Book Review: Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind


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.

My hypothetical Jaynes 2.0 is a book about theory-of-mind. Theory-of-mind is our intuitive model of how the mind works. It has no relation to intellectual theories about how the mind is made of cognitive algorithms or instantiated on neurons in the brain. Every schoolchild has a theory-of-mind. It usually goes like this: the mind is an imaginary space containing things like thoughts, emotions, and desires. I have mine and you have yours. I can see what’s inside my mind, but not what’s inside your mind, and vice versa. I mostly choose the things that are in my mind at any given time: I will thoughts to happen, and they happen; I will myself to make a decision, and it gets made. This needs a resource called willpower; if I don’t have enough willpower, sometimes the things that happen in my mind aren’t the ones I want. When important things happen, sometimes my mind gets strong emotions; this is natural, but I need to use lots of willpower to make sure I don’t get overwhelmed by them and make bad decisions.

All this seems so obvious to most people that it sounds like common sense rather than theory. It isn’t; it has to be learned. Very young children don’t start out with theory of mind. They can’t separate themselves from their emotions; it’s not natural for them to say “I’m really angry now, but that’s just a thing I’m feeling, I don’t actually hate you”. It’s not even clear to them that people’s minds contain different things; children are famously unable to figure out that a playmate who has different evidence than they do may draw different conclusions.

And the learning isn’t just a process of passively sitting back observing your own mind until you figure out how it works. You learn it from your parents. Parents are always telling their kids that “I think this” and “What do you think?” and “You look sad” and “It makes me feel sad when you do that”. Eventually it all sinks in. Kids learn their parent’s theory-of-mind the same way they learn their parents’ language or religion.

When in human history did theory-of-mind first arise? It couldn’t have been a single invention – more like a gradual process of refinement. “The unconscious” only really entered our theory-of-mind with Freud. Statements like “my abuse gave me a lot of baggage that I’m still working through” involves a theory-of-mind that would have been incomprehensible a few centuries ago. It’s like “I’m clicking on an icon with my mouse” – every individual word would have made sense, but the gestalt would be nonsensical.

Still, everyone always assumes that the absolute basics – mind as a metaphorical space containing beliefs and emotions, people having thoughts and making decisions – must go back so far that their origins are lost in the mists of time, attributable only to nameless ape-men.

Julian Jaynes doesn’t think that. He thinks it comes from the Bronze Age Near East, c. 1500 – 750 BC.


Jaynes (writing in the 1970s) was both a psychology professor at Princeton and an expert in ancient languages, so the perfect person to make this case. He reviews various samples of Bronze Age writing from before and after this period, and shows that the early writings have no references to mental processes, and the later ones do. When early writings do have references to mental processes, they occur in parts agreed by scholars to be later interpolations. If, with no knowledge of the language itself, you tried to figure out which parts of a heavily-redacted ancient text were early vs. late by their level of reference to mental processes, you could do a pretty decent job.

I don’t speak fluent Sumerian, so I am forced to take Jaynes’ word for a lot of this. It’s even worse than that, because Jaynes argues that other translators sometimes err and translate non-mental terms in mental ways. This is an easy mistake for them to make, because most cultures, once they got theory of mind, repurposed existing language to represent it. Jaynes makes a convincing case for why this would happen, and convincingly argues for why his interpretations are truer to the spirit of the text, but it does mean you can’t double-check his work by reading the works in translation.

Jaynes spends the most time talking about the Iliad, with good reason – it’s the longest Bronze Age work we have, and in many ways it’s a psychodrama, focusing as much on the characters of Achilles, Hector, etc as the plot itself. It came together piecemeal through the efforts of Greek bards between about 1100 and 800 BC, finally reaching a canonical version in the mouth of “Homer” around 700 BC – the period Jaynes says theory of mind was starting to evolve. Jaynes uses it to trace the development process, showing how older sections of the Iliad treat psychology in different ways than newer ones.

So for example, a typical translation might use a phrase like “Fear filled Agamemnon’s mind”. Wrong! There is no word for “mind” in the Iliad, except maybe in the very newest interpolations. The words are things like kardia, noos, phrenes, and thumos, which Jaynes translates as heart, vision/perception, belly, and sympathetic nervous system, respectively. He might translate the sentence about Agamemnon to say something like “Quivering rose in Agamemnon’s belly”. It still means the same thing – Agamemnon is afraid – but it’s how you would talk about it if you didn’t have an idea of “the mind” as the place where mental things happened – you would just notice your belly was quivering more. Later, when the Greeks got theory of mind, they repurposed all these terms. You can still find signs of this today, like how we say “I believe it in my heart”. In fact, you can still find this split use of phrenes, which has survived into English both as the phrenic nerve (a nerve in the belly) and schizophrenia (a mental disease). As the transition wore on, people got more and more flowery about the kind of feelings you could have in your belly or your heart or whatever, until finally belly, heart, and all the others merged into a single Mind where all the mental stuff happened together.

The Iliad uses these body parts to describe feelings despite its weak theory of mind. Its solution for describing thoughts and decision-making is more…unconventional.

Suppose Achilles is overcome with rage and wants to kill Agamemnon. But this would be a terrible [idea]; after [thinking] about it for a while, he [decides] against. If Achilles has no concept of any of the bracketed words, nothing even slightly corresponding to those terms, how does he conceptualize his own actions? Jaynes:

The response of Achilles begins in his etor, or what I suggest is a cramp in his guts, where he is in conflict, or put into two parts (mermerizo) whether to obey his thumos, the immediate internal sensations of anger, and kill the king, or not. It is only after this vacillating interval of increasing belly sensations and surges of blood, as Achilles is drawing his mighty sword, that the stress has become sufficient to hallucinate the dreadfully gleaming goddess Athene who then takes over control of the action and tells Achilles what to do.

Wait, what?


As you go about your day, you hear a voice that tells you what to do, praises you for your successes, criticizes you for your failures, and tells you what decisions to make in difficult situations. Modern theory-of-mind tells you that this is your own voice, thinking thoughts. It says this so consistently and convincingly that we never stop to question whether it might be anything else.

If you don’t have theory of mind, what do you do with it? Children don’t have theory of mind, at least not very much of it, and more than half of them have imaginary friends. Jaynes has done some research on the imaginary friend phenomenon, and argues that a better term would be “hallucinatory friend” – children see and hear these entities vividly. The atheoretical mind is a desperate thing, and will comply with any priors you give it to make sense of its experiences. If that prior is that the voice in your head is a friend – or god – it will obediently hallucinate a friend or god for you, and modulate its voice-having accordingly.

I know some very smart and otherwise completely sane evangelical Christians who swear to me that God answers their prayers. They will ask God a question, and they will hear God’s voice answer it. God’s voice may not sound exactly like an external voice, and it may give them only the advice they would have given themselves if they’d thought about it – but they swear that they are not thinking about it, that their experience is qualitatively different than that. And these are normal people! If you’re a special person – a saint or mystic, say – and you actively court the experience by fasting and praying and generally stressing your body to the limit – then the voice will be that much louder and more convincing.

There are even whole forms of therapy based on this kind of thing. In Internal Family Systems, the therapist asks the patient to conceptualize some part of their mind (maybe the part that’s producing a certain symptom) as a person, and to talk to it. I know people who swear that this works. They approach their grief or anger or anxiety, and they get a clear image of what “he” or “she” looks like, and then “he” or “she” talks to them. Usually he/she tells them some appropriately psychological sounding thing, like “Hello, I am your anxiety, and I’m only inflicting these fears on you because we were abused as a child and I want to make sure nobody ever abuses us like that again”. Then the patient talks to their anxiety and hopefully strikes a bargain where the patient agrees to take the anxiety’s perspective into account and the anxiety agrees not to make the patient so anxious all the time. Some people swear by this, say it’s helped them where nothing else can, and absolutely insist they are having a real dialogue with their anxiety and not just making up both sides of the conversation.

Most of the people who seem to really like IFS have borderline personality disorder. And borderline people are also at the most risk of dissociative identity disorder (multiple personality). Multiple personality has two main risk factors: borderline, and somebody suggesting to you that multiple personality disorder might be a reasonable thing to have. For a while in the 80s, psychiatrists were really into multiple personality and tried diagnosing everyone with it, and sure enough all those people would admit to having multiple personalities and it would be very exciting. Then the APA told the psychiatrists to stop, people stopped talking about multiple personality as much, and now the condition is rarer.

A few years ago, someone rediscovered/invented tulpamancy, the idea of cultivating multiple personalities on purpose because it’s cool. People who try to do this usually succeed. At least they say they’ve succeeded, and I believe they think this. I think their internal experience is of talking to a different entity inside of them. Also, I have a friend who writes novels, and one time she created such a detailed mental model of one of her characters that it became an alternate personality, which she still has and considers an important part of her life. She is one of the most practical people I know and not usually prone to flights of fancy.

I also have less practical friends, friends who are into occultism. They tell me they sometimes make contact with spiritual entities. I believe them when they say they have these experiences. I believe them when they say that they were not purposely guiding their Ouija board to say whatever it said. I don’t have any friends who are cool enough to have gone through the whole procedure for summoning your Holy Guardian Angel, but from what I read, completing the ritual directly does tend to leave you with an angel who hangs around you and gives you advice. I believe the people who say this is their experience of completing the ritual.

I conclude that giving yourself multiple personalities is actually pretty easy under the right circumstances. Those circumstance are a poor theory of mind (I think borderlines are naturally bad at this) and a cultural context in which having a multiple personality is expected.

Jaynes says ancient people met both criteria. They had absolutely no theory of mind, less theory of mind than the tiniest child does today. And their cultural context was absolutely certain that gods existed. Just as we teach our children that the voice in their mind is them thinking to theirselves, so the ancients would teach their children that the voice in their head was a god giving them commands. And the voice would dutifully mold itself to fit the expected role.

Here Jaynes is at his most brilliant, going through ancient texts one by one, noting the total lack of mental imagery, and highlighting the many everyday examples of conversations with gods. Every ancient culture has near-identical concepts of a god who sits inside of you and tells you what to do. The Greeks have their daemons, the Romans their genii, the Egyptians their ka and ba, and the Mesopotamians their iri. The later you go, the more metaphorically people treat these. The earlier you go, the more literal they become. Go early enough, and you find things like the Egyptian Dispute Between A Man And His Ba which is just a papyrus scroll about a guy arguing loudly with the hallucinatory voice of his guardian spirit, and the guardian spirit’s hallucinatory voice arguing back, and nobody thinking any of this is weird (people who aren’t Jaynes would wimp out and say this is “metaphorical”). Every ancient text is in complete agreement that everyone in society heard the gods’ voices very often and usually based decisions off of them. Jaynes is just the only guy who takes this seriously.

Turn on what Terry Pratchett called “first sight and second thoughts” and try to look at the Bronze Age with fresh eyes. It was really weird. People would center their city around a giant ziggurat, the “House of God”, with a giant idol within. They would treat this idol exactly like a living human – feeding it daily, washing it daily, sometimes even marching it through the streets on sedan chairs carried by teams of slaves so it could go on a “connubial visit” to the temple of an idol of the opposite sex! When the king died, hundreds of thousands of men would labor to build him a giant tomb, and then they would kill a bunch of people to serve him in the afterlife. Then every so often it would all fall apart and everyone would slink away into the hills, trying to pretend they didn’t spend the last twenty years buliding a jeweled obelisk so some guy named Ningal-Iddida could boast about how many slaves he had.

If the Bronze Age seems kind of hive-mind-y, Julian Jaynes argues this is because its inhabitants weren’t quite individuals, at least not the way we think of individuality. They were in the same kind of trance as a schizophrenic listening to voices commanding him to burn down the hospital. All of it – the ziggurats, the obelisks, the pyramids – were an attempt to capture not individual humans, but those humans’ daemons – to get people to identify the voice in their head with the local deity, and replace their free will with a hallucinatory god who represented their mental model of society’s demands on them. In the best case scenario, the voice would be interpreted as the god-king himself, giving you orders from miles away. Jaynes argues the Bronze Age was obsessed with burials and the afterlife (eg the Pyramids) because if you had internalized the voice in your head as Pharaoh Cheops, the voice wasn’t going to go away just because the actual Pharaoh Cheops had died hundreds of miles away in the capital. So even after Pharaoh Cheops dies, as far as all his subjects can tell, he’s still around, commanding them from the afterlife. So they had better keep him really, really happy, just as they did during life. Jaynes presents various pieces of evidence that the main function of pyramids was as a place where you could go to commune with the dead Pharaoh’s spirit – ie ask it questions and it would answer them.

He has a similar explanation for idols. The Bronze Age loved idols. There were the giant idols, ones that made the statue of Zeus at Olympia look like a weak effort. But also, every family had their own individual idols. Archaeologists who dig up Bronze Age houses just find idol after idol after idol, like the ancient Sumerians did nothing except stare at idols all day. Jaynes thinks this is approximately true. Idols were either cues to precipitate hallucinatory voices, or else just there to make conversation more comfortable – it’s less creepy if you can see the person you’re talking to, after all.

Then, around 1250 BC, this well-oiled system started to break down. Jaynes blames trade. Traders were always going into other countries, with different gods. These new countries would be confusing, and the traders’ hallucinatory voices wouldn’t always know all the answers. And then they would have to negotiate with rival merchants! Here theory of mind becomes a huge advantage – you need to be able to model what your rival is thinking in order to get the best deal from him. And your rival also wants theory of mind, so he can figure out how to deceive you. Around 1250 BC, trade started picking up, and these considerations became a much bigger deal. Then around 1200 BC, the Bronze Age collapsed. It’s still not exactly clear why (some of you may have heard me give a presentation on this), though most guesses involve a combination of climate change plus the mysterious Sea Peoples. Whole empires were destroyed, their populations become refugees who flooded the next empire in turn. Now everyone was in unfamiliar territory; nobody had all the answers. The weird habits of mind a couple of traders had picked up became vital; people adopted them or died.

But as theory of mind spread, the voices of the gods faded. They receded from constant companions, to only appearing in times of stress (the most important decisions) to never appearing at all. Jaynes interprets basically everything that happened between about 1000 BC and 700 BC as increasingly frantic attempts to bring the gods back or deal with a godless world.

Now, to be fair, he cites approximately one zillion pieces of literature from this age with the theme “the gods have forsaken us” and “what the hell just happened, why aren’t there gods anymore?” As usual, everyone else wimps out and interprets these metaphorically – claiming that this was just a poetic way for the Mesopotamians to express how unlucky they felt during this chaotic time. Jaynes does not think this was a metaphor – for one thing, people have been unlucky forever, but the 1000 – 750 BC period was a kind of macabre golden age for “the gods have forsaken us” literature. And sometimes it seems oddly, well, on point:

My god has forsaken me and disappeared
My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance
The good angel who walked beside me has departed.


One who has no god, as he walks along the street
Headache envelops him like a garment

Jaynes says that “there is no trace whatsoever of any such concerns in any literature previous to the texts I am describing here”.

So people got desperate. He says this period was the origin of augury and divination. Omens “were probably present in a trivial way” before this period, but not very important; “there are, for example, no Sumerian omen texts whatsoever”. But after about 1000 BC, omens become an international obsession.

Towards the end of the second millennium BC…such omen texts proliferate everywhere and swell out to touch almost every aspect of life imaginable. By the first millennium BC, huge collections of them are made. In the library of King Ashurbanipal at Nineveh about 650 BC, at least 30% of the twenty to thirty thousand tablets come into the category of omen literature. Each entry in these tedious irrational collections consists of an if-clause or protasis followed by a then-clause or apodosis. And there were many classes of omens…

– If a town is set on a hill, it will not be good for the dweller within that town.

– If black ants are seen on the foundations which have been laid, that house will get built; the owner of that house will live to grow old.

– If a horse enters a man’s house, and bites either an ass or a man, the owner of the house will die, and his household will be scattered.

– If a fox runs into the public square, that town will be devastated.

– If a man unwittingly treads on a lizard and kills it, he will prevail over his adversary.

And then there are the demons. Early Sumerians didn’t really worry about demons. Their religion was very clear that the gods were in charge and demons were impotent. Post 1000 BC, all of this changes.

As the gods recede…there whooshes into this power vacuum a belief in demons. The very air of Mesopotamia became darkened with them. Natural phenomena took on their characteristics of hostility toward men, a raging demon in the sandstorm sweeping the desert, a demon of fire, scorpion-men guarding the rising sun beyond the mountains, Pazuzu the monstrous wind demon, the evil Croucher, plague demons, and the horrible Asapper demons that could be warded off by dogs. Demons stood ready to seize a man or woman in lonely places, while sleeping or eating or drinking, or particularly at childbirth. They attached themselves to men as all the illnesses of mankind. Even the gods could be attacked by demons, and this sometimes explained their absence from the control of human affairs…

Innumerable rituals were devoutly mumbled and mimed all over Mesopotamia throughout the first millennium B.C. to counteract these malign forces. The higher gods were beseeched to intercede. All illnesses, aches, and pains were ascribed to malevolent demons until medicine became exorcism. Most of our knowledge of these antidemoniac practices and their extent comes from the huge collection made about 630 B.C. by Ashurbanipal at Nineveh. Literally thousands of extant tablets from this library describe such exorcisms, and thousands more list omen after omen, depicting a decaying civilization as black with demons as a piece of rotting meat with flies.

…and angels, and prophets, and all the other trappings of religion. When the gods spoke to you every day, and you couldn’t get rid of them even if you wanted to, angels – a sort of intermediary with the gods – were unnecessary. There was no place for prophets – when everyone is a prophet, nobody is. There wasn’t even prayer, at least not in a mystical sense – as Jaynes puts it, “schizophrenics do not beg to hear their voices – it is unnecessary – in the few case where this does happen, it is during recovery when the voices are no longer heard with the same frequency.”

The Assyrians invented the idea of Heaven. Previously, Heaven had been unnecessary. You could go visit your god in the local ziggurat, talk to him, ask him for advice. But word went around that gods had retreated to heaven – some of the stories even use those exact words, blaming the Great Flood or some other cataclysm. The ziggurats shifted from houses for the gods to e-temen-an-ki – pedestals that the gods could descend to from Heaven, should they ever wish to return.

By 500 BC, the ability to hear the gods was limited to a few prophets, oracles, and poets. Jaynes is especially interested in this last group – he cites various ancient sources claiming that the poets only transcribe what they hear gods and goddesses sing to them (everyone else wimps out and says this is metaphorical). For Jaynes, the Iliad starts “Sing, O Muse…” because the poet was expecting a hallucinatory Muse to actually appear beside him and start singing, after which he would repeat the song to his listeners as a sort of echolalia.

Jaynes ends by referencing one of my favorite ancient texts, Plutarch’s On The Failure Of Oracles. Plutarch, writing around 100 AD, is not a skeptic. He believes oracles work in theory. But he records a general consensus that they don’t work as well as they used to, and that some day soon they will stop working at all. Jaynes believes that as the theory-of-mind waterline rises, fewer and fewer people hear the voices of the gods. By the Golden Age of Greece, it was so difficult that only a few specially selected people placed in specially numinous locations could manage – the oracles. By Plutarch’s own time, even those people could barely manage.

The last oracle to fade away was the greatest – Delphi, perched atop a fantastic gorge as if suspended between Heaven and Earth. Jaynes tries to give us an impression of how important it was in its time; important people from all over the classical world would make the pilgrimage there, leave lavish gifts, and ask Apollo for advice on weighty matters. He thinks that the oracle’s fame protected it; if a cultural validation is an important ingredient in god-hearing, Delphi had the strongest and best. Its reputation was unimpeachable. Still, in the centuries after Plutarch, its prophecies became rarer and rarer; the Pythia’s few divine utterances became separated by more and more incoherent raving. Finally:

As part of [the Emperor Julian’s] personal quest for authorization, he tried to rehabiliate Delphi in AD 363, three years after it had been ransacked by Constantine. Through his remaining priestess, Apollo prophecied that he would never prophesy again. And the prophecy came true.


The real Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind is like my edited version above, except that wherever I say “theory of mind”, it says “consciousness”.

Jaynes has obviously thought a lot about this, and he’s a psychology professor so I’m sure he’s heard of theory of mind. Still, I am so against this choice. Consciousness means so many different things to so many different people, and none of them realize they’re talking past each other, and it’s such a loaded term that any argument including it is basically guaranteed to veer off into the fantastic.

Did he literally believe that the Sumerians, Homeric Greeks, etc were p-zombies? That there was nothing that it was like to be them? That they took in photons and emitted actions but experienced no “mysterious redness of red”? I cannot be completely sure. At times he refers to Bronze Age people as “automatons”, which seems like a pretty final judgment. But he also treats them as genuinely hearing, seeing, and having feelings about the hallucinatory gods who appear to them. The god-human interaction seems like it involves the human being at least minimally conscious. But if Jaynes has a coherent theory here, I must have missed it.

I think he is unaware of (or avoiding) what we would call “the hard problem of consciousness”, and focusing on consciousness entirely as a sort of “global workspace” where many parts of the mind come together and have access to one another. In his theory, that didn’t happen – the mental processing happened and announced itself to the human listener as a divine voice, without the human being aware of the intermediate steps. I can see how “consciousness” is one possible term for this area, if you didn’t mind confusing a lot of people. But seriously, just say “theory of mind”.

