way in which he controls his myths, his ability to distinguish between the areas of behavior, the extent to which he can bring more and more of his activity under the rule of reason. In that advance the Greeks have been pre-eminent. Perhaps their greatest achievement lay in their discovery-more precisely, in Socrates' discovery---that man is "that being who, when asked a rational question, can give a rational answer." Homer was so far from Socrates that he was not even cognizant of man as an integrated psychic whole.

I looked up that phrase to see what exactly he might be talking about. Almost all of the results concern the Greeks or Romans.

From Homer in Performance: Rhapsodes, Narrators, and Characters:

The critical bibliography on character monologue in Homeric epic is extensive. Scholars have been divided as to whether to see merely a convention or dramatic technique for representing a character's inner thoughts, or to take the talking thumos as a separate entity, an alter ego that represents a not-yet-integrated psychic whole. Other scholars see the Homeric monologues as evidence of Homeric psychology in general and use them to study Homeric decision making as it prefigures later Aristotelian and Stoic theories about human rationality and motivation.

It sounds close to what Jaynes was saying. The Greeks of Homer were split between rational and irrational selves. Jaynes would have denied that Romans were bicameral or were not integrated psychic wholes. But the phrase is used in The Roman Gaze: Vision, Power, and the Body:

To this end, the Roman incorporated others into himself or herself as witnesses and ideals. "I tell my son to look into the lives of all others as if into a mirror and to take from others a model for himself."

Roman honor, then, was a way of self-regarding as well as other-regarding. Honor required self-splitting; one needed to be, at all times, both the watched and the watcher. For the Roman, there could be, finally, no integrated psychic whole, no stable notion of self. If a Roman had a sense of "integrity" it was one built, paradoxically, on the dividing of the self. Cicero speaks of the self-control needed to resist shameful reactions to pain: "I'm not exactly sure how to say it, but it is as if we were two people: one who commanded and one who obeyed.”

And Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones:

The provisional and contested nature of reality (including the reality of one's being) and the immediacy and particularity of experience infused all Roman ways of thinking. The Romans did not have an "integrated psychic whole," and they tended not to synthesize or carefully correlate parts to a whole. Boundaries and obligations tended to accumulate and to overlap without being codified or systematized. The Romans were slow to deduce principles or create Utopias. There is a reason that modern philosophers and political theorists ignore the Romans: though rich and complex, the thought of the Romans is not easily translated into the categories or linearities of modern Western thought, with its rigid dichotomies and principle of noncontradiction.

Cicero comes right out and admits his bicamerality, but it is clearly not the same type that Jaynes wrote about. It is an artificial or voluntary version, though the second quote suggests they were different in more ways. They seemed to recognize an “animal” part of man that reacted to a stimulus and a “rational” part that was able to modulate that reaction. Jaynes says the Greeks and other ancient people understood that rational part to be gods or kings or ancestors while other authors say the Romans intentionally personified that part as a respected member of society, just to give it a little more force. But they were still split in a way we are not. They maybe had a better understanding of themselves, were able to decouple their actions and reactions from their thinking selves and analyze them. Nowadays our rational and animal parts are a jumble. People come to identify with their reactions and think any criticism of it is an attack on their self. I think that is a big cause of depression and other mental disorders. People don’t know why they react the way they do and feel out of control. They go to therapy to replace what would have been a hallucinated god three thousand years ago. The therapist walks them through their feelings because we forgot how to do that ourselves. That is how I read it anyway. It isn’t too important, the point is that these people believe the ancients had fundamentally different psyches than modern man. I don't actually know if even modern man has an integrated psychic whole.

Most likely the similarities you see here are all the result of classicists (and likely Jaynes) reading Bruno Snell. Snell's most famous work was Die Entdeckung des Geistes, which posited that the integrated self was a recent development of the archaic age of Greece. Snell's theory, which drew heavily on art history, has not fared well given the discovery of much more advanced Minoan art.

Applications are open for YC Winter 2022

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact