The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

The origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind, a 1976 book by Julian Jaynes, is probably one of the most intriguing and contentious works in the already unusually controversial field of consciousness studies. This book proposed bicameralism, the hypothesis that the human mind once operated in a state in which cognitive functions were divided between one half of the brain, which appears to be speaking, and another half which listens and follows instructions. Julian Jaynes’ central claim is that consciousness in humans, in the form that is familiar to us today, is a relatively recent phenomenon, whose development followed the invention of writing, the evolution of complex societies and the collapse of bicameralism. According to Jaynes, in the bicameral eras, humans attributed the origin of the inner voices (which we presumably all hear) not to themselves, but to gods. Human behavior was, therefore, not conscious but automatic. Actions followed from strict obedience to these inner voices, which represented orders from a personal god, themselves conditioned by social and cultural norms.

In Jaynes view, consciousness is strongly connected with human language (an assertion hard to refute but possibly an insufficiently general description) and results, in large part, from our ability to introspect, and to hold conversations and dialogues with ourselves. The change in human’s perception of these voices, a process which, according to Jaynes, took place over a time span that lasted only a couple of millennia, during the Babylonian, Assyrian, Greek and Egyptian civilizations (the ones he studied) led to the creation of consciousness as we know it today. This implies that human consciousness, as it exists today, is a brand new phenomenon, in the evolutionary timescale.

Taken at face value, this theory goes totally against the very ingrained belief that humans have been fully conscious for hundreds of thousands or even millions of years, if we consider other species of hominids and other primates. It is certainly strange to think that consciousness, as we know it, is a phenomenon with only a few millennia.

And yet, Jaynes’ arguments are everything but naive. They are, in fact, very sophisticated and based on extensive analyses of historical evidence. The problem with the theory is not that it is simplistic or that there is a lack of presented evidence. The problem I have with this theory is that the evidence presented comes mostly from a very subjective and argumentative analysis of historical artifacts (books, texts, vases, ruins), which are interpreted, in a very intelligent way, to support Jaynes’ main points.

To give an example, which plays an important role in the argument, let’s consider the Iliad. In this text, which predates, according to Jaynes, conscious behavior, and has its origins in bicameral times, all human actions derive, directly, from the clear and audible instructions received from gods. In the Iliad, there is no space for reflection, autonomy, cogitations, hesitations or doubts. Heroes and plain humans act on the voices of gods, and that’s it. The Odyssey and posterior texts are progressively more elaborate on human thought and motivation and (according to Jaynes) the works of Solon are the first that can be viewed as modern, consistent with our current views of human will and human consciousness. Most significant of all, to Jaynes, is the Bible, in particular the Old Testament, which he sees as the ultimate record of the progressive evolution of men from bicameralism to subjective, conscious, behavior.  Analysis of these texts and of other evidence of the evolution of consciousness in Mesopotamia, Assyria, Greece, and Egypt, are exhaustively presented, and should not be taken lightly. At the least, Jaynes may have a point in that consciousness, today, is not the same thing as consciousness, five millennia ago. This may well be true, and it is hard for us to understand human thought from that time.

An yet, I remained unconvinced of Jaynes’ main point. True, the interpretation he makes of the historical evidence is from someone who has studied the materials deeply and I am certainly unable to counter-argue with someone who is so familiar with the topics. But, to me, the many facts (thousands, probably) that he brings to bear on his argument can all be the result of many other factors. Maybe the writers of the Iliad wanted to use god’s voices for stylistic effect, maybe the empty throne of the Assyrian king Tukulti-Ninurta depicted in a famous scene is not due to the disappearance and silence of the gods (as he argues) but to some other reasons. Jaynes proposes many interesting and ingenious interpretations of historical data, but in the end I was not convinced that these interpretations are sufficient to support his main thesis.

Despite missing his main objective, however, the book makes for a great read, presenting an interpretation of ancient history that is gripping and enlightening, if not fully convincing.