Jaynes seems aware of this objection, which he summarizes as “the Bronze Agers did not lack consciousness, they just lacked the concept of consciousness”. His retort is that in some cases, the concept of a thing is the same as the thing itself – he suggests baseball as an example. This seems a little sophistic to me. If somebody told me that Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have a word for “consciousness”, I would be surprised but not stunned – it seems like a strange word for a rich and ancient language to lack, but weirder things have happened. If somebody told me that Chinese people didn’t even have the concept of consciousness until it was introduced from the West, that wouldn’t shock me either – sometimes I think half of philosophers don’t even have the same concept of consciousness I do, and I can imagine the Chinese carving up the world in very different ways. But if someone told me that Chinese people were not conscious, I would dismiss them as a crank. So I can’t accept that having consciousness and having a concept of consciousness are exactly the same thing, and I continue to think “theory of mind” is better here.

The other major difference between my rewrite and Jaynes’ real book is that Jaynes focuses heavily on “bicamerality” – the division of the brain into two hemispheres. He believes that in the Bronze Age mind design, the left hemisphere was the “mortal” and the right hemisphere the “god” – ie the hallucinatory voice of the god was the right hemisphere communicating information to the left hemisphere. In the modern mind design, the two hemispheres are either better integrated, or the right hemisphere just doesn’t do much.

I am not an expert in functional neuroanatomy, but my impression is that recent research has not been kind to any theories too reliant on hemispheric lateralization. While there are a few well-studied examples (language is almost always on the left) and a few vague tendencies (the right brain sort of seems to be more holistic, sometimes), basically all tasks require some input from both sides, there’s little sign that anybody is neurologically more “right-brained” or “left-brained” than anyone else, and most neuroscientific theories don’t care that much about the right-brain left-brain distinction. Also, Michael Gazzaniga’s groundbreaking work on split-brain patients which got everyone excited about hemispheres and is one of the cornerstones of Jaynes’ theory doesn’t replicate. Also, Jaynes says his theory implies that schizophrenic hallucinations come from the language centers of the right hemisphere, and I think the latest fMRI evidence is that they don’t.

(Also, Jaynes says his theory implies that demonic possession occurs in the right hemisphere. But some absolute madman actually put a possessed women in an fMRI machine and then exorcised her while the machine was running and although it showed some odd deficiencies in interhemispheric communication, it didn’t seem to show unusual right hemisphere activity. Imagine having to write that IRB application!)

I don’t think either of these issues fundamentally changes Jaynes’ theory. Just switch “consciousness” to “theory of mind”, and change the psychiatry metaphor from split-brain patients to dissociative-identity patients, and you’re fine.


But there’s another class of problem that Jaynes’ theory doesn’t survive nearly as well: what about Australian Aborigines?

Or American Indians, or Zulus, or Greenland Inuit, or Polynesians, or any other human group presumably isolated from second-millennium-BC Assyrians until anthropologists got a chance to examine them? If consciousness is an invention, and it didn’t spread to these groups, did these groups have it? If so, how? If not, why aren’t they hallucinating gods all the time?

I mean, some of these groups definitely have shamans and medicine men. I’m not saying none of them ever hear gods. But Jaynes claims Bronze Agers heard gods literally all the time, as a substitute for individual thought. Nothing I’ve heard from these people or the anthropologists who study them suggest anything like this is true. And these people also seem to be able to strategically deceive others, another key consciousness innovation Jaynes says Bronze Agers lacked. Or at least I assume I would have heard about it from some anthropologist if they weren’t.

I don’t have a good sense of how Jaynes would answer this objection. The most relevant part of the book is around page 135. Jaynes argues that bicamerality (his term for the hallucinatory gods) started with agriculture in the Bronze Age Near East, though there were scattered hallucinations before then. So plausibly the Inuit, aborigines, etc, were not bicameral. They are in a pre-bicameral state, where they have neither full subjective consciousness, nor clear hallucinations of gods. They may have flashes of both, or do something else entirely, or just be blank. Or something. The point is, if they were perfectly normal conscious people like us, then Jaynes is wrong about everything.

Maybe I’ve done some violence to Jaynes’ theory by rounding it off to “theory of mind” and emphasizing it as an invented technology? But he tries to really emphasize the inventedness of it in the first few chapters, talking about how it had to be built up by layer upon layer of well-chosen metaphor. As far as I can tell I relayed that part faithfully.

And I’m looking at the bulletin board on, and there’s a post by someone who met Jaynes before he died and asked him this question. They write:

On the About Julian Jaynes page it says he gave a lecture at the Wittgenstein Symposium in [Kirchberg]. I was there. It was a wonderful lecture. It is a pity that his work has not had a deeper impact. I still believe he was basically right (and certainly his prose was brilliant).

I did ask him, by the way, whether he thought it possible that the Aborigines in Australia were not conscious as late as the 18th or 19th century. He said he was not sure and that it would be worthwhile to investigate. Well, I never did and probably no one else [did].

So I don’t think I am misunderstanding him by making this criticism, and it sounds like he just bites the bullet and says maybe this was true. The main position on the forum seems to be that anthropologists weren’t asking the right questions as soon as they met uncontacted tribes, and so maybe they would have missed this. I find this hard to believe. It should be really easy to notice, and also the process of them learning Western theory of mind should leave some scars – at least one of them should say something like “that couple-year period when we all stopped hallucinating gods and became conscious – that was a weird time.”

Jaynes partisans are able to come up with a few anthropological works suggesting that the minds of primitive people are pretty weird, and I believe that, but they don’t seem quite as weird as Jaynes wants them to be. So the question becomes whether we would notice if some people worked in a pre-bicameral and pre-conscious way.

I’m tempted to answer “yes, obviously”, but for the counterargument, see this Reddit thread.

This guy thinks he “barely” had consciousness (in the Jaynesian sense), and it took him however many years to notice this about himself. It was just another universal human experience you can miss without realizing it! And notice how it was the culturally learned knowledge that other people worked differently which shifted him to the normal equilibrium. So maybe if there was some tribe like this somewhere, it would be easy to miss.

I’m also thinking of some cross-cultural psychiatry classes I had to take in residency. It’s well-known that some other cultures rarely get depression and anxiety in the classical Western sense. Instead, in the situations where we would become depressed and anxious, they get psychosomatic complaints, especially stomach pain. This happens to Westerners too sometimes, but in other cultures (eg China, Latin America) it’s by far the most common presentation. This seems similar to Jaynes’ argument that the ancient Greeks talked about feelings in their stomachs when we would talk about thoughts in our minds. I’m not saying these people aren’t conscious or have no theory of mind. But it seems like their theory of mind must be…arranged…differently than ours is, somehow. Or that cultural expectations about how these issues express themselves are shaping the way these issues express themselves, powerfully enough that you can just have whole cultures where depression the way we experience it isn’t a thing. See also this list of culture-bound syndromes. Make sure to read the discussion of Western culture-bound syndromes on the bottom – and make sure to spend a few moments considering what a politically-incorrect person might add to the list.

Even if I don’t accept all the stuff about hallucinatory Athena choreographing the Trojan War, the most important thing I’m going to take away from Origin of Consciousness is that theory of mind is an artifact, not a given, and it’s not necessarily the same everywhere. Much of the way we relate to our mind is culturally determined, and with a different enough cultural environment you can get some weird mind designs in ways that have real effect on behavior. Theory-of-mind-space is wider than we imagine, whether we’re thinking about ancient Sumerians or our ordinary-seeming neighbors.

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543 Responses to Book Review: Origin Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind

  1. eggplant says:

    If theory of mind became widespread because of trade and having to think about the decision-making of your counterparties, then for theory of mind to have been uncommon before, people would have to have been really bad at wars, (strategy) games, and any sort of negotiating. Were there no wars, (strategy) games, or negotiating before, or were people shockingly bad at it? This seems unlikely.

    • TheWakalix says:

      If everyone was worse at a competitive skill, how could we tell? Maybe if there was a detailed and accurate description of a situation and how someone responded, then we could tell whether they missed a low-hanging fruit in their decision space.

      • SteveB1 says:

        Except that there would be a competitive advantage to whomever was the first to develop modern theory of mind, which seems to raise the question: “Why didn’t it happen until the development of long-range trade? Why weren’t previous wars, negotiations, and other social interactions enough to spark the same process?”

        • Forlorn Hopes says:

          Just a random guess. In context vs out of context failures.

          Their gods were stronger today is an in context failure. Loosing a war makes sense to a bronze age guy because his gods can be beaten by other gods.

          Not knowing that another merchant thinks it’s offensive to negociate without breaking bread is an out of context problem. Why would the god of trade not know that?

          • Furslid says:

            This makes sense. In addition, modeling a trader with different traditions is a harder problem than modeling a general. There are a lot of constraints on military, because it revolves around using a few types of weapons to kill the opponent and stay alive. An archer is an archer, regardless of the army, and will be used in certain ways. A general can work by assuming his opponent is identical to him.

            A merchant can’t work by assuming that other merchants are identical to him. If salt is salt and of equal value, why trade? The merchant must realize that the seaside community that produces salt or the town with salt mines will value salt less. In addition there are unexplained values like many cultures (but not all) really liking cowrie shells.

          • Ttar says:

            I also am under the impression that merchant was a low-class occupation treated with distrust/disgust kind of all through antiquity until the modern day.

          • Simon_Jester says:


            But trading, including long distance trading that took advantage of ‘arbitrage’ between locations where goods had locally different values, was common waaaay before 1000 or 1250 BC. The ancient Mesopotamians were trading with the Indus Valley civilizations something like 1500 years before that time, for instance:


            And trade between seaside towns for salt and inland towns for whatever? Yeah, that’s probably been going on since the Neolithic.

            The timing doesn’t line up if it’s as simple as “merchants need to be able to understand the mindset of other merchants who grew up with different customs.”


            “Merchants were disrespected” maybe compared to whoever the ruling elite of a given society was (e.g. landed aristocracy in feudal Europe), sure. But they tended to have status that put them comfortably above that of the average peasant, and “money talked” even then.

            I don’t think the hypothesis has enough explanatory power to explain “there is an entire category of psychological ‘software’ that human beings never bothered to develop until Bronze Age merchants needed it some time in the late part of the second millenium BC.”

            Especially when the alternative is that it was simply the language of the Bronze Agers that had culturally learned ways to describe psychological mechanisms similar to the ones we use today.

          • Aapje says:


            A merchant can’t work by assuming that other merchants are identical to him. If salt is salt and of equal value, why trade? The merchant must realize that the seaside community that produces salt or the town with salt mines will value salt less.

            Does this require more understanding than that one place has salt, but the other doesn’t, but would like salt too?

        • zby says:

          I don’t know why it did not happen earlier – but maybe it is an important civilization corner stone and if it happened earlier – then everything would just follow earlier and we would have this same conversation earlier?

      • No One In Particular says:

        A description of a situation where someone had abysmal strategic sense? Such as, say, two women fighting over a baby, and they were told that the baby was going to be split between them, and one of them one wasn’t smart to realize that “Sure, sounds fair to me” was not a good response?

        • bullseye says:

          She thought “Sure, sounds fair to me” was a good response because a king willing cut a baby in half is dangerous and you better do whatever he wants. Solomon’s trick depended on the true mother’s maternal love overwhelming her reason.

        • Jaskologist says:

          They’re low-class hookers. Picture them as the type of person who goes on Maury and it becomes a lot more plausible.

        • Gerry Quinn says:

          Or, you know, somebody wanted to tell a story with a moral, while pumping up the reputation of a revered king, and hit on this idea of a woman who cared only about pride and possession, contrasted with a woman who wanted the best for her child? I guess you’d need a theory of mind to think up a story like that, whenever it was thought up.

          • No One In Particular says:

            Even a woman who only cared about pride an possession, if she had even basic theory of mind, would realize that she should at least pretend to care about the baby.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Trade as strategizing doesn’t seem to work. To me, it’s probably more about interacting with people who just think differently than you. In a tribe, you know everyone and they all have the same basic assumptions. When you deal with people who are so different from you, it has an affect. I grew up a conservative Christian and when I started watching tv shows for adults, it was jarring.

    • Sorghum says:

      Furthermore wouldn’t a lack of theory of mind preclude any sort of deception-based strategy like, oh, say, hiding a bunch of men inside a wooden horse and expecting your enemies to bring it within their walls? (Or disguising yourself as an old man to sneak inside your house and kill your wife’s suitors, or escaping from a cyclops whilst hiding under a sheep, or…)

      Understanding that others don’t know that an object is hidden inside another object unless they’ve seen it hidden is exactly one of the developmental milestones used to assess children’s theory of mind. The existence of the Trojan Horse story in the Odyssey might not prove that the Bronze Age Greeks had a fully modern theory of mind but it certainly puts limits on what sort of theory of mind they might have had.

      • Aevylmar says:

        But they think that Odysseus is super-smart for coming up with all these ideas, instead of just “some guy.”

        Reading the Odyssey makes his brilliance seem a lot more like everyone else is dumb than like he’s a unique genius. Of course, we have lots of knowledge they don’t, but… isn’t that what this is about?

        • Sorghum says:

          I agree that the plots of the “cunning Odysseus” are not exactly Lex Luthor level stuff.

          Still, without a 3/4/5-year-old’s level of theory of mind, the story of the Trojan Horse would be incomprehensible and unimaginable to both Homer and his audience.

          Then again, even a squirrel knows how to hide objects. Is the squirrel applying a theory of mind when it buries its nuts, or does it just feel an inexplicable urge to do so?

          • Creutzer says:

            Then again, even a squirrel knows how to hide objects. Is the squirrel applying a theory of mind when it buries its nuts, or does it just feel an inexplicable urge to do so?

            The latter. That’s why the squirrel doesn’t understand that hiding something while someone is watching you is not effect. Ravens, on the other hand, do understand that.

          • bullseye says:

            Ravens, on the other hand, do understand that.

            And they understand without the benefit of our culture’s theory of mind!

          • Simon_Jester says:

            I think the point here about comprehensibility is well taken.

            The idea that Odysseus was (for his times) staggeringly intelligent for realizing “wait, if we all hide inside the giant wooden horse, the Trojans won’t know we’re in there” doesn’t work because then nobody would have understood the plot because nobody has a concept of “hiding.”

            For that matter, it is SUPER obvious that any hunter-gatherer society (with an emphasis on ‘hunter’) must necessarily have a good concept of how to hide, or to prepare a trap and know animals will blunder into it because they don’t know it’s there. Animals get by on instincts and by having super keen senses that just make it impractical to hide from them at all, but humans don’t seem to have that going for them. And most animals, notably, don’t construct traps or snares… humans do.

            Likewise, it seems hard to imagine how we’d develop language (let alone written language!) without a theory of mind. How did our ancestors of five or ten millennia ago develop language so sophisticated and complex, if they didn’t have a clear concept of what “thinking” and “mind” were, or if they didn’t really understand things like ‘other people may have different thoughts and feelings than I do?”

            I know children today learn language before developing complete theories of mind… But if you took an entire species of people who have the mentality of a human toddler when it comes to understanding other people’s emotions and mental state, and none of them already knew complex language, would they develop it on their own?

            I kind of can’t escape the conclusion that the rise of language came after the rise of consciousness and after at least limited theory of mind emerged in proto-human adults.

          • callmesalticidae says:

            When squirrels are aware that they are being observed, they will pretend to hide a nut (“fake burial”) and then run off to reach an unobserved location while their observer tries to dig up a nonexistent nut. That suggests theory of mind.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            How good are squirrels at differentiating between “I am being observed” and “there is another lifeform in the area?”

            For example, how do squirrels behave when observed by creatures who are entirely uninterested in them and won’t be digging up the nuts realistically? How do they behave when there is a sleeping animal present, or an animal that is preoccupied with something else?

            Because “fake burial then run off and do real burial” is within the realm of behaviors that instinct could explain, even in the absence of theory of mind. Theory of mind is what you need to figure out from observation whether or not nearby creatures are watching you or not, by directly examining their behavior and not merely reacting to their presence.

          • antepod says:

            I don’t know why I can’t reply to Simon_Jester down below, so I’ll just do it here:

            We don’t have to assume the level of theory of mind is monotonic increasing. Two neighbour ancestral tribes would have reasons to deceive each other, and hunter-gatherers need to know how to hide. But I could almost imagine Bronze-age large-scale civilisation (i.e. city-states) being a technology that allowed people do dispense with theory of mind by homogenizing people at a large scale.

            So hunter-gatherers had some amount of TOM, then it was locally lost as vestigial with the rise of homogenous large-scale civilisation in the bronze age (along with all the other changes from hunter-gatherer-tribal to agricultural-feudal society, like how hunter-gatherers were individually smarter, stronger, and taller than their agricultural competition), then it re-emerged once it became memetically adaptive again with the bronze age collapse and the situation shifted to a new equilibrium (feudal agricultural civilisation, but with high levels of TOM) where it didn’t go away until now.

            At least that’s one just-so story you could tell that seems more plausible than monotonically increasing TOM: widespread TOM and centralised idol-worship allowing you to largely (!) dispense with TOM because everyone thinks the same are competing technologies/ways a society can work, that are in direct opposition to each other (tautologically).

        • Eric Rall says:

          But they think that Odysseus is super-smart for coming up with all these ideas, instead of just “some guy.”

          It’s tricky evaluating how cunning Odysseus was, especially in the case of the Trojan Horse, because we live in a civilizational context that has had 3000+ years of knowing “Let’s all hide in this giant wooden horse and hope our enemies mistake it for a going-away present” as an iconic legendary ruse. For us, calling it “the oldest trick in the book” is only a moderate exaggeration. But somebody had to think of it first, and that guy would have seemed really, really smart when they tried it and it worked.

          • fluorocarbon says:

            There was also a religious component that we don’t immediately understand today but would have been understood by the audience. The horse (the story goes) was meant as an offering to Athena, so the Trojans would be offending the gods by not accepting it. Offending the gods would have led to destruction for the Trojans in the failure of crops or natural disaster and they had to balance that with the possibility it was a trap—they weren’t necessarily totally naive

            Also we should keep in mind that this whole story was mythologized and different parts or different characters may have been adapted from other legends. We have Odysseus the culture hero whose thing is being really smart and we have the story of Troy and the Trojan horse. Maybe they were tied together from the beginning but it is also possible they were not initially related and that over hundreds of retellings by illiterate bards, Odysseus becomes the person who invents the ruse. Oral epic before writing is in some ways more like a game of telephone than history as we know it.

          • FLWAB says:

            The horse (the story goes) was meant as an offering to Athena, so the Trojans would be offending the gods by not accepting it.

            Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t it an offering to Poseidon? Athena is not typically associated with horses. And wasn’t it that it was meant to appear to be an offering from the Greeks to Poseidon and that the Trojans were under no obligation to take it but rather felt they would gain favor and prestige by stealing the Greeks offering?

          • fluorocarbon says:


            It’s true that Poseidon is the god of horses but the tradition is that the offering was to Athena. The “standard” version is explained in Vergil’s Aeneid Book II. If I remember correctly there’s a sort of reverse psychology where the guy the Greeks leave behind tells the Trojans that the Greeks want the Trojans to be suspicious in order that the Trojans refuse the gift which would annoy Athena (Minerva to Vergil) and destroy their city.

            But Vergil postdates Homer by 600-700 years. After reading your comment I was curious and I took a look to see if I could find any earlier sources that explicitly mention one of the gods. I couldn’t find any and the Odyssey just says gods (θεῶν) (VIII. 510). It says that the Trojans were divided three ways. Some want to chop up the horse, others want to throw it from the cliffs, and the last groups wants to offer it to the gods. It seems weird to us that’s listed as “three ways” and not just two (destroy it or keep it) but I think that’s another example of religious thinking. Throwing it off of a cliff might offend the gods less than chopping it up.

            Another thing to keep in mind is that the strict division of the gods into categories is a later thing. In Homer’s time the gods had general domains of power but it’s more difficult to characterize a god as “god of only this one thing.” Athena also makes sense for two reasons: 1. she was on the Greek side of the war and a supporter of Odysseus. 2. Homeric Athena is the goddess and protector of the city-state. We think of Athena as the goddess of wisdom at least partially due to later conflation with Roman Minerva. In Homer, Athena was the goddess of warfare (but not wild slaughter, that was the least popular Olympian, Ares) and of the city. If the Greeks wanted the Trojans to take an offering inside their city borders it would make sense it would be an offering to Athena.

          • Mary says:

            In fact, it was deliberately built too large to fit in the gate with the claim that this was to prevent the Trojans from bringing it in (and the real reason of getting them to damage their own gate).

            Also, the guy who told them this was supposed to have escaped human sacrifice, or been left behind, so he clearly could deceive.

            (It was to Athena, by the oldest accounts.)

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Jaynes says the Odyssey is later than the Iliad and is basically a celebration of the new “theory of mind” thing, with Odysseus as a sort of Prometheus-figure bringing theory of mind into the world. That’s why, as commenters above note, he’s celebrated as devious and brilliant for five-year-old-level plots.

        In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king sorry, too soon.

        • Faza (TCM) says:

          Isn’t the simpler explanation that:

          a. If everyone is hitting the enemy with pointed sticks and their response to the problem of “we’ve been here for ten years already and we haven’t made much headway” is “let’s hit them even harder“, the guy who proposes any sort of solution that doesn’t boil down to “hit people with sticks” is going to look like Einstein – especially if it works,

          b. In order to come up with a brilliant stratagem one has to be a brilliant strategist and appreciating the brilliance requires a sufficient level of sophistication on the part of the audience. There’s no reason to believe (the collective) Homer was a brilliant strategist, nor was his target audience a bunch of military nerds that had a sufficient understanding to see what makes the strategy brilliant. To see the elegance of a solution to a chess problem, for example, you need to be sufficiently good at chess. Everyone understands a big wooden horse.

        • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

          How/does Jaynes address Genesis ?

          The Abraham-Jacob plot can be neatly read as bicamerality breaking down into ToM in the course of three generations.
          It starts with Abraham rejecting personal gods in favor of a more abstract universal one who only sometimes speaks to him and directs his actions, his grandson Jacob is already seen using some advanced ToMing to get his brother to trade his birthright for food while still engaging in a struggle with the bicameral vestiges in a dream.

          • tgb says:

            Wikipedia places Genesis’s writing at 6th or 5th century BC. Doesn’t that line up with ET Jaynes’s timeline?

          • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

            5th-6th century would be the time of writing and I think it’s a given that the authors of the book themselves possessed a ToM because they describe things like repent and contemplation but the ancient myths recounted – some probably derived from the summerian and accadic ones like epic of Gylgamesh date to much earlier times, the Canaanite lands to which Abraham was sent to by God would have been there at the late bronze age

        • James Miller says:

          The method that Odysseus used to get Achilles to join the Trojan war is complicated enough that I teach it in my game theory class. Basically, when the Greeks come to recruit Achilles his mother dresses up her son as a girl and places him among girls because she doesn’t want him to fight. Odysseus has the challenge of figuring out which person dressed as a girl is Achilles. Odysseus asks everyone dressed as a girl to go to a table that has lots of weapons on it. Odysseus then suddenly blows a battle horn and all the girls run away while (born to fight and not very bright) Achilles instinctively grabs a weapon.

          • DarkTigger says:

            Do you also teach the method from Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn?
            Were this one woman finds out that the two “girls” she has taken in, are really boys, by throwing something at them. Back then, boys put their knees together to catch something in their lap, girls open their legs to catch it with their skirt.

            But back to Odysseus, this also works as a just so story to describe someone who has a better theory of mind, as the people around him. He is aware that Achilles dressed as a woman will still instinctivly act as a warrior, because despite the female outside he is still Achilles.

          • bullseye says:

            How is Achilles old enough to fight but young enough to pass for a girl?

          • DarkTigger says:

            My mother told me that, she felt like the people did not percive her as a women when she went to Turkey in the 70ties. When “Trouseres and no veil” signals man, to people they just don’t look to closely.
            So maybe a close shave, the right hairdress and women specific clothing might be all that most people needed to be fooled in that time.
            I think there are similar theories, how the female pirates we know about, were able to pass as man, in the close environment of a ship.

          • Kuiperdolin says:

            That episode is not from the Iliad though. Its earliest (extant?) depictions date from the classical period, well after the transition supposedly happened.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            I feel like our reference pool of verifiably authentic fiction that dates back to before the Bronze Age Collapse is small enough that it’s going to be kind of hard to prove to the standards of this theory that yes, the ancients had a theory of mind based on these fictional accounts.

            Even most of our myths dating back to that era are the product of stuff that got repeatedly transcribed and cannot be convincingly dated back to earlier than, say, 700 BC.

            There were plenty of people writing things down before then, but before the Bronze Age Collapse, writing in the Near East was a specialty discipline devoted to preparing written records, usually for bureaucratic purposes. People weren’t writing the Great Sumerian Novel.

            So about all we’ve got to work on is either the equivalent of government inventory catalogs, or stylized religious documents like the stuff the ancient Egyptians carved into tomb walls.

            The former isn’t going to tell us whether the lights were on inside at the time or whether all the scribes were in conversation with hallucinatory imaginary friends because they didn’t have a theory of mind and were in a state of induced schizophrenia. And the latter, while we might call it fiction today, doesn’t have the core traits of a work of artistic fiction. It’s standardized and will tend to remain stable over long periods during which things like customary linguistic metaphors and figures of speech get forgotten. It’s hieratic and ritualized rather than being designed to keep the interest of an audience using relatable characters.

            So once we start dismissing ancient myths as ‘not ancient enough,’ we’re going to run real short on source material, real quick. Not entirely out of it, but short.

          • No One In Particular says:

            How is that related to game theory? And that article seems to be written by someone with only a passing familiarity with game theory.

          • AlexanderRM says:

            Going by this along with DarkTigger’s comment about Huckleberry Finn seems like *very* strong evidence that the readers of the Illiad and the target audience of Huckleberry Finn 3000 years later had any major gaps intelligence-wise, since very similar stratagems are used to signify “smart, observant, clever person” in both. This matches the theoretical model that if all humans have had the same capacity on a genetic level and been using the same energy to run our brains, anyone who just wasn’t using it would have a massive disadvantage even in competitions within their own tribe.

            On a broader note: I have a very strong prior to suspect any claim that the ancient Greeks invented a particular thing circa 500 bc or a bit earlier, because at that time in Greece just after the arrival of the Phoenician alphabet there was a huge explosion in *writing down* of things other than government propaganda and business records, so a lot of people claim that the ancient Greeks invented literally everything when really they were just the first to write about it extensively (that’s survived to the present day- the fact that medieval monks were more interested in Greek works than their contemporaries was a huge factor too). This theory focuses on a slightly earlier time period, but it’s close enough and has the same format as those “having fun with your friends was invented in 538 ad in the city of Thebes” claims that it still pings the same BS-detector for me.

          • James Miller says:

            No One In Particular,

            It relates to a separating equilibrium. Imagine you have private information about your true nature, and I want to find your true nature, but you have some incentive to lie to me. I will try to arrange a situation so that you will take a different visible action depending on your true nature.

          • dogiv says:

            Interesting idea about recognizing gender. I always wondered this about Shakespeare plays, too–is it really supposed to be plausible that a woman could pass as a man or vice versa in all these different situations? It’s not like they would have had Mrs. Doubtfire levels of makeup to work with. Being able to tell someone’s gender seems like a pretty basic human skill. Do you have any more info about how it might be limited by culture? Some quick googling hasn’t turned up much.

          • No One In Particular says:

            My understanding is that “separating equilibrium” refers to a situation where it is game-theoretical optimal to reveal private information, not any situation where an external stimuli causes a person to reveal private information.

          • Gerry Quinn says:

            Dumb story is dumb story, thousands of years old or not. It deserves neither credence nor criticism.

          • Joseftstadter says:

            I always wondered this about Shakespeare plays, too–is it really supposed to be plausible that a woman could pass as a man or vice versa in all these different situations?

            Remember that boys/young men were playing the female roles in those plays. So you had boys pretending to be women pretending to be men. At some level that had to be a meta joke the audience was in on.

            Anyway, even today people will accept a whole lot of implausibility in the service of humor. A quick look at any TV sitcom will tell you that. Are there any examples of a gender switching in Shakespeare’s tragedies?

          • Simon_Jester says:


            Interesting idea about recognizing gender. I always wondered this about Shakespeare plays, too–is it really supposed to be plausible that a woman could pass as a man or vice versa in all these different situations? It’s not like they would have had Mrs. Doubtfire levels of makeup to work with.

            Note that there have been well-attested real life example of (certain) men passing as women, and vice versa. For example, Richard Zarvona, the cross-dressing Civil War pirate. Or Bonnie Prince Charlie.

            And there have been at least dozens of well-attested real life examples of women passing as men in army life.

            Being able to tell someone’s gender seems like a pretty basic human skill.

            Yes, but being able to bypass deliberate deception about someone’s gender is not a basic human skill. It’s almost never relevant. Most humans simply have no incentive to conceal their gender, and don’t try. Indeed, most humans accentuate their gender, intentionally adopting exaggerated gender characteristics expected of them by society. This occurs to the point where if a man thinks he doesn’t look manly enough he may decide to grow a beard for that reason alone, and if a woman thinks she doesn’t look womanly enough she may start wearing push-up bras or something.

            Women put on makeup and personal accessories that (by custom) no man would wear. Men and women adopt different clothing, different hairstyles, different manners of speech, different body language.

            Furthermore, there is actually little or no adverse consequence to a typical human of not knowing a given person’s biological sex, or alternatively their gender. If you’re not interested in them as a romantic partner, what they have between their legs is unlikely to matter to you in any practical way. If you ARE interested in them, then even if you somehow manage to be completely mistaken about the matter… Well, there is no inherent consequence of being wrong, beyond an awkward situation in the bedroom. All the consequences of accidentally misgendering someone are socially constructed, and even the socially constructed ones usually aren’t too bad in practice.

            Therefore, most humans have no real reason to develop sophisticated skills for “clocking” a cross-dresser, be they male or female. They have every reason to just use the human brain’s fertile powers of pattern-matching to assume that anyone who struts and belches and wears men’s clothing and stuffs a sock down the front of their trousers is a man. And that conversely, anyone who sits primly and speaks in a thin, quiet, high-pitched voice and wears body-concealing women’s clothing is a woman.


            As an addendum to this, in the ancestral environment (a hunter-gatherer band), such deceptions would be nearly impossible because there are almost no encounters with strangers. When you and everyone you know is part of a group of at most 100-200 people who live in the wild under Stone Age conditions for decades at a time, there are very few opportunities to be somehow confused as to whether the person you’re interacting with is male or female.

          • No One In Particular says:


            Furthermore, there is actually little or no adverse consequence to a typical human of not knowing a given person’s biological sex, or alternatively their gender.

            There are huge consequences to misgendering someone.

            If you’re not interested in them as a romantic partner, what they have between their legs is unlikely to matter to you in any practical way.

            Their gender presentation is one of the most important factors in someone deciding whether they’re interested.

            If you ARE interested in them, then even if you somehow manage to be completely mistaken about the matter… Well, there is no inherent consequence of being wrong, beyond an awkward situation in the bedroom.

            If you run into gay panic, that’s a rather serious consequence. Or they’re insulted that you misgendered them. And if you’ve invested resources into wooing them, then those resources are wasted. Physical appearance is extremely important in sexual selection. Our brains are hard-wired to evaluate secondary sex characteristics. The matter of which sex someone is is extremely important and something that evolution has devoted a large amount of resources to. Consider what sort of resources you would need to make a computer program that can reliably tell what sex someone is, versus how easy it is for a human to do it. The widespread existence of sex-differentiated pronouns is just one sign of how important sex is to humans.

            All the consequences of accidentally misgendering someone are socially constructed, and even the socially constructed ones usually aren’t too bad in practice.

            Social consequences are still consequences.

        • Sorghum says:

          Interesting, I didn’t r

        • The original Mr. X says:

          There are historical records of similar ruses being used in the actual Bronze Age, though. E.g., a Hittite general once pretended to abandon a siege and march his army away, and then when the defenders had let their guard down and started partying he hurried back and took their city by escalade before they could reorganise their defences.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Importantly, that particular ruse de guerre would probably work in real life in the modern day. If someone told me that the commander of an eighteenth century army had used a similar trick to storm a fortified city, I’d believe it. You don’t have to have some kind of childlike inability to comprehend deception to believe, after weeks or months of siege warfare, that the enemy is actually packing up and marching away, or to let down your guard after they remain out of sight for a day or two.

            It’s not prudent, wise, or smart, but it’s not some kind of blinding “you cannot possibly be a functional adult and be this stupid” stupidity compared to the kinds of mistakes people make in the real world in the present day.

            No radical revolution in the nature of consciousness or cognition required.

    • bsrk says:

      It’s possible that as the human support system improved, there was less & less possibility of getting support from a spirit.

      The spirit solves & articulates your puzzles & omens. Once other humans started doing it, there is little left for the spirit to do for you.

    • dank says:

      I don’t think it’s implausible that entire cultures could miss obvious (to us in hindsight) strategies for centuries. Many people today still play Tic-Tac-To!

      • Forlorn Hopes says:

        Do adult seriously play Tic-Tac-To? I stopped as a kid for the obvious reason.

        • A1987dM says:

          I occasionally played it well into my teens.

          Of course the vast majority of individual games are ties, but it you keep playing enough times eventually one of you will blunder and lose.

          • No One In Particular says:

            Or if you play against someone who realizes that memorizing the strategy of a kid’s game is hardly productive use of one’s time.

          • Gerry Quinn says:

            I played an excellent computer game called Fran Bow a couple of years ago, and this was in fact one of the puzzles you had to solve.

      • Another weird example of this is basic probability. The Greeks loved gambling and were good at logic, but the scoring of their games was nonsensical by modern standards. It’s not like they needed full-fledged probability theory to figure this out—knuckle bones were scored the same whether they landed on the broad face or on their edges, for example. It looks more like having some conceptual blind spot.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          Maybe that was part of the point of the game? The premise that all six sides of a die have to be equally likely to come up sounds a lot more culturally constructed than the idea “the die is more likely to come up on the big sides than the small ones.”

    • Eric Rall says:

      Looking at a translation of the Complaint Tablet to Ea-Nasir (written c. 1750 BC, about 500 years before the Bronze Age Collapse), it seems to imply at least a toddler-level understanding theory of mind.

      Tell Ea-nasir: Nanni sends the following message:

      When you came, you said to me as follows : “I will give Gimil-Sin (when he comes) fine quality copper ingots.” You left then but you did not do what you promised me. You put ingots which were not good before my messenger (Sit-Sin) and said: “If you want to take them, take them; if you do not want to take them, go away!”

      What do you take me for, that you treat somebody like me with such contempt? I have sent as messengers gentlemen like ourselves to collect the bag with my money (deposited with you) but you have treated me with contempt by sending them back to me empty-handed several times, and that through enemy territory. Is there anyone among the merchants who trade with Telmun who has treated me in this way? You alone treat my messenger with contempt! On account of that one (trifling) mina of silver which I owe(?) you, you feel free to speak in such a way, while I have given to the palace on your behalf 1,080 pounds of copper, and Šumi-abum has likewise given 1,080 pounds of copper, apart from what we both have had written on a sealed tablet to be kept in the temple of Shamash.

      How have you treated me for that copper? You have withheld my money bag from me in enemy territory; it is now up to you to restore (my money) to me in full.

      Take cognizance that (from now on) I will not accept here any copper from you that is not of fine quality. I shall (from now on) select and take the ingots individually in my own yard, and I shall exercise against you my right of rejection because you have treated me with contempt.

      The bits I emphasized in particular sound like the complainant (Nanni) is thinking about the mental state behind Ea-Nasir’s actions and is issuing a warning in hope of deterring future misbehavior on Ea-Nasir’s part.

    • janrandom says:

      I think using theory-of-mind instead of consciousness is an improvement but it brings its own problems. Like not having a theory-of-mind making you incapable of trading. Maybe modern-theory-of-mind would have been better.

      Scott writes

      > Theory-of-mind-space is wider than we imagine

      Clearly bronze age people had a concept of a mind – multiple actually. All those voices. And they seemed to ascribe intentions to them. It is just not the modern state of there being a single ‘I’ voice (mainly; see the exceptions mentioned like imaginary friends). The modern expectation of a single mind/voice simplifies a lot of things – like trade – but hides the complexities of the individual – which then show up as ‘disorders’.

    • CptDrMoreno says:

      Could explain how europeans conquered the Americas so easily.
      Still, I’m confused as to how a theory of mind would lead to better strategic thinking or how “I have an internal voice I model as a god” seems to be treated as somehow more closely related with “I don’t have an internal monologue” than “I have an internal voice I model as myself”.

    • unreliabletags says:

      Generals would choose their military moves based on signs from the gods. It’s been suggested that this was useful as an injection of randomness, to keep them from becoming predictable.

    • Doesntliketocomment says:

      Maybe this is why the sea peoples wiped the floor with everyone else. Having one group come up and completely dominate all others in warfare or trade is not uncommon, though in the modern times we attribute this to technology.

      • Wency says:

        I’d say in most cases it had a lot more to do with asabiyyah than technology.

        What’s more valuable: asabiyyah or a sophisticated and deceptive strategy/tactics? I think most of the time, asabiyyah. It’s pretty rare that the arc of a civilization is decisively turned by superior strategy and tactics. Hannibal died a failure. Most of the time we point to military geniuses who prevailed against all odds, they also happened to have a large advantage in asabiyyah over their enemies.

        And I don’t know that asabiyyah benefits from theory of mind. It might be better to think of your opponents as alien and monstrous.

        • Doesntliketocomment says:

          You make a good point on tactics (and made me look up asabiyyah), but there are two items to consider:

          One is that we generally only appreciate tactical genius when it’s exposed due to a force mismatch. People venerate Yi Sun-sin because he prevailed over impossible odds. Even generals like Lee and Hannibal are remembered even though they were ultimately defeated because they managed to claim victories where they should have had none. When tactics serve only to make the likely certain they are less likely to be celebrated.

          On the strategic front, it is hard to imagine a group without theory of mind prevailing over one that does, simply because so much of strategy involves predicting the enemies’ actions and manipulating them to fight when and where you want to. If you cannot do this then you are unlikely to anticipate it being done to you and will be surprised time and time again, constantly fighting on unfavorable terms.

    • Aur Saraf says:

      This is a great question.

      I once in high school opened a book of military history. It started with a few landmark ancient greek battles, the first of which was a Battle of Leuctra (apparently 371 BC) where the innovation was to not distribute their soldiers equally over the width of the battlefield. So it seems there wasn’t a lot of strategy in war in the Bronze Age.

      Strategy games are a different game entirely. It seems like some version of Checkers existed since 3000BC, and it definitely requires a theory of mind to play well, although I was able to play it (badly) at an age where you’re not supposed to have one yet. Weiqi (Go in japanese, Baduk in korean), which is very much about strategy and tactics, was invented (Lasker would say discovered) circa 2000BC. This page has a poem dated around year 0 that shows there were strong players at the time (as well as a game listing from 400AD that the dan-level players at r/baduk say was played by players who are stronger than them, how cool is that!), but this is a thousand years after the date we’re interested in.

  2. Logan says:

    This post seems to sidestep what I consider to be the single most interesting question (except maybe when it’s talking about pre-bicameral thought). What causes us to hear voices in our heads?

    This post claims that pre-bronze-age peoples heard voices speaking to them and assumed they were gods. I hear a voice in my head and have some ability to control it (i.e. if you tell me to make the voice say something, I can do that, but if you ask me to make the voice stop, that’s harder). I base a lot of my decisions on the things that voice says, similarly to how I would base my decisions on what external people say. If I monologue about how I should go on a diet, it has a similar effect to listening to a podcast about going on a diet (namely I may take some steps towards that but won’t necessarily accomplish it). A lot of our understanding of consciousness and the mind in general is based on how we understand that voice, and this blog post is an example of that.

    What is the voice though? Why do humans hear that? I had heard of Jaynes’s book before, and thought from the title that it would explain the evolutionary origin of the voice. Do we think monkeys have something like it? Is it an obvious byproduct of our capacity for language? Is the voice real, or just something I’ve been taught to claim I can hear? Like maybe I have abstract thoughts in the first place, but whenever I’m asked to speak about them I translate them into words, and when I try to think about my own thoughts I often transcribe them into words for convenience? What is the voice?

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Why do humans hear that? I had heard of Jaynes’s book before, and thought from the title that it would explain the evolutionary origin of the voice. Do we think monkeys have something like it?

      Hot take: Indian monkeys experience it as Hanuman, Egyptian monkeys experience it as Thoth.

    • bsrk says:

      It is good that you stopped using the word “mind”.

      The voice is making up a science that can end nescience.

      Do we think monkeys have something like it?

      They do, obviously. They too suffer. They too want to get out of suffering. That said, they have limited puzzles & omens. The answer cannot exceed the question.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Global Workspace Theory holds that one of the primary functions of consciousness is to be a place where different subsystems in the brain exchange information between each other. Under this model, the voices that people hear in their heads are just like any other thoughts, emotions, mental content etc.: information coming from some particular subsystem, which just happens to be relayed in the form of internal speech.

      Many people also report that the voices they hear remind them of real people: someone might have a critical voice which resembles that of their critical mother, for instance. In that case, the voice would be the product of a subsystem which has evolved to model the expected reactions of other people, and report how they would react. If you have internal models of other people, telling you what they would disapprove of, then that model can express its disapproval before you do a thing – in which case you don’t need to suffer the consequences of doing the thing and then suffering from the disapproval of the real person. (Likewise, if you have encouraging voices, they might push you to do socially approved things that you otherwise wouldn’t.)

      (“An internalized model of society’s rules” seems like it would pretty well match having the ruler’s voice in your head…)

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        A related paper: Frith & Metzinger argue that one of the functions why consciousness evolved, might be to allow models of group interests to be integrated with one’s psyche. This allows the group model to regulate the individual’s behavior, and allows for social emotions such as regret, when one realizes that their individual preferences have violated group preferences:

        In departing from theological and ancient philosophical models of regret we propose that the representational content of regret can result from a failed integration of group preferences and individual preferences. Obviously, we also have the capacity to regret having been the cause of individual suffering, and it is often the case that the individual in question is identical to ourselves. Nevertheless, regret always has to do with conflicting sets of preferences and its representational content is inherently social. In essence, regret results from applying mechanisms of social control to oneself, namely, retribution (self-punishment) and reputation loss (self-blame). Societies are complex, self-modelling systems too, which self-regulate their activity via distributed control mechanisms including many individual agents. Every good regulator of a social system must be a model of that system (Conant and Ashby, 1970; Friston, 2010; Seth, 2015).