The mind of a fly

Researchers from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Google and other institutions have published the neuron level connectome of a significant part of the brain of the fruit fly, what they called the hemibrain. This may become one of the most significant advances in our understanding of the detailed structure of complex brains, since the 302 neurons connectome of C. elegans was published in 1986, by a team headed by Sydney Brenner, in an famous article with the somewhat whimsical subtitle of The mind of a worm. Both methods used an approach based on the slicing of the brains in very thin slices, followed by the use of scanning electron microscopy and the processing of the resulting images in order to obtain the 3D structure of the brain.

The neuron-level connectome of C. elegans was obtained after a painstaking effort that lasted decades, of manual annotation of the images obtained from the thousands of slices imaged using electron microscopy. As the brain of Drosophila melanogaster, the fruit fly, is thousands of times more complex, such an effort would have required several centuries if done by hand. Therefore, Google’s machine learning algorithms have been trained to identify sections of neurons, including axons, bodies and dendritic trees, as well as synapses and other components. After extensive training, the millions of images that resulted from the serial electron microscopy procedure were automatically annotated by the machine learning algorithms, enabling the team to complete in just a few years the detailed neuron-level connectome of a significant section of the fly brain, which includes roughly 25000 neurons and 20 million synapses.

The results, published in the first of a number of articles, can be freely analyzed by anyone interested in the way a fly thinks. A Google account can be used to log in to the neuPrint explorer and an interactive exploration of the 3D electron microscopy images is also available with neuroglancer. Extensive non-technical coverage by the media is also widely available. See, for instance, the article in The Economist or the piece in The Verge.

Image from the HHMI Janelia Research Campus site.

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself

Sean Carroll’s 2016 book, The Big Picture, is a rather well-succeeded attempt to cover all the topics that are listed in the subtitle of the book, life, the universe, and everything.  Carroll calls himself a poetic naturalist, short for someone who believes physics explains everything but does not eliminate the need for other levels of description of the universe, such as biology, psychology, and sociology, to name a few.

Such an ambitious list of topics requires a fast-paced book, and that is exactly what you get. Organized in no less than 50 chapters, the book brings us from the very beginning of the universe to the many open questions related to intelligence, consciousness, and free-will. In the process, we get to learn about what Carroll calls the “core theory”, the complete description of all the particles and forces that make the universe, as we know it today, encompassing basically the standard model and general relativity. In the process, he takes us through the many things we know (and a few of the ones we don’t know) about quantum field theory and the strangeness of the quantum world, including a rather good description of the different possibilities of addressing this strangeness: the Copenhaguen interpretation, hidden variables theories and (the one the author advocates) Everett’s many-worlds interpretation.

Although fast-paced, the book succeeds very well in connecting and going into some depth into these different fields. The final sections of the book, covering life, intelligence, consciousness, and morals are a very good introduction to these complex topics, many of them addressed also in Sean Carroll popular podcast, Mindscape.

Mindscape, a must-have podcast by Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll’s Mindscape podcast addresses topics as diverse as the interests of the author, including (but not limited to) physics, biology, philosophy, complexity, intelligence, and consciousness. Carroll has interviewed, in-depth, a large number of very interesting scientists, philosophers, writers, and thinkers, who come to talk about some of the most central open topics in science and philosophy.

Among many other, Daniel Dennett discusses minds and patterns; Max Tegmark  physics, simulation and the multiverse;   António Damásio  feeling, emotions and evolution; Patricia Churchland, conscience and morality; and David Chalmers, the hard problem of consciousness.

In all the interviews, Sean Carroll conducts the conversation in an easy and interactive mode, not imposing his own views, not even on the more controversial topics where the interviewees hold diametrically opposed opinions.

If you are into science and into podcasts, you cannot miss this one.

In the theater of consciousness

Bernard Baars has been one of the few neuroscientists who has dared to face the central problem of consciousness head-on. This 1997 book, which follows his first and most popular book, “A cognitive theory of consciousness”, aims at shedding some light on that most interesting of phenomena, the emergence of conscious reasoning from the workings of atoms and molecules that follow the laws of physics. This book is one of his most relevant works and supports the Global Workspace Theory (GWT), which is one of the few existing alternatives to describe the phenomenon of consciousness (the other one is Integrated Information Theory, IIT).