        The important point is that, for any organism that has acquired the capacity to feel regret and whose behaviour is determined by this very special form of conscious content, the self-model and the group-model have become functionally integrated in a much stronger way. More specifically, as soon as desires and values of the group are represented in the transparent part of the conscious self-model, the organism necessarily identifies with these values and desires (Metzinger, 2003). This enables an organism to suffer emotionally from a self-caused frustration of group-preferences. This further creates a permanent and never-ending source of conflict in its inner life. However, this source of conflict is, at the same time, a strong source of motivation – a motivation to continuously strive for social cohesion in one’s own group. We believe that the conscious experience of regret marks out a critical transition in the internal dynamics of our model of reality: A functional platform for automatic self-punishment has been created. The group-model has invaded the organism’s self-model to such a degree that the conflict between group and individual interests is now internally modelled in a way that a) includes sanctions by the group (regret is internal self-sanctioning), and b) the dynamic competition between group and individual interests is now taking place not only on the level of overt, bodily actions, but has found a new platform – the self-model of the individual. In this way social interactions and group decisions are optimised. […]

        If one looks at the more than 20 centuries of Western theorizing on consciousness, one finds an extremely interesting connection between phenomenal experience and moral cognition. The English word “conscience” is derived from the Latin conscientia, which originally meant jointly knowing, knowing together with or co-awareness, but also consciousness and conscience. Here, the first point of interest is that throughout most of the history of philosophy, consciousness had a lot to do with conscience. Descartes was the first to separate conscience and consciousness and to constitute the modern concept of consciousness in the 17th century. Before modern times, being unconscious also meant lacking a conscience1. The Latin term conscientia, in turn, is a translation of the Greek term syneidesis, referring to “moral conscience”, “co-awareness of one’s own bad actions”, “inner consciousness”, “accompanying consciousness”, “joint knowledge”, or “disconcerting inner consciousness”—early thinkers were always also concerned with the purity of consciousness; with taking a normative stance and especially with the existence of an inner witness. Democritus and Epicurus already philosophized about inner torture associated with the bad conscience (Bobzien, 2006) and Cicero formed the matchless term, morderi conscientiae (Hödl, 1992), the pangs of conscience or, as we say in German, the bites of conscience, “Gewissensbisse” (Agenbite of Inwit Joyce, 1922). Even before Christian philosophy, the idea existed that conscience is a form of inner violence, a way to persistently hurt oneself. […]

        At the outset, we also asked: What class of optimization problems does consciousness enable us to solve? A well-known neuroscientific concept is “reward prediction” (Hollerman and Schultz, 1998; Schultz and Dickinson, 2000; Tobler et al., 2006). We want to point out that in complex biological nervous systems there might also exist the opposite capacity: We dub it “regret prediction”. If a system has the capacity to distinguish between it’s own actual and possible future states, then it could also begin predicting future regret (Coricelli et al., 2005; Filiz-Ozbay and Ozbay, 2007). It could simulate future states of the self-model that resemble the current one. If it has a self-model that misrepresents it as possessing a precise transtemporal identity, then it will also represent such future regret events as potentially happening to the same biological system, to itself. The prediction of future suffering of the kind we have sketched allows for the comparison of future states with present states, and opens the possibility of seeking trajectories into more desirable situations. We believe that this new biological capacity – regret minimization – will dramatically have increased the motivational force behind prosocial behaviour. The search for one’s own coherence turns into the search for group coherence.

        • Calion says:

          That’s…brilliant. Thanks for posting. That’s as right as I’ve ever heard anyone say it.

        • anonymousskimmer says:

          Nevertheless, regret always has to do with conflicting sets of preferences and its representational content is inherently social. In essence, regret results from applying mechanisms of social control to oneself, namely, retribution (self-punishment) and reputation loss (self-blame).

          Chicken-and-egg problem here. Why consider these “social control” mechanisms to be “inherently social”, instead of “social control” co-opting mechanisms of a more general nature?

          The last two paragraphs you quoted are intriguing, barring the ultimate sentence.

      • angularangel says:

        Wait, people get multiple voices, and ones with distinct Identities? I only get one voice, my own internal narrative, and it’s really bland. I’m mildly autistic though, I guess maybe that explains it?

    • Jakub Łopuszański says:

      I always assumed that I think in words.
      And I was really surprised some time ago by this Reddit thread and people on LessWrong saying they lack internal monologue.
      So, I’ve read some articles about experiments in which they asked people at random moments during the day what mode of thinking they were experiencing at the moment, and a lot of the answers indicated non-verbal thoughts going on.

      And then I’ve realized there is one possibility I haven’t even considered to be a hypothesis before: that I am not honest with myself when I ask myself “what mode of communication do I use?”.
      I *recall* that I was using words, but did I really?
      What if I think in abstract terms, but when I am *asked* *what* I was thinking I am serializing it to string?
      What if this is just like in those lazy-evaluated expressions in some programming languages which only “collapse”/evaluate when you really need them?

      So, the other day, I went to a park, trying “not to think about anything verbally”, as in meditation, and also trying to have my fist clenched as long as I am not hearing any word in my mind, and unclench it whenever I fail. The repeatable outcome was something like this: for 20 or so seconds, I was almost sure I was not thinking a single word as evidenced by my hand being clenched and not remembering opening it, and then all of the sudden I would realize that I remember myself thinking in words for last 10+ seconds, as evidenced by having a complete “transcript” of my thoughts available. That is: I at the same time remembered and was convinced of not using words for this period, and also have a “log” indicating the contrary. It’s not exactly like two histories merging – more like…the same history having two interpretations: visual and textual. As if obj.toString() was eventually evaluated.

      • Randy M says:

        I track with you. It’s like my mind doesn’t have a transcript, it has a librarian. And if I want to review the record, the librarian relays it in words. But I’m not sure if he got that from a textual transcript, or is describing what at the time was sub-verbal, wants and intuitions that cash out into “I want a cheeseburger, let’s got to In’n’Out” but at the time might have been a scent of cheese, feeling of desire, vague sense of satisfaction with the memory of getting cash recently, whatever.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        I was almost sure I was not thinking a single word as evidenced by my hand being clenched and not remembering opening it, and then all of the sudden I would realize that I remember myself thinking in words for last 10+ seconds, as evidenced by having a complete “transcript” of my thoughts available. That is: I at the same time remembered and was convinced of not using words for this period, and also have a “log” indicating the contrary. It’s not exactly like two histories merging – more like…the same history having two interpretations: visual and textual. As if obj.toString() was eventually evaluated.

        Nice! This sounds similar to some of the experiences that I’ve had with meditation. I described a case quite like what you describe here, using the example of “trying to follow the breath” rather than “watching whether my hand is clenched”, but the principle is the same:

        … even if you stop getting entirely lost in thought, you still have distraction: content from other subsystems that is in consciousness together with the sensations of the breath and the intention to focus on the breath. For example, you might be having stray thoughts, hearing sounds from your environment, and experiencing sensations from your body.

        To more exclusively focus on the breath, you are instructed to maintain the intent to both attend to it and also to be aware of any distractions. The subsystems which output mental content can, and normally do, operate independently of each other. This means that the following may happen:

        Subsystem 1: I’m meditating well!
        Subsystem 2: Hmm, what’s that smell.
        Subsystem 1: I’m meditating well! No distractions.
        Subsystem 2: Smells kinda like cookies.
        Subsystem 2: Mmm, cookies.
        Subsystem 1: Continuing to meditate well!
        Subsystem 2: Say, what’s for dinner?

        That is, a system which tracks the breath can continue to repeatedly find the breath, and report that your meditation is proceeding well and with no distractions… all the while the content of your consciousness continues to alternate with distracted thoughts, which the breath-tracking subsystem is failing to notice (because it is tracking the breath, not the presence of other thoughts). Worse, since you may find it rewarding to just think that you are meditating well, that thought may start to become rewarded, and you may find yourself just thinking that you are meditating well… even as that thought has become self-sustaining and no longer connected to whether you are following the breath or not!

        There are all kinds of subtle traps like this, and reducing the amount of distraction requires you to first have better awareness of the distraction. This means more moments of introspective awareness which are tracking what’s actually happening in your mind:

        Subsystem 1: I’m meditating well!
        Subsystem 2: Hmm, what’s that smell.
        Subsystem 1: I’m meditating well! No distractions.
        Subsystem 2: Smells kinda like cookies.
        Subsystem 2: Mmm, cookies.
        Awareness subsystem: Wait, one train of thought keeps saying that it’s meditating well, but another is totally getting into the thought of food.
        Subsystem 1: Oh. Better refocus that attention on the breath, and spend less time thinking about the concept of following the breath.

        This kind of a process also teaches you to pay attention to patterns of cause and effect in your mind. In this example, the smell of cookies caused you to think of cookies, which in turn made you think of dinner, which could have ultimately led to forgetting and mind-wandering.

        Catching the train of thought after “mmm, cookies” meant that three “processing steps” had passed before you noticed it. If you practice tracing back trains of thought in your mind, you seem to teach your awareness-system to collect and store data from a longer period, even when it is not actively outputting it. This means that at the “mmm, cookies” stage, you can query your awareness to get a trace of the immediately preceding thought chain.

      • Kaitian says:

        Susan Blackmore argues that this is how consciousness works — you’re not conscious all the time, only if you pay attention to your own consciousness. She compares it to the light in the fridge: It’s off most of the time, but you will never be able to see that, because when you look, it turns on.

        Hypothetically, maybe your whole mind is like that. It’s all just raw brain buzzing until you decide to query it for some reason, at which point it breaks down into consciousness and thought.

        I personally don’t buy this perspective (and it seems to rest quite heavily on some questionable free will experiments), but I admit it’s hard to disprove.

      • I think both with and without words. That’s most obvious when I am having trouble coming up with the word for the idea I am trying to express in my thoughts or writing. Often enough it’s a word I know but am blocking on, and I can find it by describing it to my wife or doing a web search with suitable terms, thus demonstrating that I already know it in some non-verbal way.

        As best I can tell, the base level thinking is non-verbal, but I find it useful to then put it into verbal form, as if I were explaining it to someone else.

        • ana53294 says:

          As a person who speaks and thinks in many languages, this happens to me constantly with words/concepts. I keep remembering a word in Spanish/Russian/Basque/English, and trying to figure out that word in the language I’m speaking in. It seems like my mind reaches the word/concept that is most easily reachable, and that sometimes means jumping into another language.

          • Zygohistomorphic says:

            I notice something similar. I can sort of set my internal monologue between languages. If I am thinking in Spanish (not my native language), I will sometimes reach a point where I need a particular word, but can’t think of it in Spanish. However, I won’t be able to think of the word in English either, since my brain is operating in Spanish mode.

          • anonymousskimmer says:

            All of this speculation and observation is incredibly interesting. To add a question to it: I wonder about people who have a notably higher or lower verbal intelligence (or at least verbal expression ability) vis-a-vis their other intelligences.

        • Logan says:

          I’ve noticed this phenomenon as well, but notably I will never move on without the word. It’s deeply unsettling to me to let my thoughts get away from that monologue.

          I also find that sometimes I know what the monologue will say before I “hear” it! I ask myself why I’m still bothering to listen to the monologue, but I still don’t move on to another thought until it catches up.

          So I know that the monologue can be in principle disentangled from “thought,” but I’ve never tried very hard to do so outside brief experiments. I find the monologue both pleasant and useful, and I’m worried I’ll break the habit indefinitely.

        • onyomi says:

          Related proof of this phenomenon for me: because I can speak more than one language I have noticed on occasion that I can remember something I said or that was said to me, but I can’t clearly recall what language it was said in (of course, I can often guess depending on context, but I also know a lot of people who speak more than language and might do so with me). If the “content” didn’t exist in some form independent of the “form” then it seems like this shouldn’t be possible, and also that translation should be much more difficult, for that matter.

          On the other hand I notice that numbers for me exist more as words than as true mathematical entities so that if say, I know a phone number in Mandarin but not Japanese because I use that phone number in China, it is slightly more laborious for me to say that phone number in Japanese and vice-versa. To recall the number I have to first recite it, aloud or in my head, in the language I’m most adept at recalling it and then convert as necessary.

          • Loriot says:

            I’ve had moments where I understood something but had to stop and think about what language it was in. In fact, when listening to something in a foreign language, I’ve noticed that consciously focusing on the language greatly impedes understanding.

      • keaswaran says:

        Episodic memory in general involves a lot of confabulation. When you picture an experience you remember from your childhood, some of what you picture is reconstructed from your actual experience at the time, but other bits are reconstructed on the basis of episodes of telling this story to others, or bits of the story that others filled in that you weren’t aware of at the time. This is most clear when you notice that with some memories (particularly older ones), you visualize them from an external point of view, seeing yourself in the action, rather than remembering the experience in your own field of vision.

        In any case, on the main topic, this sort of visualizing a sequence of events is a type of thought that most of us are pretty familiar with that generally isn’t very verbal at all.

        • Loriot says:

          Last year, my parents dug up some old photos and I was shocked by how much they differed from my own early memories of my childhood home (age 5).

          When I was typing up my old diaries, I was shocked to discover that two incidents I strongly remembered happening on the same day actually happened a week or two apart.

    • peterispaikens says:

      It’s always interesting for me to read discussions starting with the assumption that we have the ‘voices in my head’ or define consciousness as ‘the internal monologue’, because I don’t experience it like that. I can and do verbalize my thoughts, but I do it rarely, namely:

      1) When deliberately preparing a statement to say or write – not in most conversations, it’s when I’m thinking of the best phrasing by “trying out” multiple variations of what I could say before actually saying it.
      2) In some cases when reading slowly – usually I sightread without verbalizing most of the text;
      3) In some rare cases of intentionally “speaking to myself” in situations of difficult deliberations or experiences.
      4) I’ve done some mindfulness practice which involves deliberately acknowledging certain mindstates of how I’m feeling – that involves verbalization, but that’s not the way I usually behave, it requires conscious (that word perhaps is not a coincidence) intentional effort to do that.

      But mostly, 95% of my life, there’s no internal verbal monologue happening for me as far it seems to me. I’m aware of stuff, I do stuff, I decide on what to do but usually there’s no voice involved in that; the concepts that I’m aware of and use in the decisionmaking often are nonverbal and in order to decribe them to myself verbally, much less someone else, I’d need to spend some time thinking of what (if any!) words or terms would be appropriate to express that concept or thought or decision that I was just thinking about.

      • Logan says:

        What do you do on long walks? When you’re alone without stimulus? Do you have complex thoughts that are non-verbal, or is your mind essentially blank?

        For example, I had a traumatic experience a few years back, and for nearly a year every time I went for a walk I was mulling it over in my brain. Then I moved to a new city, and walked down to the convenience store to see the neighborhood and get something to eat. When I got home, I realized that I had been thinking about my new job (what it would be like and what I wanted to accomplish there and how I had gotten the job) instead of thinking about the traumatic event. It was (as far as I could recall at the time) the first time since the event that I had gone for a walk and not thought about it.

        Does that story parse for you, or is it nonsensical? Could you imagine yourself having a similar experience, and would you describe it the same way?

        • Kaj Sotala says:

          (Not the person you’re asking, but mind works pretty much the same as theirs.) All of this makes sense to me and it could have happened to me, those thoughts would probably just have been mostly non-verbal.

        • keaswaran says:

          To me, nothing about the description you gave indicates anything about whether the thoughts you are having are verbal or non-verbal. The natural ways I imagine thinking about a job or a trauma are by imagining the experience, rather than imagining a sentence describing the experience (though I *would* do the latter if I were preparing to tell someone about it). And I’m not good at visualizing things, and certainly not at imagining smells and tastes! I’m not sure quite what it is that I *am* doing when I am imagining an experience, but it doesn’t seem primarily verbal, or primarily driven by primary sensory experiences.

      • Emma_B says:

        Same thing for me : I do not have the experience of a constant internal monologue, and the quite rare cases where I am verbalizing inside my head match yours.

        I just tried to deliberately verbalize my thought process right now, and it seems really strange, kind of like I’m reading slowly, saying the words in my head.

    • Cato the Eider says:

      I don’t “hear voices” in my head.

      I would describe it like this: a “mind process”, call it The Thinker (and there may be multiple concurrent), delivers a block of thought; a fraction of a second later a separate mind process, The Verbalizer (which feels more singular), begins to turn it into words. It is not in any way like hearing a voice, though (“thinking in words” seems like it would be inefficient, by the way – think how much a text file will compress). Frequently the Verbalizer is interrupted before finishing, leading me to assume it’s a low priority process. In fact, I think a very small fraction of thoughts get verbalized, though it’s harder to be aware of the ones that aren’t.

      It seems similar to memory. People talk about recall as if it’s somehow replaying the sensations experienced in the moment, which is almost completely foreign to me. Instead, I experience The Archivist delivering an archive similar to the above block of thought; this gets unpacked into a bunch more thought blocks, usually visual, sometimes auditory, sometimes logical; sometime the Verbalizer pitches in and starts transcribing some of these.

      To me it seems very modular, but perhaps I’m just projecting onto my experience from various theories of mind that I’ve read about.

    • philwelch says:

      Do you literally hear audible voices?

  3. skluug says:

    in november last year, i had the idea of imagining my conscience as a tulpa that i could have conversations with.

    i found it incredibly persuasive, and incredibly helpful, for a brief time. my conscience would tell me things like “you should do work now” and i would say back “i don’t want to” and my conscience would say “just take a small step to get started, it’s not as hard as it seems”. (ordinarily, that experience goes something like “i should do work now… but i don’t want to”.) my conscience would also say things to me like “i love you, everything will be okay” unprompted.

    my mental health was excellent for about a week, and then i just got tired of listening to my conscience-tulpa all the time and it stopped speaking up. when i remember about it, it will talk to me, but it’s hasn’t been a default presence since. maybe i should get an idol.

    • bsrk says:

      You should create a cheerfulness tulpa. Listening to Cheerfulness & Conscience is very synergistic.

      Note: You might get restless with just these two. If you are getting restless consider adding Serenity.

  4. SteveB1 says:

    The bicameral mind has always struck me (as someone with no experience with regards to ancient civilization or neuroscience) as one of those “probably wrong, but really interesting” theses that crop up every so often.

    It’s interesting, in light of Jaynes’ theory, that the oracles were used (based on my layman knowledge, at least) for utilitarian purposes as much as the spiritual – the information they came to based on their “god-based cognition” was sought in order to be used, not just because it came from godly sources. Probably this was some kind of selection effect (if you don’t make good predictions, you won’t be a successful oracle), or a post-hoc justification for cultural or practical factors, but still. The people who had theory of mind were coming to the people without it for advice.

    • Randy M says:

      the oracles were used (based on my layman knowledge, at least) for utilitarian purposes as much as the spiritual

      Scott should have linked his–what was it, Thinking Like a State review?–that discussed how augury rituals could have had a valuable function as something akin to randomness generators.

      • emiliobumachar says:

        The Secret of Our Success.

        “I’m reminded of the Romans using augury to decide when and where to attack. This always struck me as crazy; generals are going to risk the lives of thousands of soldiers because they saw a weird bird earlier that morning? But war is a classic example of when a random strategy can be useful. If you’re deciding whether to attack the enemy’s right vs. left flank, it’s important that the enemy can’t predict your decision and send his best defenders there. If you’re generally predictable – and Scott Aaronson says you are – then outsourcing your decision to weird birds might be the best way to go.”

      • Simon_Jester says:

        The problem is that the ancients also used oracles for things like strategy (“do I go to war with Persia or not”) and logistical decisions (“where do we found our new colony city?”).

        Then again, some modern national rulers listen to astrologers, and if we didn’t have a strong overlay in the elite culture making astrology low-status, we’d probably have more. So the underlying phenomenon may well have been about what you’d expect: oracles were remembered and glorified for the times when their advice led to success, the times when it led to disaster were blamed on other factors, and the prestige gained by the oracles made people consult them even when they probably shouldn’t, even when ignoring them would be a better strategy in the long run.

        • baconbits9 says:

          The problem is that the ancients also used oracles for things like strategy (“do I go to war with Persia or not”) and logistical decisions (“where do we found our new colony city?”).

          This isn’t necessarily bad as animal omens would correlate with local conditions. Seeing a hawk means there is enough smaller animals to support an apex predator which means there is enough vegetation throughout the year which means appropriate rainfall/temperature ranges.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            Yes, but the relevant omen wasn’t always “a hawk,” and hawks can live in a lot of places large human communities can’t, and none of this really applies to a case like “I dunno where we should settle, ask the oracle who has never been there.”

  5. John Lee says:

    Something interesting and possibly relevant: I am autistic (a disorder famous for lack of verbal focus), and I ALSO thought in totally non verbal terms until around college age. I’m not sure if I had the same experience the reddit commentor did, as I distinctly recall being conscious and experiencing things and emotions, but becoming more verbal in my mind did lead to a distinct change in my perception, more awareness of my own mental state, and even a mild-to-moderate lessening of some of my previous autist-typical… thought processes, I suppose, although when the autism’s in fill swing it’s less like processing and more like being processed. I think the main trigger for this was, of all thing, reading out loud to my girlfriend regularly. I’d always been a voracious reader, but somehow literally verbalizing it constantly rejiggered my mind into thinking like I was reading out loud.

    (I’ve been a long-time lurker and fan, and I registered just to make this comment, so I hope it ended up helpful, interesting, or both!)

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      I am not autistic, but I always thought that I became conscious or “capable of thought” around the age of 12. I didn’t conceptualize this as starting to think verbally, but it makes sense. I always thought that it was probably connected to puberty and just getting smarter and more able to think through stuff. Now I really wonder when other people start thinking verbally.

      • Tuna-Fish says:

        If you just want anecdotes, I have thought verbally from an age that predates from where I have my earliest memories. (definitely before 5 years of age, maybe before 4).

        Before I read this post, I thought that everyone is always thinking verbally, and I still have no good model of what not thinking verbally is.

        • tossrock says:

          […] I still have no good model of what not thinking verbally is.

          When I was a kid growing up in Far Rockaway, I had a friend named Bernie Walker. We both had “labs” at home, and we would do various “experiments.” One time, we were discussing something — we must have been eleven or twelve at the time — and I said, “But thinking is nothing but talking to yourself inside.”

          “Oh yeah?” Bernie said. “Do you know the crazy shape of the crankshaft in a car?”

          “Yeah, what of it?”

          “Good. Now, tell me: how did you describe it when you were talking to yourself?”

          So I learned from Bernie that thoughts can be visual as well as verbal.

          Richard Feynman, What Do You Care
          What Other People Think?

          • eric23 says:

            Who exactly is this Bernie Walker guy who was smart enough to teach things to Feynman?

          • Gerry Quinn says:

            Or: who was this Feynman guy who was smart enough to learn things from Bernie Walker?

            (Of course, it’s also far from inconceivable that Feynman is personifying the source of an intellectual insight he had himself…)

        • dogiv says:

          I always thought most of my thoughts were verbal, until I tried an experiment where for several minutes I tried to voice out loud every single thought that came into my head. It was impossible. I was constantly having more thoughts before I could finish coming up with words for the previous ones. I was not speaking terribly fast, either, so I wasn’t limited by anything physical–just by the time it takes to convert a nonverbal thought into a verbal one.

      • Fishbreath says:

        I’m in the same boat as Tuna-Fish (an amusing coincidence of noms de plume), more or less—I remember telling myself stories in my mind to help myself go to sleep in a room in a house I moved out of before starting the first grade.

    • John Lee says:

      Replying to my own comment to mention something *even stranger and more relevant*: I only remembered just now, but from the age of early puberty to post-high-school, I did indeed have a habit of vividly picturing my associates whom I knew well, giving me advice or simply engaging in conversation. These fell short of being legitimately hallucinatory, but I’m one of those people who is almost totally incapable of actually holding an image in their heads, so that might have been a mitigating factor? Had I more powers of visualization, might I have fallen straight into having ‘imaginary’ friends based on real ones? Weird stuff, certainly.

      • Vosmyorka says:

        Probably the vast majority of my thoughts are like this; when coming up with decisions (or just spit-balling) I will have an imaginary conversation with a close friend or family member who I think would have good ideas about the topic, and I will usually take the advice that the imaginary version of that person ends up giving. (Or sometimes I’ll contact the real person; the advice tends to be moderately similar, but certainly it isn’t exactly the same 100% of the time. In one case in particular the version of a person in my head became extremely divorced from what the real person was like, and the imaginary versions often lag personality changes in their real-life counterparts.)

        Certain people correspond with certain moods, which tend to be the reverse of whatever that person is actually like — my father, an avid mountaineer, is associated with lethargy (or I’ll speak to “him” if I’m feeling tired), and a close friend I used to take MDMA with is associated with feeling depressed. By contrast, a different close friend who has struggled for many years with depression is associated with energy/cheerfulness/maybe a light mania. It feels like my mind is always trying to pull a reversion to the mean, maybe?

        Anyway, this piece is making me question my own consciousness — it sounds like Jaynes might not think I have any. I certainly experience most of “my” ideas as suggestions from others, even though I know they come from my own head.

      • BlindKungFuMaster says:

        I have the habit of discussing stuff with people whose book, blogpost or interview I just consumed. (Of course all in my head.). I sometimes worry that there is a crazy-person-on-the-subway inside of me trying to get out. The majority of people talking loudly with absent persons in public seem to do some version of this.

        Anyway, SSC often gives me pointers in which way my weird mind is weird and how it is all connected. I didn’t think of the non-verbal-thinking as a kid for years.

        Another thing that might be somehow connected: I am really horrible at remembering past events. (Or landmarks). My theory is that these events don’t leave enough of an emotional impression with me compared to other people. For a long time I had rather little recollection of my childhood, though it came back to a certain degree in my mid-twenties.

      • merisiel says:

        I’ve done the opposite — I imagine the part of the conversation where I explain something or tell a story to a specific person I know, but I never imagine them talking back.

      • keaswaran says:

        I wonder if these “short of being legitimately hallucinatory” images might just be a rare instance in your head of visualization of the type that other people often do, which you interpreted as being vividly pictured in a way that made it seem more external to yourself?

    • Do you tend to mostly think in verbal terms nowadays? Whenever I’m just considering some problem I tend to think in non-verbal terms but I always use verbal thought when I’m considering how I’ll explain something to someone. Sometimes I run into trouble when I don’t do it that way, there’s some concept that feels internally like it ought to correspond to a word but when I get to it in an explanation suddenly I realize there *isn’t* a corresponding word, at least in English, and I have to stop and go into a multi-sentence digression before getting back on track.

      I do recall having a change in perception sort of similar to the one you’re describing back when I was four years old. I’m not sure at this point whether I was thinking verbally beforehand but I remember putting my change in perception in verbal terms to myself back then which doesn’t strike me as something I’d be likely to do nowadays but maybe it was just because I was being dramatic to myself. Or possibly I’m misremembering, this was all a long time ago and memory is fallible.

  6. tibbar says:

    I would be remiss not to surface this fascinating thread where people talk about their experience of having or not having an internal monologue (read the associated article too):

    “Do you hear a voice in your head when you think?” is now my favorite question to ask people. Perhaps this division of people is as interesting as gender.

    • Cameron Mahoney says:

      I definitely have one. What’s interesting is when I’m having intense anxiety, it get’s washed out by impulsive action. The monologue becomes something I can ‘dialogue’ with, or at least observe, when I’m in a better place.

      I’m curious how often people say ‘No.’ or what other interesting answers you’ve had to that question… since I kinda just assumed that nearly everyone has an internal monologue until just now!

      • Gerry Quinn says:

        I don’t, when I’m actually thinking. When I’m recording / systematising my thoughts, I can.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      From ycombinator: “Thinking on this more, I may not have had an internal monologue when I was younger. I recall when I was maybe 11 or 12, I had a sudden, distinct moment of increased self-awareness, after which my internal monologue became my predominant mode of thinking. My first thought was that all of my mental activity up till that time had been in a fog, and that I really hadn’t even been a fully conscious being. I crossed some kind of cognitive rubicon which my previous self couldn’t even understand. I assumed this was a normal phase of mental development at the time, but now I’m curious if others have had similar experiences.”

      That’s pretty much exactly my experience.

    • sglasman says:

      I don’t have an internal monologue or a “voice” that carries my thoughts, except when I’m actually composing a linguistic utterance like this reply. And when people do say their thoughts are an inner voice, I do have the urge to assume they’re being metaphorical. Wouldn’t thinking be incredibly slow if it had to be filtered through language?

      • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

        Wouldn’t thinking be incredibly slow if it had to be filtered through language?

        It relatively is – that’s why it is not the mode of thought engaged when one drives, plays sports, video games etc.

        Also there are at least two distinct concepts here – thoughts expressed in language vs. language communicated by a voice – a voice carries information beyond the verbal contents in its perceived tone, mood etc. Could this have been used by the bicameral mind to operationalize a sense of urgency or danger ?

        Related , Related

        If the bicameral theory is correct the question is what was the mode before it – why did System-1 thoughts become verbalized in the first place so as to need to be communicated via command hallucinations ?

      • Cerastes says:

        This is precisely my experience too – my thinking is entirely visual and sensory, or maps of concepts, etc. The closest I get to an “inner voice” is when writing or preparing to speak, simply because I need to fit words to my thoughts. I actually didn’t realize this was unusual until my mid 30’s, when I mentioned to my wife that I thought movie monologues were just a lazy screenwriting device and nobody thought that way (to be fair, they really are lazy; show, don’t tell). It’s also reflected in my main speech failure mode, where I can’t recall the word for something I can picture perfectly in my mind, so I just describe the picture I see.

        Oddly enough, I also have no problem describing or understanding emotions (my fiction writing gets consistent compliments including in this regard) or that other people have a different mind and lack my information (Nydus Worm, bitches! Enjoy those 3/3 cracklings in your main base!).

        • Yug Gnirob says:

          I can’t recall the word for something I can picture perfectly in my mind, so I just describe the picture I see.

          Lucky; I think in words and then still forget words, and instead of a picture they get replaced with other words that sound kind of similar but are clearly wrong. Much harder to describe what I actually mean.

          • Cerastes says:

            Sounds humorously like my old prof who organized his papers by first author’s name, then wanted a particular paper but had forgotten who wrote it.

    • b_jonas says:

      Codex threads for Universal Human Experiences (2014) and Gupta On Enlightenment (2018) also have some discussion on the internal voice (aka internal monolog or dialog).

    • oldman says:

      Responses seem to be either “yes I have a voice” or “no I don’t have a voice.” I’d say I mostly don’t have a voice in my head – even when I’m doing something that requires a reasonable amount of intellectual processing (e.g., playing chess). But then sometimes a voice in my head speaks up – sometimes invited, sometimes uninvited.

      • Cameron Mahoney says:

        Hm. My intuition here is that intellectual processing of Chess is almost all of a visual variety. It may not feel on the same level as say, driving through busy traffic, but how can it not be visual forecasting pattern recognition, very broadly at least.

        I’m clearly on the far end of ‘an internal monologue of constant chatter about whatever I’m doing’ of the distribution here, and I have minimal brain chatter when I play Go/Baduk. Everything just gets totally visual.

    • Scott says:

      I don’t literally experience my inner voice as “hearing” the same way I don’t literally experience my mind’s eye as “seeing”. But I can apply audible characteristics like pitch or inflection to my inner dialogue, and my mind’s eye is a 3D, colorful, well defined sensation which I can change perspective in.

      Perhaps one way of untangling this is to see which senses can’t be run in parallel. It’s more difficult for me to think verbally with loud noises or conversation going around, but my visual attention isn’t diminished. And I’m not 100% engraved to the road if I’m visualizing something while driving, but I can do that and listen to an audiobook at the same time no problem.

    • FLWAB says:

      Just the other day I was listening to a podcast where somebody was discussing whether people hear a voice when they think or not.

      The strange thing is that I had to turn the podcast off and think about the question really hard for a good half hour before I could figure out an answer.

      You’d think it would be obvious, right? In the end I decided that I do have a voice in my head, but that I usually can’t hear it when I’m listening to podcasts. Which made me think “Is that why I listen to podcasts all the time? Is it because I don’t want to think?” But that’s an entirely different problem.

  7. 10Eleven says:

    I know it’s not the main point of your post, but I’m curious what you (and anyone else) think about tulpas and people with dissassociative identity disorder more generally. You sound mildly skeptical, which seems fair enough, regarding how it was treated in the 80s, but I feel like the statement that more than zero people really do have multiple consciousnesses in their brain isn’t very controversial (at least here, I’d hope). Given that, how should such people be treated? And how should intentionally creating new consciousnesses via tulpamancy be treated? I feel like there’s a weird ethical argument that if you think that the life experienced by a person inside your head would be better than the average life of a person born today, it’s morally worthwhile to create such a person, but other than that it seems to me like any reason for intentionally creating a tulpa is inherently selfish.

    Been reading on this site for about a year, this is my first comment, I hope its decent.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Doesn’t this literally create a utility monster, where if you think that the life experienced by a person inside your head would be better than the average life of a person born today, you try to create them through tulpamancy, then boast to people in other bodies that harming your body is X times more immoral than equivalent harm to a body with one personality?

      • 10Eleven says:

        I guess it kind of would do that. Although in that kind of situation, I wouldn’t really be convinced by that argument. I feel that in creating a tulpa, you take on responsibility for them, and its not really fair to expect other people to care for them as much as you ought to (though it is fair to expect other people to treat them as a person, if they act like one).
        To be honest that original reason for creating a tulpa i mentioned isn’t one I find particularly convincing either. It’s just the only non-selfish reason i could think of, although the category of selfishness here includes fairly benign reasons like curiosity.

        • No One In Particular says:

          That’s not really an argument in a utilitarian view, although one could reframe it as “I have precommitted to not accepting that argument”.

    • korz says:

      In this nice discussion about tulpas ( )
      people mostly agree that one’s mind should not expand by creating a tulpa, but probably mostly ‘only’ changes its structure.
      I don’t think that the possible sum happiness of a mind (tulpa-including) is systematically larger than the one of an otherwise comparable tulpa-less mind, which is an important assumption for the moral case.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Key issue complicating this: How many copies of consciousness.exe can your brain run at a time? Does it have to reduce computational resources, or share certain inputs among the copies?

      If I spin off extra personalities and become the triplet multiple personality of “Simon, Pimon, and Dimon,” then even if we can all have conversations amongst ourselves, does that mean we’re all leading full lives? Or are we each getting about one third of the brain’s total ‘computing time,’ taking turns with the computationally intensive task of “figure out what to say and say it?”

      Depending on details of how the brain works, it could be very hard to tell. But what is the moral value of two consciousnesses who time-share the same brain, as compared to one consciousness occupying that brain? Sure, neither of the two consciousnesses would want to die, and nobody would want to kill either of them or anything, but that doesn’t mean that a happy person can create an arbitrary number of additional QALYs by running an additional happy personality in their brain.

    • One lacuna I’ve noticed is that I’ve never heard anyone view tulpas as real and oppose the tulpa community’s treatment of them on that very basis. If tulpas were fully conscious and fully independent of the other inhabitants of the same body, then making one is like making a baby. It would be wrong to create tulpas as a game or experiment or whim, but they should only be created if the host is ready to keep them for the rest of their lives. Re-incorporation would be close to murder. Tulpamancers should be happy that nobody believes them!

      (I’m being glib here. There’s a lot of space between tulpas just being roleplaying to them being fully independent conscious beings.)

    • a real dog says:

      When you put it that way, the complete lack of concern about this topic is… troubling. I sometimes wonder if everyone sort of subconsciously feels that we’re an ocean of mental activity and a singular ego is an illusion, so it doesn’t really matter how you slice it up.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        One obvious explanation is that a tulpa is simply a different “preference file” loaded by “consciousness.exe” that enables you to perceive reality differently- to the point where you feel like a different person.

        The philosophical implications are still a bit murky, but in a real sense we all experience this over time anyway. Most people will agree that they are not the same person they were ten or twenty years ago, for instance. Your ‘preference settings’ for how you engage with reality evolve over time. Your inner mental experience may itself evolve over time.

        If you could somehow restore the “save file” of your consciousness from fifteen years ago into your brain today, you would be a noticeably different person, even if you retained all the memories and factual information you’d picked up in the intervening time.

        Would somehow introducing this younger version of yourself to time-share your own consciousness really be that different from the act of ‘tulpamancy?’

  8. Baeraad says:

    There are even whole forms of therapy based on this kind of thing. In Internal Family Systems, the therapist asks the patient to conceptualize some part of their mind (maybe the part that’s producing a certain symptom) as a person, and to talk to it. I know people who swear that this works. They approach their grief or anger or anxiety, and they get a clear image of what “he” or “she” looks like, and then “he” or “she” talks to them. Usually he/she tells them some appropriately psychological sounding thing, like “Hello, I am your anxiety, and I’m only inflicting these fears on you because we were abused as a child and I want to make sure nobody ever abuses us like that again”. Then the patient talks to their anxiety and hopefully strikes a bargain where the patient agrees to take the anxiety’s perspective into account and the anxiety agrees not to make the patient so anxious all the time. Some people swear by this, say it’s helped them where nothing else can, and absolutely insist they are having a real dialogue with their anxiety and not just making up both sides of the conversation.

    I tried that, just on a lark. I pointed out to my anxiety that maybe lowering my guard a little would make my life better even if it slightly increased the risk of being blindsided by something. My anxiety then pointed out that I have never in my life managed to do anything halfway, so I wouldn’t in fact be lowering my guard a little, I’d be lowering it completely, AGAIN, and then get clobbered, AGAIN, when the world turned out, AGAIN, to not be as fluffy-kitten harmless as I needed it to be. Which… is a fair point, unfortunately.

    Is there any help for people who get out-debated by their anxiety?

    • danridge says:

      Sounds like your anxiety is a considerate and responsible guardian?

    • bsrk says:

      Anxiety wants to solve & articulate, but is not letting calm have a a chance to solve & articulate.

      Calm need not be passive. Once it grows sufficiently, it too, can solve & articulate.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You might just want to get the book.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      My anxiety then pointed out that I have never in my life managed to do anything halfway, so I wouldn’t in fact be lowering my guard a little, I’d be lowering it completely, AGAIN, and then get clobbered,

      From an IFS perspective, this specific case sounds like there’s one part of you that’s anxious, and another part which has an “all or nothing” attitude to things, so wants to lower your guard entirely if you are to lower it at all. Your anxiety’s response is in part a reaction to that all-or-nothing part. So the next step would be to go have a talk with that part of you that doesn’t want to do anything halfway, and see what’s motivating it and whether it might be able to reach a compromise with the anxious part.

    • FLWAB says:

      I have a lot of anxiety. The most useful advice I was ever given about it was simply “Your anxiety is not an accurate source of information.” Certinaly before that I had been told that specific anxieties were not reasonable, but this was the first time I really heard and took in the idea that my anxiety as a whole was, well, unreliable. When anxiety hits, if I can, I remember that anxiety is a liar. Despite how it feels, anxiety has never done anything really useful for me in my entire life.

      So you might say that my anxiety was helped some when I started conceptualizing it as a foreign entity that I could not trust.

  9. albrt says:

    This was one of my favorite books back around 1989, not because I necessarily believed it, but because it was so daring and brilliant.

    In response to some of the comments above (if I recall correctly) Jaynes believed the timing was based on the evolution of language ability and on brain changes, with people involuntarily becoming less “bicameral” over time. As the brain hemispheres integrated, they no longer had the option of listening to the voices. Schizophrenia is a remnant version of bicamerality.

    What strikes me after reading Scott’s review is that the mind-theory known as bicamerality gave hive-mind agriculturalists an advantage over disorganized hunter-gatherers, but when bicamerality became widespread then the mind-theory known as self-consciousness gave other advantages of flexibility and (perhaps) prediction.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      It seems unlikely that fairly radical changes in brain architecture and how the human mind processes information and engages with other humans could undergo evolutionary changes in ten or twenty generations (200-400 years, say).

      A cultural hypothesis makes a lot more sense, which is one reason that talking about this being ‘bicamerality’ or whatever doesn’t make sense.

      On the other hand, with Jaynes’ actual mechanical explanation for WHY the brain would have acted so differently in the Bronze Age being wrong, his theory becomes a lot weaker in that all we’re left with is the task of explaining “gee, why did the Bronze Age Near East talk funny and not talk about concepts we consider important today the same way we do today?” There are probably other viable explanations than to just say “Jaynes, but with a few of the key nouns swapped out for other nouns that we haven’t yet proven will NOT have the advertised effect!”

  10. Madplatypus says:

    >If so, how? If not, why aren’t they hallucinating gods all the time?

    They do, or at least did. ‘These spirits can be jaguars, trees, or other visible, tangible things including people.[5](pp112,134–142) Everett reported one incident where the Pirahã said that “Xigagaí, one of the beings that lives above the clouds, was standing on a beach yelling at us, telling us that he would kill us if we go into the jungle.” Everett and his daughter could see nothing and yet the Pirahã insisted that Xigagaí was still on the beach’

    I only skimmed Everett’s book but I didn’t see any references to the Bicameral Mind in there.

    I’ve also heard plenty of similar reports, though largely less clear, from other anthropologists. Consider that many anthropologists wouldn’t know how to interpret people having a bicameral experience – how would you differentiate it from a “normal” religious ritual?

    Consider also that these systems may be very rapidly disrupted by Western contact. Sheer contact with strangers might start weakening the social system Jaynes describes.

    The third possibility, and worth thinking about, is that it may be possible to develop Jaynesian consciousness without developing technology. The delay in its development could be as much due to civilization as anything else.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      Why would people’s vivid hallucinations of gods that are basically personifications of their own inner voices disappear just because they start talking to other humans who think differently?

      If this whole process is supposed to be related to schizophrenia, then wouldn’t that make weak schizophrenia overwhelmingly common in poorly socialized people, while also making it overwhelmingly cheap?

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Amendment: I absent-mindedly typed ‘cheap’ when I meant ‘easy to cure.’ If a particular type of schizophrenia-like condition is simply the result of “your brain hallucinates imaginary friends because it hasn’t been socialized to not do that yet,” then you’d expect examples of that particular condition to show up in developed societies among poorly socialized adults, but also to be easily curable. It’d be sort of like scurvy- easy enough to cure that healthy people don’t get it, but still apparent when you observe the behaviors of people who are not healthy.

        Instead, it seems like in reality approximately no forms of schizophrenia or similar conditions can be cured just by assuring the patient that their imaginary friend isn’t real.

  11. bsrk says:

    I agree that the way to see spirits for yourself is to realize that they are watching you.

    Sensitive to the puzzles & the omens, just remain there ceasing to solve & articulate.

  12. Cameron Mahoney says:

    This is shamefully off topic, but Robert M. Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans At Our Best and Worst has floated to the top of my to-read pile as this post has gone up.

    What’s the consensus on this among folks who’re well versed…

    Is this crapola pop-sci? Okay research pop-sci? Actually insightful pop-sci? Etc.

    • Paramost says:

      I wouldn’t at all pretend to be be someone who is well versed, but I have read Behave and enjoyed it. It’s scope is simply huge, starting from how impulses travel along our nervous system to eventually explaining how we are affected by cultural evolution.
      However, I wouldn’t take many of the specific claims he makes to heart. For instance, he notes that stud(y)(ies) (I don’t recall if it were multiple) have found that judges give longer sentences for the same crimes if they have to judge someone when their blood sugar is low, i.e. just before going on lunch breaks. He shows this prominently with a graph and all. This is an enormous claim to make and if true should massively impact the way judges operate. And then he just goes on to the next big claim. (For more information about this topic, see HERE).

      I feel like the the underlying story he weaves about how many factors underline our decision making process in different ways is very good. The books also reads very well. But again, take any specifics claims in it with a grain of salt.

      • Deiseach says:

        Alas, the “hungry judges” study has fallen foul of that old foe “sexy theory but doesn’t replicate”.