Baars’ work is probably not as widely known as it deserved, even though he is a famous author and neuroscientist. Unlike several other approaches, by authors as well-known as Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, Baars tries to connect actual neuroscience knowledge with what we know about the phenomenon of consciousness.

He does not believe consciousness is an illusion, as several other authors (Dennet and Nørretranders, for instance) have argued. Instead, he argues that specific phenomena that occur in the cortex give rise to consciousness, and provides evidence that such is indeed the case. He argues for a principled approach to study consciousness, treating the phenomenon as a variable, and looking for specific situations that are similar between them but sufficiently different to be diverse in what respects to consciousness.

He proposes a theater metaphor to model the way consciousness arises and provides some evidence that this may be a workable metaphor to understand exactly what goes on in the brain when conscious behavior occurs. He presents evidence from neuroimaging and from specific dysfunctions in the brain that the theater metaphor may, indeed, serve as the basis for the creation of actual conscious, synthetic, systems. This work is today more relevant than ever, as we approach rapidly what can be learned with deep neural networks, which are not only unconscious but also unaware of what they are learning. Further advances in learning and in AI may depend critically on our ability to understand what is consciousness and how it can be used to make the learning of abstract concepts possible.

Do humankind’s best days lie ahead?

This book, which transcribes one of the several Munk debates organized by an initiative financed by Peter and Melanie Munk, addresses the question of whether the future of humanity will be better or worst than the present.

The debate, also available in video, takes place between four formidable names, the wizards Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley (apologists of the theory that technology will continue to bring progress) and the prophets Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell (doubters of the idea that further technological developments will keep improving the world).

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The dialogue that takes place, between the Pollyanas and the Cassandras (to use an expression coined in the debate itself) is vivid, interesting and, at times, highly emotional. Not one of the debaters has doubts that progress has improved immensely the human condition in the last few centuries, but the consensus ends with that. Will we be able to use science and technology to surmount the environmental, social, and political challenges faced by humanity or did we already reach “peak development” and the future will be worst than the past? Read or watch the debate, and decide for yourself.

My take is that the Pollyanas, Steven Pinker and Matt Ridley, with their optimistic take on the future, win the debate by a large margin, against the Cassandras, Their arguments that the world will continue to improve, based both on the historical tendencies but also on the hope that technology will solve the significant challenges we face do not meet a coherent resistance from Alain de Botton and Malcolm Gladwell. At least they did not manage to convince me that famines, cybersecurity threats, climate change, and inequality will be enough to reverse the course of human progress.

I am a strange loop – by Douglas Hofstadter

Douglas Hofstadter has always been fond of recursion and self-referential loops, the central topic of his acclaimed “Gödel, Escher and Bach” . In his 2007 book, “I am a strange loop”, Hofstadter goes even deeper into the idea that self-referential loops are the secret item that explains consciousness and self-awareness. The idea that consciousness is the result of our ability to look inside ourselves, and to model our selves in the world, is explored in this book, together with a number of related issues.

To Hofstadter, Gödel theorem, and the way Gödel has shown that any sufficiently complex mathematical system can be used to assert things about itself, is strongly related with our ability to reflect into our own selves, the phenomenon that, according to the author, creates consciousness.

Hofstadter uses the terms “soul” and “consciousness” almost interchangeably, meaning that, to him, our soul and our consciousness – our inner light – are one and the same. Other animals may have souls, such as dogs or cats (but not mosquitoes) although “smaller” and less complex than ours. One of the strongest ideas of the book, much cherished by the author, is that your soul is mostly contained within your brain but is also present, at varying lower levels of fidelity, in the brains of other people that know you and that have models of you inside their own brains.

In the process of describing these ideas, Hofstadter also dispatches with a few “sacred cows”, such as the idea that “zombies” are possible, even in principle, the “inverted spectrum” conundrum (is your red the same as my red?) and the “impossible” – to him- idea of free will.