        A different study showed that there are other factors at work, mostly that “people with no lawyers get their cases scheduled near the end of sessions, which means before breaks like lunch, and if you don’t have a lawyer you’re gonna do worse pleading your case which is why harsher sentencing”.

        Nice idea, there may even be some influence there, and Dickens had it in the 19th century in one of his novels – though there he put the blame on juries, with hungry jury members being led by their rumbling tummies to want to finish up early so they could go eat, which means “we all agree he dunnit? great, let’s go!” – but the effect is small and can be explained by other factors.

      • Randy M says:

        This matches my experience. The neuroscience is well done, and book approachable, but in some areas he seems to rely to much on questionable or solitary studies.

        • Cameron Mahoney says:

          Ah, so it seems like he’s a respectable fellow in the field, but knowing about the ‘hungry judges’ case I ‘m guessing I might have to have crosscheck all the studies in the book he cites to see if they got tossed out with all the other bunk in the replication crisis… that’s too bad.

          • Randy M says:

            Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t checked everything and found it wanting–it’s a massive tome that I enjoyed reading. But for instance, implicit association test is used as evidence from which to spin off narratives about innate ‘us versus them’ tendencies and so on, without acknowledgement either that their reliability has been questioned or justification sufficient for me that this artificial test says anything profound.

    • aliosha says:

      I am not an expert, and I am biased by being a bit of a fan of Sapolsky, that I discovered initially through Radiolab.
      He is for sure qualified, and very good at explaining. I watched his Stanford lectures a few times, and I tend to recommend it to friends (the one about magical thinking is amazing).
      My impression is that the science is right (or, at least, was at the time of writing), that when he walks away from his core areas he points it out, and that it is quite enjoyable, for a huge book.
      So I would mark it as “actually insightful pop-sci, written by a practicing scientist in the field”.

      (I also remember him saying in an interview that he would not want to end up with the “curse of Karl Sagan”, meaning that if you write popular pop-sci books and become popular, other scientists won’t respect you anymore)

    • eggsyntax says:

      If you’d like to get a preview of the book, here’s a late-2017 lecture Sapolsky gave at Stanford covering the same topics (1:13):

      The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

  13. benf says:

    I just wanted to say this is a great review of an incredibly interesting and influential book, thanks for writing it.

  14. wakimi says:

    I think that I don’t think in language. I’m not soul-less or a p-zombie, and I do experience the redness of red. (I know that’s what a p-zombie would say). Sometimes when I feel an emotion it’s hard for me to notice it, and I know that it’s probably not the case for many people, but otherwise, I never thought that there is anything unusual about that. Language is nice for expressing stuff, but surely we all sometimes have thoughts that we don’t know how to put into words, so their primary form wasn’t verbal?

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      I didn’t think in language until I was around twelve and it to me noticing emotions is also quite hard. They usually only manifest physically. For example I never panic – I just get a high pulse, sweaty hands, mind fog, stop feeling my legs, etc. But in my head I stay calm and rational.

    • 420BootyWizard says:

      Same, except for not noticing emotions (… I think? I like to think of myself as pretty good at introspection and emotionally mature, but being an internal assessment of an internal state it’s hard to objectively measure or compare)

      I always assumed in my case that I didn’t think in language when everyone else around me I obviously did is that I grew up bilingual from a very young age, and (I think fairly uniquely?) developed a very strong mental block of sorts to stop myself from accidently speaking in the “wrong language”, to the point where it used to take a pretty taxing amount of mental energy to intentionally speak English to someone who I knew spoke Bulgarian. My younger sister also grew up bilingual but heavily preferred English, and so we’d have entire conversations where we weren’t speaking the same language but understood each other and communicated just fine.

      Point is, I think from fairly early on I’ve had “thought” and “language that thought is expressed in” as very seperate entities, with language being sort of a filter or a layer on top of the elemental thought-stuff that I think in.

      • Tarpitz says:

        I started learning French at 8 or 9, was good at it, and by 12 or so was capable of switching between what I would describe as thinking in English and thinking in French (though I would certainly default to thinking in English). As time went by, I spoke progressively less French (even as my grammatical knowledge improved and my written French got technically better) and by some time in my early 20s I could no longer voluntarily switch to thinking in French, though I could and can still get there by conversing in French after a few drinks.

        But… at all times there were concepts I could express in English but not in French. And if I ran into the need for such a concept while “thinking in French” I would switch back to “thinking in English” at that point. Moreover, while I do in general experience thinking as an internal monologue most of the time even outside of conversation or writing, I’m reasonably sure there are also times when I do non-verbal conceptual thinking. It’s possible that “thinking in a language” – at least for me – might be better described as “rapidly and automatically translating non-verbal thoughts into that language”.

        Or not.

        As I think we are all painfully aware, accurate introspection about this stuff is hard.

  15. BlindKungFuMaster says:

    Just after reading this post, my daughter pulled a book out of the shelf – Gilgamesh. I opened it on some random page and sure enough there was one guy arguing with a piece of wood + commentary that he was delirious.

    • russel says:

      Except that he starts his tirade with “You stupid wooden door, with no ability to understand!”, implying that even in his illness he knew the door was inanimate, and wasn’t necessarily shouting at it any differently than a modern person might shout at the possessions of their ex.

      • BlindKungFuMaster says:

        Shouting at the possessions of your ex must be the re-assertment of the bicameral mind then. The plot thickens.

  16. Kaj Sotala says:

    Helen Keller (deaf and blind from 19 months old) on how she did not know how to think before she was taught language:

    Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. […] I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness. I did not know that I knew aught, or that I lived or acted or desired. I had neither will nor intellect. I was carried along to objects and acts by a certain blind natural impetus. I had a mind which caused me to feel anger, satisfaction, desire. These two facts led those about me to suppose that I willed and thought. […] I never viewed anything beforehand or chose it. […] My inner life, then, was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith. […]

    I remember, also through touch, that I had a power of association. I felt tactual jars like the stamp of a foot, the opening of a window or its closing, the slam of a door. After repeatedly smelling rain and feeling the discomfort of wetness, I acted like those about me: I ran to shut the window. But that was not thought in any sense. It was the same kind of association that makes animals take shelter from the rain. From the same instinct of aping others, I folded the clothes that came from the laundry, and put mine away, fed the turkeys, sewed bead-eyes on my doll’s face, and did many other things of which I have the tactual remembrance. When I wanted anything I liked,—ice-cream, for instance, of which I was very fond,—I had a delicious taste on my tongue (which, by the way, I never have now), and in my hand I felt the turning of the freezer. I made the sign, and my mother knew I wanted ice-cream. I “thought” and desired in my fingers. […]

    I thought only of objects, and only objects I wanted. It was the turning of the freezer on a larger scale. When I learned the meaning of “I” and “me” and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me. Thus it was not the sense of touch that brought me knowledge. It was the awakening of my soul that first rendered my senses their value, their cognizance of objects, names, qualities, and properties. Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.

    • Anteros says:

      Fascinating. Thanks for posting that.

    • Conrad Honcho says:

      I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.

      That sounds terrifying. To lose what you are and become something else entirely, yet still you.

    • emdash says:

      Deaf children who are not taught sign language early enough (often because they are not screened/identified) are at a much higher risk for a whole bunch of cognitive issues. As far as I know this is thought to be a general causal thing, essentially teaching someone a form of language when they are young helps them develop abilities to reason/abstract/remember that they would otherwise not have.

  17. Kaj Sotala says:

    Most of the people who seem to really like IFS have borderline personality disorder.

    Do you mean “most of the people that I know and hear talking loudly about IFS”? This really doesn’t match my own experience with the IFS community; and I’ve also facilitated IFS to a number of people who’ve found it useful, who aren’t borderline as far as I can tell. Given the negative associations that borderline has, this feels like a somewhat stigmatizing claim to make unless you’ve actually got a survey or similar to back it up.

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      I think a practicing psychiatrist is entitled to relay an observation he’s made in practice and in assorted other interactions with the IFS community, as long as he is announcing that it is just that, an unscientific observation. He’s done that.

  18. Walter says:

    The person on the reddit thread reminds me of the old LW post where EY was texting with someone who was like ‘I’m having a seizure or something but the ambulance won’t come out here and pick me up. And dude was confused because he’d been reading about broke folks abusing ambulance rides and putting the city out or whatever. So he sort of squinted at the problem and eventually rationalized it.

    And it just turned out the person corresponding with him was lying. The explanation that made it all fit was that simple. The random, anonymous poster on the internet whose narrative contradicts common sense is just lying.

    I expect that’s what’s going on here. They passed university without thinking in words? Sure.

    • russel says:

      I’d have to agree this would be the more likely explanation – but add that it might not be outright lying, it could be exaggerating or plain poor communication. When I’ve probed into people’s at first strange-sounding alternate experiences, on occasion it’s just turned out (as best as I can tell) that they were talking about something I would consider normal, only they thought it was special and unique – and perhaps due to poor communication, others had misunderstood and agreed that, yes, it was special and unique.

      In this case it’s hard to imagine that someone who can speak, read, and write a language has really never “thought with language”, after all, what is speaking other than thinking language out loud? It’s a lot easier to imagine they just mean, for example, that they generally never stopped to think before they thought, or rationalised things (i.e., reason things out with language). There are certainly some university courses where you could get away with that, and it certainly would be surprising the day you realised you could sit down and have a time of verbal self-reflection, or work through the phrasing of something before actually saying it; but it wouldn’t be very profound or special – just one end of the same spectrum we’re all on.

      • Kaj Sotala says:

        In this case it’s hard to imagine that someone who can speak, read, and write a language has really never “thought with language”, after all, what is speaking other than thinking language out loud?

        It could mean that they don’t experience any internal linguistic speech; I write a lot but generally don’t think in language, I think in mental images and abstract concepts.

        That said, writing is one of those rare circumstances where I get some internal speech – experiencing what I’m about to write before I actually write it – but even if this was the case for this person, I could imagine them still consistently describing it as “not thinking in language”. After all, writing is just the act of communicating your thoughts to someone else; the fact that you can convert your thoughts into writing, doesn’t mean that you would think in language otherwise. (As an analogy, one might be able to speak in a foreign language, while still generally thinking in their native language. Likewise, one could use language when expressing their thoughts, while still generally thinking non-linguistically.)

        • 420BootyWizard says:

          As an analogy, one might be able to speak in a foreign language, while still generally thinking in their native language. Likewise, one could use language when expressing their thoughts, while still generally thinking non-linguistically.

          Interesting angle. I grew up bilingual from a very young age, and I’m pretty sure it’s a result of not having just one native language that I don’t think in language (although like you, I do get some when writing, especially if I’m thinking about the writing as I’m writing it)

        • russel says:

          It could mean that they don’t experience any internal linguistic speech; I write a lot but generally don’t think in language, I think in mental images and abstract concepts.

          I find this more compelling and believable – but I think there’s an important distinction to be made between not being able to think in language vs. simply not always needing to. I can understand the idea of not thinking in language: there are plenty of situations where my thoughts are not language – when playing music, or doing maths, or painting, or programming, or daydreaming, and so on, language is just one modality. For people like me language is the most useful way to “crystalise” thoughts and therefore the dominant modality – I can think about emotions without using words but the act of trying to “explain it to someone else” (via internal monologue) is a useful tool for processing. I can see how someone particularly strong in other modalities could generally avoid the need for such internal monologue, but not that they could have been incapable of it, or that it would be a dramatic discovery for them. The important difference between what you describe and the reddit post is that you don’t sound especially in awe at the idea of thinking in language, and “discovering” internal monologue wasn’t a life-changing, consciousness-birthing experience. We all have streams of consciousness, language or otherwise, but the reddit post sounds more like no stream of consciousness at all.

    • Cerastes says:

      I expect that’s what’s going on here. They passed university without thinking in words? Sure.

      I’ll see that and raise it – I don’t think in words or with an inner narrative (except when converting my thoughts to language, e.g. writing this comment), and I’m TT faculty in a research-focused STEM department. An if anything, it’s made my career easier, not harder. I look at a system and I can instantly visualize the forces acting on it, and multiple, interacting, nonlinear systems are a cakewalk. Stuff I had to learn by rote or which was mostly text based gave me the most trouble, but I’m pretty good at memorization, and I can take sort of “mental photographs” – I still remember the font and color of the equations in my HS calculus textbook.

      FWIW, I thought like you, but in reverse – as I mentioned in another reply here, I didn’t realize people thought using words, and thought that inner monologues in movies were just lazy writing (they are). It was only when I said something about that to my wife that I learned other people *do* think that way, which still seems bizarre to me, like living in a shitty film noir detective story.

      • Walter says:

        I dunno what you are expecting from replying to someone who accuses your position of being a lie.

        Like, if you are sincere, then I can’t persuade you, since my words aren’t going to resonate with whatever nonverbal process is going on behind your eyes. If you are faking, then I can’t persuade you, since that’s not how the internet works.

        Contrariwise, I saw that one star trek episode, yeah? I know the number of lights, and no matter how many times someone says that they don’t think in words or have precognition or whatever it is no more persuasive than it happening just once. You already know I don’t buy it.

        So, if you choose to answer back, I’ll let you have the last word, but I don’t see anything to be gained from more dialog between us. I don’t think you are sincere.

        • tibbar says:

          Wow, you’re pretty aggressively skeptical of this mental state! I also experience no verbal inner monologue, except if I’m constructing a response to someone else or playing with phrasing – and even this form of thought treats the words more like objects, like art. There’s certainly no conversation- or discourse- like quality to it.
          However, I actually do need to verbalize thoughts to think through quantitative problems especially. So I talk out loud, addressing myself or imaginary friends. I have done this since I was a child, when I had named three imaginary friends whom I constantly lectured on the ideas I was learning. To this day, I have to talk out loud (or type) to make use of this verbal problem solving process. It just doesn’t happen in my mind without this aid.
          My actual thoughts, though – my mental state the 95% of the time I’m not talking out loud – is just visualizing concepts and reacting to intuitions about the way things should be. It’s a big concept map with occasional bursts of imagery.

        • Madeleine says:

          I’m really confused by your attitude. I have an inner monologue which practically never shuts up, and it sometimes helps me work through things, but most of the time it’s rambling about something that’s completely irrelevant to my current situation, even when I’m actually talking. Like, I’ll be trying to have a serious conversation, but at the same time my inner monologue will be blathering about Backstreet Boys songwriters or something. The vast majority of my mind’s heavy lifting is done through images or hard-to-describe concepts. If my inner monologue did shut up, I imagine I would get bored without it, but I don’t think I’d become noticeably dumber or anything.

          I don’t watch Star Trek, but my understanding is that Picard could actually see the lights. You cannot see what’s going on inside Cerastes’ head, Tibbar’s, or the Reddit guy’s. Just because you think inner monologue is a universal experience doesn’t mean people can’t miss it.

          • Freddie deBoer says:

            I don’t watch Star Trek, but my understanding is that Picard could actually see the lights. You cannot see what’s going on inside Cerastes’ head, Tibbar’s, or the Reddit guy’s


        • Cerastes says:

          So, you participate in a rationalist community, but refuse to have your mind changed when presented with evidence which contradicts your assertions?

          I hope you see how stupid your position is. But I doubt it.

      • Aftagley says:

        FWIW, I thought like you, but in reverse – as I mentioned in another reply here, I didn’t realize people thought using words, and thought that inner monologues in movies were just lazy writing (they are)

        I had a similar, but orthogonal event happen to me.

        I’ve literally never been able to think visually; it’s all inner monologues (although I can create separate, related channels of auditory thought). I thought that everyone talking about “mental images” and “picture yourself on a mountain” or whatever was all just weirdly-specific but obviously false metaphors that our society just used all the time despite how painfully obvious it was to everyone that no, of course you can’t actually picture a mountain in your head.

        • keaswaran says:

          Weirdly, I just realized in response to an upthread comment that I don’t really do either all that much. My usual thought process doesn’t have a lot of words *or* visual imagery. I’m not sure what it does have – some sort of proprioceptive structure?

    • a real dog says:

      FWIW, the guy claims that he continued living in a dorm and attending classes after being released from a mental hospital, where he was treated for a psychotic break. Said break has not ended in the slightest but people haven’t really noticed.

      This is similar to the PNSE paper, my experiences interacting with people who are on acid while I’m not, my experience interacting with people who are not on acid while I am, and a whole bunch of anegdotes along these lines.

      My working theory is that people are really weird all the time and anything short of a cataclysmic disruption of their inner life flies under everybody’s radar.

  19. Harry Maurice Johnston says:

    I was startled by the suggestion that children hallucinate their imaginary friends. I had one, and I certainly don’t remember ever actually seeing him. It was a game; one you played consistently and conscientiously, but still a game. (Sort of a Kayfabe thing, I guess.)

    In fact I remember being cross at my parents for telling me that my imaginary friend couldn’t do something because it wouldn’t be safe for him; I knew he was imaginary, and I knew that they knew he was imaginary, so I concluded they were just being deliberately difficult. (Years later my mother explained that they were worried that I wouldn’t understand the difference between something that was safe for an imaginary person and something that was safe for me.)

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      Reminds me of this:

      Some time ago, Stephanie Carlson and I put together a taxonomy of ICs [Imaginary Companions] that we have collected over the years, – a total of 341 descriptions. We used three different sources of information: 179 descriptions from children 3 to 12 years of age), 42 descriptions from parents and 120 retrospective reports from adults (252 participants). Each source has its strengths and weaknesses, but taken together they provide a comprehensive picture of imaginary companions. […]

      Sometimes it is assumed that a child who is absorbed in a fantasy about an IC is out of touch with reality – somehow the line between fantasy and reality has become blurred. More generally, children are often described as having some difficulty with the distinction between fantasy and reality. We certainly do give them a lot to mull over in the fantasy material we present them with, and sometimes they don’t get things quite right. However, the products of children’s own imaginations have a different status than fantasy that is presented readymade to children. When it comes to ICs, children seem to know exactly what is going on. There might be a few children who think their friends are real, but for the most part, although children love their ICs and are absorbed in the fantasy, they know that they are not real. Many a time I have interviewed a child about an IC – the child observes as I listen carefully and write down whatever is said. Then at some point in the interview, the child is very likely to pause, look me in the eyes and say “You know, it’s just pretend.”

      • Blueberry pie says:

        Same here. I mostly projected my IC into a plush toy and I think I was quite aware it is pretend, but it was such fun!

    • Bugmaster says:

      I had the same experience, FWIW. If I’d ever had full-blown hallucinatory imaginary friends, I do not remember them. I did mostly live in my head for long stretches of my childhood, but I never confused the simulation with reality (so to speak).

    • merisiel says:

      I never actually had an imaginary friend, either. I learned from books or TV that imaginary friends were a thing some kids had, and so I made one up. It lasted hours, at most. I was probably about 4 at the time. Make-believe games were different; that was something I did a lot.

  20. spinystellate says:

    What if theory-of-mind is actually the default among most humans (including all hunter-gatherers everywhere including in pre-agricultural Europe), but then some sweep of Eurasian steppe people or Anatolian farmers or one of those groups that the modern genetic evidence (e.g. from Reich and others) suggests completely penetrated Eurasia genetically a few hundred or thousand years before the Bronze age began replaced an otherwise theory-of-mind-having people with a bunch of hallucinating automatons. Then the Bronze age came and is filled with the relics and history of these people, but then through trade, cross-breeding, genetic drift, mutations, or whatever, the automaton genes get de-selected and Eurasians go back to having theory of mind again.

    It seems like that would get around the “but what about Aboriginals” question, because rather than assuming that theory-of-mind arose for the first time in the late Bronze age, it assumes that it has been the default for all modern humans but that the early Bronze-agers were deficient in it. Maybe this made them super killing machines, especially adapted for war. You don’t pity your enemy when you don’t realize that he (or you) is a conscious being. And we do know there were a few times in this period when the Y-chromosome lineage of an entire region is completely replaced by a new group, presumably due to wiping out all of the local men. And this in a time when no one was raising large armies.

    • Furslid says:

      I don’t think that the adaptation for war by lack of empathy makes sense. We see in modern times that humans are capable of general lack of empathy to enemies, WWI and WWII spring to mind on both sides, especially the Japanese in WWII.

      The general lack of empathy would likely have some other evolutionary costs, and why pay these when the benefits can be obtained by having the right culture.

      • No One In Particular says:

        Although I have read that a majority of soldiers don’t fire their guns.

        • Jerden says:

          I’ve heard it’s more that the majority miss, but at that point it’s hard to distinguish between deliberately missing, accidentally missing, and everything in between.

        • John Schilling says:

          You’re probably referring to the work of S.L.A. Marshall, which is at a minimum highly controversial. Mumble something replication crisis, though there are obvious difficulties in conducting properly-controlled experiments for replication.

    • John Schilling says:

      Winning decisive victories in war requires soldiers that don’t run away at the first sign of danger (or never really allow themselves to be endangered in the first place, e.g. shouting and posturing at extreme spear-throwing range). It is I think fairly well established that the thing that keeps soldiers from running away when rational self-preservation says they ought to, is mostly their emotional ties to their immediate comrades-in-arms.

      No empathy means not caring if Patroclus dies in your name, or if Achilles thinks you’re a wimp for staying in the rear. It takes selective empathy to win wars.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        I think the core theory here might be salvageable, we just need to drop the specific “Bronze Age Near Easterners had no empathy” thing.

        And maybe the changes were cultural and not genetic- indeed that seems more likely given how fast they could disappear.

        Maybe Bronze Age Near East cultures were just really good at getting people to do something vaguely like tulpamancy and spin off simulated personalities of gods and spirits.

        Maybe they had so many rituals and practices centered around your ability to hear Zeus talking to you or whatever that anyone who couldn’t or didn’t have a “Zeus tulpa” in their heads would just sort of quietly act as if they could in hopes of faking it until they were making it.

        Maybe these cultural practices evolved in the third or second millennium BC, hit a peak, and then just sort of… faded once the cultural mechanisms in force for making people cultivate (or pretend to cultivate) tulpas were fading.

        Maybe they had special meditation practices and ceremonies that are lost to us, or at least that have some of the important nuances lost to us, or had some kind of psychoactive incense blend that we don’t have today.

    • ThomasStearns says:

      This has other interesting implications…Neolithic political elites atop early state hierarchies might have been elites precisely because they weren’t bicamerals

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Then why did hereditary monarchs tend to get to rule as god-kings so often in the Bronze Age Near East? Are you arguing that they were typically mentally childlike figureheads paraded around by elite cabals of advisors who had theory of mind and could outwit everyone around them like adults outsmarting children? Because that seems like adding some significant epicycles.

        If rule of those societies really did involve mental meritocracy between people who had theory of mind and were well-equipped to rule over those who did not… You’d expect to see more evidence of that in the social structure.

        • John Schilling says:

          Then why did hereditary monarchs tend to get to rule as god-kings so often in the Bronze Age Near East?

          Presumably because they learned theory-of-mind from their enlightened God-King parents.

          Jaynes’ basic theory pretty much requires that theory of mind (or unicameral-mindedness or whatever) be something people can learn, and learn without having to go to specific theory-of-mind classes at Unicameral U. Almost certainly, if there’s any truth to this at all, the children of unicameral parents will learn unicameralism (ToM, whatever) at about the same time and the same way they learn language.

          This allows for, but does not require, a prolonged transitional period in which the hereditary aristocracy almost all has the new way of thinking and the soldiers, peasants, etc, don’t.

          • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

            Why transitional though – wouldn’t it be more natural if hereditary aristocracy was basically defined by having this mode of thinking since the dawn of civilization until it has become ubiquitous ?

          • John Schilling says:

            Same reason there’s a transitional period between “nobody literate” and “everybody is literate”. For historoigraphical reasons we pretty much define “dawn of civilization” as when rich people adopted literacy, but there’s no reason theory-of-mind couldn’t have gone uninvented until later. And, not being dependent on expensive writing materials, spread to the masses faster.

    • keaswaran says:

      I was thinking this sort of thing was a more plausible explanation, but without the military connection. My thought was more like, “minds are weird, different cultures naturally have different theories, the early Bronze Age peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean had some theories that seem really weird to us, but their “origin of consciousness” is just a regression to the mean in these theories”.

  21. Pandemic Shmandemic says:

    I’m reminded of Galton’s studies on the variance of vividness of mental imagery between people, the VVIQ scale as well as the periodic discussions of aphantasia on reddit and HN.

    It seems natural for humans to have a wide range of ToM abilities without it being indicative of different levels of consciousness and for this to have always been the case in some distribution or another – the Bronze age could be characterized by selection favoring low-ToM people vs later ages that favored the high-ToM ones.

  22. 420BootyWizard says:

    I’m not super convinced by the reddit post. I had a similar experience moving to the US from Bulgaria at a young age. I continue to speak Bulgarian with my parents and obviously spoke English at school and such. I would often be asked which language I thought in, and my answer was always that I didn’t think in language, I thought in thoughts. I also never had words like “I wonder what my friends are up to”, but I was very capable of wondering what my friends were up to. As far as I can tell this is still true for me as an adult, I still think language-less (although obviously not all the time. I think in words when I think about words, like I’m aware that these words as in my mind right before I write them), but I wouldn’t call myself not concious. I’m able to describe my emotions, I’m aware my friends have object permeance even if I don’t think of their name as a word, etc.

    Not that I’m saying the poster is lying or wrong. Internal experience is a weird thing. But I don’t think their experience universalizes well.

    • BlindKungFuMaster says:

      So you had a similar experience, but you are not super convinced by the reddit post.

      To me your experience, my experience, the reddit posters experience all seems to lie on the same spectrum, which really strengthens the case that he just told it as it is.

  23. eigenmoon says:

    I’m not buying any of this.

    Achilles applies some advanced Focusing techniques under duress. An average modern person has never heard of Focusing so has no idea how to listen to his stomach. Now who has more advanced theory of mind, Achilles or the average modern person?

    As for Athene, it was common for kings and generals to claim their decisions were inspired by gods, because “Hey soldiers, I’d like you to risk your life so that I can get my hands on that pile of gold” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Blessed we are, my soldiers, for insert_deity_name_here has revealed his/her will to me!” etc. So no tulpamancy necessary to explain the kings’ and generals’ behavior.

    Mormon god(s) regularly talk to Mormons, but it’s not like the Mormons don’t know what “think” or “decide” means, so I don’t think theory of mind has anything to do with it.

    • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

      Mormon god(s) regularly talk to Mormons

      They do ? The mormons are probably the religion with most recent claims to direct divine revelation, but do their believers regularly hear from God today ?

      • TracingWoodgrains says:

        They definitely do not! That sort of overt, unambiguous-feeling religious experience is treasured within Mormons, but even though it was founded on the basis of restoring a prophet who can communicate directly with God, even modern leaders are notably wary of claiming direct divine experience (seeing God, hearing his voice in more than just sensations and vague impressions, so forth).

        There was even a recent break-off group, the Snufferites, based around the idea that Joseph Smith was a real prophet but the thread has fallen away somewhere, with a book *Passing the Heavenly Gift* making the case that prophets no longer receive direct revelation from God in the way Smith intended and that doing so is a goal members should be seriously pursuing.

        The case of Mormonism supports this narrative, if anything, in my eyes.

        • hjgk says:

          I disagree:

          Through the manifestations of the Holy Ghost, the Lord will assist us in all our righteous pursuits. I remember in an operating room, I have stood over a patient—unsure how to perform an unprecedented procedure—and experienced the Holy Ghost diagramming the technique in my mind.
          To strengthen my proposal to Wendy, I said to her, “I know about revelation and how to receive it.” To her credit—and, as I have come to learn, typical of her—she had already sought and received her own revelation about us, which gave her the courage to say yes.
          As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, I prayed daily for revelation and gave thanks to the Lord every time He spoke to my heart and mind.


          • TracingWoodgrains says:

            It really depends on what you mean by “hear from God”. I was saying “no” in terms of a literal “voice from heaven”-type manifestation. Apostles tend to keep things vague most of the time, but if you dig into the specific claims of what they term “revelation” when they actually receive it, they emphasize things like “a quickening of the mind”, “an overwhelming feeling of peace”, so forth. I can’t find the link at the moment, unfortunately, but I remember a memorable bit from an apostle’s talk where they emphasized that the sort of revelation they receive is no different from the standard (read: vague) sort within general membership.

            Do Mormons emphasize the idea of personal revelation? Yes, absolutely. Do they tell “miracle” stories? All the time. But in general, the apostles are pretty circumspect about claiming to actually hear the voice of God. I remember during my mission, there was regular speculation about whether any of the apostles had seen Jesus, and people were always on the lookout for anything overt, but it’s very, very rare to hear apostles talk about ‘revelation’ any more dramatic than what you hear from any given member. Specifically, the idea of an actual mental conversation or the like is extremely uncommon.

        • smocc says:

          Joseph Smith himself only made two major claims to interacting directly with God (the First Vision and then the appearance of Christ in the Kirtland temple). While he claimed to speak the words of God regularly I don’t think he claimed he was regularly conversing with a visible manifestation of God. He did report more angelic visitations, but still not as frequently as the more subtle sensations and impressions.

          This puts him in roughly the same bucket as St. Paul who likewise had one big vision of God followed by apparently a lifetime of more subtle communication.

          The Latter-day Saint perspective, I think, is that we receive revelation just as much as any believer in the past, but the really dramatic revelations have almost always been more rare (while also being more likely to get written down)

      • No One In Particular says:

        There are plenty of religions with claims of more recent divine communication, for low enough value of “religion” at least (that is, if cults are included).

    • Deiseach says:

      Achilles is also the (reputed) son of a goddess, so it would be weird for him to go around denying the existence of gods. I need to read the book but by this account it sounds as if Jaynes is doing the Biblical literalist bit for his proof-texts – “no, no, you’re interpreting it wrong, when Achilles is described as having butterflies in his stomach that is not a metaphor, it is a description of a real pre-conscious state!” I think most people can handle describing their feelings of “I was so nervous that my stomach felt upset” without feeling there is any contradiction between “the physical sensation was located in my stomach but the emotion arose in my mind”.

      It’s handy when proof-texting to brush off inconvenient “well golly gee this bit about the ‘wine-dark sea’ sure sounds like a metaphor” as “later interpolations by different hands to alter the text the way they thought it should have sounded, we need to go back to the Primitive Original Inerrant In The Autographs text” but that does not mean it’s a correct method.

      To throw my tuppence worth in, I do ‘think’ in ‘voice in my head’, became aware of that in my pre-teens, associated it with reading (sounding the words out in my mind) and while I often argue things out with myself (some long discussions at times) as “me” holding one view/recommending one course of action and “other character” as holding/recommending another, I don’t visualise that “other character” as a person and am always aware that it’s me on both sides talking to myself.

    • No One In Particular says:

      There is a hypothesis that it’s easier to lie if you believe the lie, thus there is evolutionary pressure for people to actually believe that they are talking to the gods. And of course what motivation do the soldiers have if they don’t believe?

    • Freddie deBoer says:

      But who is claiming that seeming to hear from gods is mutually exclusive with understanding thinking or deciding? I’m not seeing the connection with what this post or discussed book is about.

  24. eterevsky says:

    The idea that neolitic people didn’t have theory of mind sounds really implausible. You mention Sally-Anne test. Was it ever run on aboriginal people? If no, what result would you expect? Do you really think that an adult Innuit wouldn’t give the right answer?

    • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

      ToM like any other cognitive ability should be assumed to exist on a scale, a previously-uncontacted aboriginal would probably easily pass the Sally-Anne when phrased in a way that made sense to them (what’s a marble ?) but might have been baffled if asked how Sally might feel after discovering her marble is missing or why might Anne move the marble in the first place.

  25. andavargas says:

    The book “Jaynes should have written” is essentially the Inkling-associated Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances. Well, Barfield takes a turn into speculative Christianity so maybe some caveats are warranted, but it should definitely be read in conjunction with Jaynes. Barfield also speaks of “consciousness,” and whereas Jaynes should perhaps be totally demoted to talking about “theory of mind,” Barfield can be demoted only as far as “phenomenology.” Jaynes traces an inversion of exteriority into interiority in the evolution of auditory-verbal hallucinations, but Barfield traces an inversion of exteriority into interiority in the evolution of vital energy perception. Jaynes’s history goes from “there are Gods and they are talking to me” to “I am really talking to myself.” Barfield’s history goes from “I perceive life in the idols and the trees and the rivers because they are living” to “there is no life in idols, because life comes from within my Being.” His evidence is also heavily literary, viewing words like pneuma/spirit/breath as demonstrations that the ancients were conceptually confused (not “metaphorical”) and understood physical realities like lung air as necessarily linked to “abstract” realities like awareness.

    Barfield says that most people see the retreat of, essentially, magic from the sensory field as an accomplishment of scientific thought as championed originally by the Greeks, but his turn to speculative Christianity comes from finding a parallel path with possibly greater explanatory power for the same retreat of magic via Jewish iconoclasm. Whereas in Greek thought the retreat is a realization arriving after speculation and careful tinkering, in Jewish thought the retreat is an act of will by a person identifying with the great I AM. Barfield argues that the Greek path results in seeing an alienated world devoid of magic, but the Jewish path results in seeing a world where you are magical, not the world, and definitely not the idols, which must be smashed. He takes a very JBPetersonesque view of Jesus. Jesus is a Very Important Archetypical Person, to Barfield the first to truly awaken to the Inner magical Light and flip the script on creation as something you have the power to do rather than as something that has merely happened in the world around you. He goes on to posit a Very Important Role for the Church, and that’s where to be honest the argument quickly goes downhill.

    I, for one, don’t really care if Christianity gets rescued successfully, so I don’t see the sloppiness at the end of the book as fatal to anything that comes before it. IF consciousness-or-synonym was critically linked with the existence of Gods and idols in ancient times, THEN iconoclasm is a tour-de-force in the history of consciousness-or-synonym. This seems like an important and well-supported fact that gets much less contemporary attention than it should.

  26. rjk says:

    On the subjective of hemispheric differences in the brain, and their effect on our cognitive styles, and our ability to – by acts of will and modifications of culture – change those cognitive styles by changing how we use our brains, have you read The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist? The parallels with Jaynes are obvious, but he claims to be working with much more up-to-date neuroscience.

  27. Deiseach says:

    Imagine having to write that IRB application!

    Imagine having to get the bishop to sign off on this! (And they better have done, if they didn’t they’re in trouble).

    Jaynes does not think this was a metaphor – for one thing, people have been unlucky forever, but the 1000 – 750 BC period was a kind of macabre golden age for “the gods have forsaken us” literature.

    I won’t say he’s cherry-picking, but plainly since his argument is “before period X people thought this way and after period X they thought that way” he’s going to concentrate on ancient sources of that time. But he’s pushing so hard for this to be “not metaphor but real description of real state” that he’s overlooking that “the gods have/God has abandoned us” is a common response to misfortune and upheaval, even in times when by Jaynes’ estimation we should pretty much all have a robust theory of mind and functioning consciousness and no longer be hearing ‘the voice of the god’ in our heads – the war between Stephen and Matilda was known as ‘when Christ and the saints slept’, and unless you want to argue that 12th century English peasants were constantly hearing ‘voices’ of saints and God in their heads (and I’m sure some people would argue that regarding religiosity) before the period of upheaval and strangeness, then how do you fit that in as “oh this isn’t a metaphor, it’s a way of describing the creation of internal consciousness”?

    • mcd says:

      The reuse of the metaphor by a literate society heavily influenced by the literature in which it first(?) appeared is not a useful example of the universality of the sentiment.

  28. pushmi-pullyu says:

    Related to “What about the Aborigines”: How do men’s cults figure into this? To my understanding, they are a remarkably widespread phenomenon, appearing in tribal societies on a number of continents. They entail tricking the women and children of a village into believing (or pretending to believe) that the village’s men commune with ancestors, do battle with spirits., and what-not. This suggests a rather stronger theory of mind and rather less credulousness about the supernatural than Jayne’s hypothesis would seem to predict.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Are we sure the men in question don’t themselves believe it?

      Also, how much contact do these tribes have with the outside world?

      • pushmi-pullyu says:

        In at least one instance the men were observed using glass shards to fake battle wounds, and it’s my understanding that boys, upon initiation, often need to be disabused of their belief in the spiritual goings-on.

        I think the amount of contact probably varies, but I don’t think the presence of an outsider (provided it is male) usually disturbs things. That said, there was the case of a tribe in Papa New Guinea which adapted its belief system to Christianity: If I recall rightly, the men revealed their conspiracy, then announced that their chief evil spirit was actually Satan, and that the End Times were close at hand.

  29. Robert L says:

    The problem with Jaynes is the awesome bit of luck whereby the very, very few bits of writing which survive at all just happen to be the ones which precisely illustrate his thesis. What are the chances of that? He is the man with a hammer to whom everything looks like a nail. Actually they survive for entirely different reasons (the durability of clay when baked on purpose or deliberately vs the oral transmissibility of epic) and they are different because they are about different things (how many jars of oil we have vs retrieving Helen and sacking Troy) not because of a change of theory of mind. And the metaphors in the Iliad are just metaphors.

    • No One In Particular says:

      How is all the available evidence supporting a hypothesis a problem with the hypothesis?

      • Robert L says:

        Because the surviving evidence is so thin and so much skewed by survivorship bias.

        • Doctor Mist says:

          The thinness I grant you. But what’s the survivorship bias here? A priori, I would expect the stuff that survived would have been the stuff that spoke most clearly to the intervening generations, so it would seem odd that the stuff that survived is riddled with these artifacts that we must treat as metaphor to make sense of them.

          I’m willing to entertain the idea that the source of those artifacts is that we were not yet sophisticated in our use of narrative metaphors rather than that we really experienced things as literally described. But I still don’t see how survivorship bias enters in.

        • No One In Particular says:

          Except you didn’t say that the fact that the amount was small was the problem, you said that the fact that the evidence that does exists supports him is a problem. Then you ask “What are the chances of that?”, as if there’s some Bayesian argument to be made. Huh? Is P(evidence supports|hypothesis) < P(evidence support|~hypothesis)?

  30. mundy says:

    @Scott, Just from naive glance via google, it seems the ‘Theory of Mind’ phrase was coined in 1978, whereas Julian Jayne’s book seems to have been written in 1976, 2 years before the phrase, so it seemingly makes sense why he never used that phrase. But yes, I agree ‘Theory of Mind’ is much better.

    Also, I would hesitate to say something as strong as Michael Gazzaniga’s work on split-brain patients doesn’t replicate (your words make it seem like it is debunked, but I admit I may be reading too much into it). I think you might be referencing the controversy from the research that came out around 2017 between the two camps of pro split-consciousness (represented by Sperry + Gazzaniga) and skeptical split-consciousness (represented by Pinto) among those in the neuroscience communities.

    Pinto argues that they have evidence against the view that severing the corpus callosum leads to split-consciousness. I would first like to note that although it might be easy to argue against Gazzaniga’s research on the grounds of “not being quantitative enough”, Pinto’s research was also based on an incredibly small sample size (if I recall correctly, it was 2 patients, only one of which they decided to focus on). I’m not necessarily criticizing Pinto here, because I mean, where else can you get split-brain patients when you need them, but I’m mentioning this so that we can refrain from hasty conclusions on Gazzaniga’s research as being incredibly less rigorous.

    Second, there was much back and forth between the two camps regarding something known as ‘cross-cueing’, which you can think of as one side of the brain *inferring* what the other is seeing based on external behavioral data leakage. There is lots of nuance on both sides of the argument here, ranging from experimental design to exact definitions of cueing, and I would hesitate to say that it is settled.

    Third, and this is the point that *in my opinion* is the strongest in favor of being meta-skeptical regarding the implied debunking of the split-consciousness view, is that Pinto’s supposed replication experiments using those 1-2 patients ended up being done roughly 15-20 years after they had their corpus callosum operations. It could very well be the case that despite the severed corpus callosum, after all these years the two hemispheres were able to rewire and learn to communicate again via midbrain or deeper anatomical structures, and thus exhibit the unified, non-split-consciousness data that Pinto found. Hence, the two sides could have exhibited separate consciousnesses right after the surgery, and have slowly merged back into a unified consciousness over time, thus messing with the experimental design’s assumptions. To be fair, Pinto and other researchers acknowledge this. However, this just further points out that the issue isn’t settled one way or the other yet.

    Other than that, great book review! I’ve been looking forward to your thoughts on this book for a while now!

    • ranttila1 says:

      How is the debate going between the two sides of the split-consciousness debate? Is the neuroscience community leaning towards one side or the other? It seems like this is one of those scholarly debates where it is really hard to tell which side is correct until you have covered a lot of evidence, as Scott has done in the past for things like SSRIs and marijuana.

      Also, have you read The Master and His Emissary by Iain McGilchrist? Has there been any recent evidence regarding his theory (which is remarkably similar to Jaynes’s)?

      • Ttar says:

        How is the debate going between the two sides of the split-consciousness debate?

        We should sever their ability to communicate with one another, then perform an experiment to see whether they respond independently to identical scientific observations. 😉

      • mundy says:

        @ranttila1, So I just did a cursory search of the literature and it seems like the consensus of the subcommunities involved in this are still rather undecided.

        See here for a nice summary review of the research as of 2018 (

        And here for a recent 2020 review of the field (

        *I would friendly recommend the Unpaywall browser extension if needed 🙂

        Regarding The Master and His Emissary book, no I haven’t yet read that. After I read the papers regarding the split-brain research + brain lateralization research I kinda lost motivation since I already knew the gist of what McGilchrist was arguing for. I’d have to engage in his book to give a fair critique though 🙂 Nice questions!

    • Timothy M. says:

      I strongly second your specific point about the split-brain work. The linked study indeed is of exactly two patients, and the researchers specifically note that potential subjects “are rapidly decreasing in numbers”.

      I agree with Scott’s (more-important?) point that most-but-not-all notions of left/right dichotomy in the brain are overblown, insofar as the average person thinks about things being “left-brain” or “right-brain”, other than some specific specialty areas like Broca’s or Wernicke’s, but I think we should have a strong prior that severing the corpus callosum does indeed break the unity of the brain, in lieu of some explanation for how you could replace all of those connections.

      • mundy says:

        @Timothy, I definitely agree. I think the smart thing to do is to embrace the nuances of the issues involved and perhaps separate out our hypotheses regarding *brain lateralization* vs our hypotheses regarding *split-consciousness” vs our hypotheses that are contingent upon the former two.

        Regarding the *split-consciousness* problem, I admit I have a slight bias for it due to the nature of network flow and the realities of signal propagation and time delays associated with disconnected components and community structures of graphs.

        With that said, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility that consciousness could lie in one particular hemisphere or subregion, or an alternative possibility that consciousness as a concept contains many different aspects such that parts of it are in some areas and other parts are in others, and some of these parts might have nested layers of contingency.

        Furthermore, this is all presupposes the anatomical functional localization paradigm. I’ve mentioned this before, but I am also quite open to the possibility that consciousness or its aspects are a dynamical resonance or oscillatory phenomenon. This view is favorable to me since it doesn’t presuppose the underlying brain structure, rather it first starts from the functional effects and sees how that can be instantiated and hence inform or shape the structure on which it is instantiated upon (see the numerous plasticity studies such as the famous ferret one where inputs to the auditory cortex were remapped from the visual cortex and both form and function were later reshaped). This agrees with my thoughts regarding the amount of information needed to inform brain function that can be stored genetically (or lack thereof), versus the amount of information that is offloaded and already comes prepackaged in our developmental environments combined with fundamental biophysical / metabolic / thermodynamic constraints.

  31. gkai says:

    I was expecting a reference to Snowcrash, by Neal Stephenson…Not his best novel imho, but it’s so close to the book reviewed here that it must be mentioned….

    • ranttila1 says:

      It looks like Julian Jaynes was one of the main influences on the novel, judging by its Wikipedia page. I know that Naval Ravikant has said before that Snow Crash is one of his favorite books of all time. What’s your favorite book of Stephenson’s?

      • gkai says:

        Cryptonomicon, followed by Diamond Age. I should read his more recent stuff, system of the world trilogy was nice but heavy (Most of his novels are, but those are maybe a little too heavy for me, especially reading them in English – not my native language. )

    • bullseye says:

      I encountered Jaynes’ theory for the first time in Snow Crash, which might predispose me to thinking it’s nonsense; it’s a good novel, but a silly one.

    • M says:

      Another novel dealing with this (which I see was also published in 1992) is Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams. Far future (post-grey goo) with people deliberately inducing split personalities (which can then also use the artificial brain enhancements more or less universally implanted). Things go pear-shaped at least partially due to this…

      Unsure if Jaynes was an influence on Williams – quite possibly though.

    • VanBuren says:

      Neal Stephenson seems to have been a big fan of Jaynes. His first novel, “The Big U”, relies extensively on the theory of the bicameral mind. Educated characters discuss the theory; uneducated characters are specifically described as not having bicameral minds. Jaynes is even thanked in the acknowledgements.

      Note: Do not read “The Big U”. It’s terrible.

    • castilho says:

      Snow Crash was actually directly inspired by “Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”.

      I agree it’s not his best novel (but I think it works really well as a loving quasi-parody of cyberpunk tropes!), but some of the ideas in it are really cool and I heartily recommend it to everyone who likes cyberpunk.

  32. ranttila1 says:

    One book that is really good to understand hallucinations is Olver Sacks’s Hallucinations. There are so many strange things which happen in peoples’ minds which I was not aware of. It seems like the main trigger for many of them are some sort of deprivation or bodily lack which is then compensated by the mind in a hallucination. For example, sensory monotony (like in an all white room or a desert) can cause hallucinations. Also, of course, don’t forget psychedelics. I have a strange theory that this combination sprouted Judaism. Like, Moses was in a desert for a long time, had some ritualistic marijuana (see here), and then started to “communicate” with God. Perhaps the whole split theory of mind (God/human), which you talk about can be heightened by sensory deprivation and psychedelics, bringing about the prophets of yesteryear.

    P.S. Scott, how did you find out about Julian Jaynes and his book? I mentioned him a few days ago as one of my “quake reads” and want to know if the timing is a coincidence or not.

    • bullseye says:

      Marijuana doesn’t make you hallucinate, and God spoke to Moses before all the wandering in the desert.

      • Evan Þ says:

        And on top of that, the cannabis residue was found at an eighth-century shrine in southern Judah, which was long after Moses. What’s more, the shrine was one of the “high places” strongly criticized in the Tanaakh, so we should be very careful in drawing any connections between it and other things even at the time.

      • deltafosb says:

        My personal experience is that with higher doses it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between your own thoughts and outside sounds.

    • keaswaran says:

      Scott actually teased this review a few weeks back (

  33. LudwigNagasena says:

    >“The unconscious” only really entered our theory-of-mind with Freud

    Is this true? Did Freud invented “the unconcious”, or at least popularized it? I thought the idea was already well-estabilished by Freudian times.

    • Chaostician says:

      Wikipedia says that this is completely false, but I would like to hear if someone has looked at this more carefully.

    • No One In Particular says:

      Statements like “my abuse gave me a lot of baggage that I’m still working through” involves a theory-of-mind that would have been incomprehensible a few centuries ago.

      I don’t think it would have been incomprehensible. The baggage metaphor may be recent, but the idea that underlying concept is something that only people of the last few centuries would be able to understand is something that needs some support.

  34. Belisaurus Rex says:

    “For a while in the XXs, psychiatrists were really into XX and tried diagnosing everyone with it, and sure enough all those people would admit to having XX and it would be very exciting. Then the APA told the psychiatrists to stop, people stopped talking about XX as much, and now the condition is rarer.”

    This doesn’t have to be specific to Multiple Personality, this could just mean that human beings are VERY suggestible, far beyond what anyone mainstream has theorized. This has broad implications for every facet of modern life: entertainment, education, sexuality, crime, etc. It means brainwashing is real.

    • LudwigNagasena says:

      Human beings are indeed very suggestible:

      Babinski introduced the concept of pithiatism, meaning “curable by suggestion”.[11] In 1893, he presented the case of Gabrielle, a hysterical patient who was also hemiplegic on the right side. He demonstrated that in pure hysterical response, most of the time some muscular rigidity was noticed and the reflexes were identical, while on the hemiplegic side, the reflexes were exaggerated.[1] Babinski advanced some acceptable criteria for differentiating hysteria from organic illnesses. Charcot felt that he discovered a new entity “hystero-epilepsy,” a disorder of the mind and brain, which combine features of hysteria and epilepsy.[12] Babinski believed that hysterical patients displayed symptoms of epilepsy as they were vulnerable to suggestions and could imitate the attacks of epilepsy since they repeatedly witnessed such organic attacks in the wards. Hence he could ultimately persuade Charcot to realize that these emotionally troubled, young and labile women were highly sensitive to suggestions. The master and the pupil thereafter, devised a two-stage treatment schedule of isolation and counter-suggestion that turned out to be highly effective.[12]

    • AlexSpark says:

      There’s a lot of mainstream psychology arguing that humans are really, really suggestible. Particularly around witness testimony – if you suggest X happened, someone who previously remembered that Y happened will often start remembering X. And that’s for simple, concrete facts about the world, like “was the car red or blue?”.

      People have almost no way to check the accuracy of eg. how depressed they felt last week. If a psychiatrist suggests it (even by accident) then yeah, it’s pretty likely someone will construct false memories saying they were depressed last week.

      Narratives and schema guide our thoughts and memories. Giving someone a new framework can change their perception. Not that their perception is particularly accurate to begin with.

      Intentional brainwashing is notoriously difficult though. The abject failure of anyone to successfully brainwash a person on purpose is clear in the failure of both cults, the CIA and the soviets. You can get people to play along, but really believing is a different matter.

      What we are really good at, as a social species, is picking up on the implicit assumptions other people have about the world, language, and how things work. We then tend to assume it’s right if a majority of our community believes it. That’s a thing. It’s very much a thing. I don’t think brainwashing is a better description of that than “being raised in a culture” though.

  35. slate blar says:

    Could this be connected with ritual use of psychedelics? Maybe particular species were very common at one point and became extinct, thereby preventing rituals that involved them from working? Theoretically, some people get these sorts of experiences without chemicals, but the bulk of the population only has them high on something?

    • keaswaran says:

      It would be amazing if this were silphium, the plant that is the origin of the heart shape icon that we still use today.

  36. elswithers says:

    Can the sensation of beauty exist without consciousness? Didn’t the whole Trojan War thing start over kidnapping the world’s most beautiful woman?

    • Deiseach says:

      Didn’t the whole Trojan War thing start over kidnapping the world’s most beautiful woman?

      Short answer? No.

      Slightly longer answer? Trade routes, control of.

      Somewhat even longer answer: Existing political tensions, both at the time of the alleged events and the ‘present day’ of those hearing the tale being explained as having roots in the clash of cultures between Asia Minor and mainland (for a given value of “mainland”) Greece; social and cultural roles; the offence to hospitality that Paris committed; the meddling of the gods from whose fallings-out the whole affair of the war begins (Aphrodite using Helen as a bait to lure Paris to award the victory to her) and a lot more besides. Ambitious rulers wanted to trace their ancestry back to ‘legendary participant in this great war’ in order to slough off any repute of nouveaux riches about their current dynasty and garner the aura of legitimacy by association; see Chesterton’s “The Mistake of the Machine”:

      “I know the notion will seem to you jarring and even comic; but that’s because you are English. It sounds to you like saying the Archbishop of Canterbury’s daughter will be married in St George’s, Hanover Square, to a crossing-sweeper on ticket-of-leave. You don’t do justice to the climbing and aspiring power of our more remarkable citizens.

      You see a good-looking grey-haired man in evening-dress with a sort of authority about him, you know he is a pillar of the State, and you fancy he had a father. You are in error. You do not realize that a comparatively few years ago he may have been in a tenement or (quite likely) in a jail. You don’t allow for our national buoyancy and uplift. Many of our most influential citizens have not only risen recently, but risen comparatively late in life. Todd’s daughter was fully eighteen when her father first made his pile; so there isn’t really anything impossible in her having a hanger-on in low life; or even in her hanging on to him, as I think she must be doing, to judge by the lantern business.”

      …”But I think,” he went on softly and reflectively, “I think you Americans are too modest. I think you idealize the English aristocracy — even in assuming it to be so aristocratic. You see a good-looking Englishman in evening-dress; you know he’s in the House of Lords; and you fancy he has a father. You don’t allow for our national buoyancy and uplift. Many of our most influential noblemen have not only risen recently, but —”

      “Oh, stop it!” cried Greywood Usher, wringing one lean hand in impatience against a shade of irony in the other’s face.

      Shorter answer: Everybody loves a good story, full of action and romance, and ‘this war involving heroes and gods happened because of the most beautiful woman in the world’ is a humdinger.

    • Jaskologist says:

      Horny can exist without consciousness.

  37. Gelaarsd Schaap says:

    As you go about your day, you hear a voice that tells you what to do, praises you for your successes, criticizes you for your failures, and tells you what decisions to make in difficult situations. Modern theory-of-mind tells you that this is your own voice, thinking thoughts.

    There is no such voice in my head. I do not receive praise, advice or commentry from myself, nor from any imagined externality. I never had an imaginary friend, and verbal thinking seems very clunky to me.
    Perhaps weirdly, while my thoughts, decisions and actions should all be very clearly my own (in this absence of an inner voice), I have been feeling these past few weeks that I lack a strong sense of agency. Thoughts do not clearly feel to me like things I do, and actions are not clearly actively motivated.
    Before reading this blog post, I ascribed these experiences to perhaps a general joylessness, or more generally this depression/dysthymia thingy that seems to have plagued me for the past 11 years. Or perhaps ‘autism’, whatever that means.

    Like others posting here, I do experience language while explicitly producing (writing, or speaking English (but not Dutch)) or processing it. When thinking about how to explain something, the handling of concepts (e.g. order, relations) will be non-verbal. Occasionally I will experience what I have called ‘leakage’ of language, where I think/’hear’ some phrase, often repeatedly. These often refer to significant and recently encountered concepts, and are often immitations of speech patterns of others.

    I would be very interested to see survey results on the relationships between ToM, thought and language.

    The posts in this thread make me think I may be poorer for not having an internal voice. Am I?

    • Cerastes says:

      I also lack this sort of inner voice or monologue and think mostly in images, sensations, connections, etc., and I don’t think you’re “missing out”, but rather than you just have some confounding effects (maybe low-level depression?).

      One of the best ways I can describe my thoughts it a black widow’s web – note that they do NOT make orb webs, but instead “cobwebs”, which are messy, untidy things with connections all over the place. My thinking is either pulling at various points on the web and seeing which other points move, or tracing paths between points (it’s hard to put into words). IMHO, it helps me see connections that others miss. I sometimes feel like half of my scientific output is things that are incredibly obvious to me but nobody else has bothered to ask.

  38. Ragged Clown says:

    I read The Bicameral Mind a few years ago and had dismissed Jayne’s argument as that from a crackpot.

    But, while reading Scott’s review, I started to wonder if I had got the book entirely wrong. By the time I got to section III, I was thinking I should go back and re-read it! It sounds really good!

    But then I realized that Scott was reviewing the book Jayne **should have written** not the book he actually wrote. D’oh!

    Scott’s book sounds much better.

  39. Jerden says:

    Honestly, the idea that thoughts emotions come from the heart or stomach seems very reasonable to me, without neuroscience it’s pretty unclear what the goo in our heads is even for. I don’t think that alone is incompatible with consciousness.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      Honestly, the idea that thoughts emotions come from the heart or stomach seems very reasonable to me, without neuroscience it’s pretty unclear what the goo in our heads is even for.

      Egyptian mummification rather famously involved leaving the heart in the deceased’s body to think with, removing the stomach and other internal organs to save in four idol-head jars, and disposing of that useless stuff in the skull.

    • There is an incident in Jomviking saga that involves an experiment to settle the question of whether a man’s consciousness is in his head or his body.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        Sometimes science is terrifying.

      • No One In Particular says:

        “I beheaded this man, and he died. Therefore thinking takes place in the head”.
        “No, you bebodied this man, and he died. Thinking takes place in the body.”

        Side note: why does “be” in “beheaded” act a negating prefix, but doesn’t in other words (at least that I can think of)?

  40. PhaedrusV says:

    It seems like there are some pretty great truth nuggets in there, with a few modifications to Jaynes’ weirder assumptions.

    And these people also seem to be able to strategically deceive others, another key consciousness innovation Jaynes says Bronze Agers lacked.

    There’s no way people weren’t deceptive prior to the god exodus. Jaynes must have somehow missed all the pre-Classical Greek & Sumerian & Hebrew stories about how the gods were frequently deceived by heroes. Based on Jaynes better insights, I’d say that prior to the gods leaving after the Bronze Age Collapse, people just thought of themselves as deceiving the other person’s gods when they deceived the person.

    It’s well-known that some other cultures rarely get depression and anxiety in the classical Western sense. Instead, in the situations where we would become depressed and anxious, they get psychosomatic complaints, especially stomach pain.

    That’s precisely what anxiety and depression feel like, so if we didn’t have a prior that said “if I’m bummed out to the point where I feel physically sick, that’s called depression” then it would be easy to miss the association between the two. See also all the references on Twitter to people feeling “physically sick” after Trump’s election.

    • No One In Particular says:

      So if two people had the same god, would they not try to deceive each other?

      • PhaedrusV says:

        My understanding from reading “Maps of Meaning” (Peterson) and “Story of Civilization” (Durant) is that those societies I listed were hugely polytheistic, and while there was likely to be a lot of overlap in the “my gods” Venn diagram between, say, neighbors, there would also be completely different targets of household and ancestor worship, different gods that each person might personally call upon more, etc.

        I’m not aware of anyone discussing this in any detail with respect to the ideas Jaynes raised, but I’d imagine that if you were trying to trick a foreigner you’d call on your city god, and if you were trying to trick your neighbor you’d call on your ancestors, for example. Obviously it wouldn’t make much sense to call on a god that was also helping out the other guy when you have other options.

        For less-polytheistic situations, though, it would still work because obviously tricking someone else who worships the same god as you just proves that your shared god likes you better.

  41. aristides says:

    This makes me wonder what are some of the deficiencies in our modern theory of mind, and how will it develop. As an example, reading the 14 year long argument between Scott and Bryan Caplan on mental illness, is it possible these two have a different theory of mind? And is one necessarily better in all contexts than the other?

    Scott mentioned in his theory of mind that people have desires, but sometimes they lack the willpower to actually do what they want to do. Caplan seems to argue that there is no such thing as will power, people just have different preferences that change over time. I think that is probably an accurate description of what it is like inside the mind of Caplan.

    Also note, Scott’s theory of mind seems very useful when you are a modern psychiatrist. Not only does it fall in line with the APA, but it helps him be companionate you his patients. Meanwhile Caplan’s seems very useful to a Libertarian Economist. Assuming that people’s actions are what there preferences are, allows him to look at the data, and trust that it reflects the reality of what will make society better.

    • Nav says:

      I think this is a great question — my sense is that most “empirically proven” theories of mind are, by the nature of what passes as scientific research, incredibly shallow, and only provide us with the barest number of hooks upon which we might hang our subjectivity. The problem is that our self-consciousness is limited by language. Hegel describes this best: you might feel angry but without a conscious Notion of “anger”, you will be unable to turn this feeling into a form of knowledge (which can then be queried on a psychological inventory). So if you want to achieve broad empirical knowledge of a particular subjective state, you’re either limited to whatever words exist within “folk wisdom” theories of mind, or else you teach the participants some new language and then nobody’s sure whether the subjective feeling exists or whether you just induced them to feel that way by teaching them the word (whoops).

      So, let’s say you wanted a better way of producing knowledge about your subjectivity. Much of what passes as “esotericism” these days is actually alternative theory of mind, and this includes multiple versions of psychoanalysis and also Kabbalah (I’m not nearly as well-versed as I assume Scott is, but the Sefirot provide a powerful framework for describing social interiority — one can think about “Yesod” or bounding/foundation and how it relates to one’s life and also how it relates to “Hod” and “Netzach” and “Malchut” — difficult to fully internalize the language, but once you have it, extremely useful and cool!), perhaps even astrology as well. A lot of the process of learning a new theory of mind is recognizing patterns of feeling and naming them, and then using these new abstractions to see even broader patterns of how those feelings relate to your experiences and environment. You can end up in very deep and interesting places, and I think neither modern psychology nor economics have figured this out in any real depth.

    • Scott mentioned in his theory of mind that people have desires, but sometimes they lack the willpower to actually do what they want to do. Caplan seems to argue that there is no such thing as will power, people just have different preferences that change over time.

      I may have missed those exchanges, but I’m on Bryan’s side. In fact, I was just thinking about writing a comment in an open thread “contra spoons.”

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Aristides’ third paragraph implicitly predicts that libertarian economists will be more likely to side with Caplan in this debate, and we are now two for two on libertarian economists agreeing with Caplan.

        Perhaps we can get in a bunch of psychiatrists to see if they side with Scott?

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Either position is just a holistic interpretation of the chaotic stuff that’s going on in a human brain. I’m not sure it even makes sense to “take a side”. Is red not-green or not-blue?

          That there can be disagreement is itself minor evidence that any interpretation is in some sense recent and cultural rather than something wired in by evolution a million years ago.

      • drethelin says:

        Given that paralysis exists and agnosias exist I don’t think it’s really sensible to model people as simply having preferences that vary rather than as having desires which can be in conflict with ability or other mental states.

        I think it’s much more clear to say that, for example, ibuprofen can cure a headache than that ibuprofen sharply changes my preferences with regards to light, sound and motion.

        Relatedly, I think it’s probably more useful to describe someone not walking a mile because they’re having a gout attack and it would cause them great pain, but they COULD do it if they had a lot of willpower or a good reason, as not doing it due to pain rather than saying they would prefer not to.

        But maybe this only seems simpler due to my culture.

        I think people vary both in preferences and willpower.

        • aristides says:

          @drethin Whenever I heard people talk about willpower, it never made sense to me. Internally, I always feel that I do what I prefer to do. Sometimes there is conflicting preferences, but it never feels like one preference is myself, and I have to use willpower to overcome it. However, listening to others, it seems that is commonly how people feel. I just have an atypical mind.

          @DavidFriedman I tend to agree with you and Caplan, so I think it would be great for you to start an open thread on the matter. It will probably get more attention than an article on the bottom of this page.

          • Simon_Jester says:

            I believe that what most people call ‘willpower’ is the exertion of mental effort involved in arriving at a decision in the face of conflicting preferences.

            I want a doughnut, but I want to lose weight. Both are preferences. The process of flipping the metaphorical switch on the train tracks that leads to my making a decision? That’s the exercise of willpower.

            Or are you saying that for you, there are no switches; you are always following any given set of stimuli to an ineluctable conclusion that you’re going to do “this,” given your established preferences?

  42. Robert Jones says:

    Iliad I:188-198

    Grief came upon the son of Peleus, and within his shaggy breast his heart was divided, whether he should draw his sharp sword from beside his thigh, and break up the assembly, and slay the son of Atreus, or stay his anger and curb his spirit. While he pondered this in mind and heart, and was drawing from its sheath his great sword, Athene came from heaven. The white-armed goddess Hera had sent her forth, for in her heart she loved and cared for both men alike. She stood behind him, and seized the son of Peleus by his fair hair, appearing to him alone. No one of the others saw her.

    The words here translated as “in mind and heart” are “κατὰ φρένα καὶ κατὰ θυμόν”, which Jaynes would have us read as “in belly and sympathetic nervous system”, but leaving that aside, the text is clear that nobody else saw Athene, which of course is unsurprising for a hallucination. That being the case, how did Homer know? It seems likely that Homer (whether or not repeating the song of the goddess) is simply exercising poetic licence as to the whole episode. It seems to Homer that Achilles would likely have contemplated killing Agamemnon and that Athene would want to put a stop to that sort of thing, but the end result is nothing happens between Agamemnon speech at 173 and Achilles reply at 225. Since there’s no reason to think that Achilles saw Athene at all, it doesn’t make sense to ask whether he saw her literally or metaphorically.

    The Bronze Age loved idols. There were the giant idols, ones that made the statue of Zeus at Olympia look like a weak effort. But also, every family had their own individual idols.

    Orthodox Christians love icons. They have great big icons all over their churches but also every family has its own individual icons. Whatever the reason for this is, I’m pretty sure they have both theory of mind and consciousness. See also Hindus.

    The ziggurats shifted from houses for the gods to e-temen-an-ki – pedestals that the gods could descend to from Heaven, should they ever wish to return.

    It seems a remarkable coincidence that the zigguarats happened to have been built in the form of high platforms, if the belief that they were e-temen-an-ki postdated their construction.

    • Simon_Jester says:

      When you build your religious structures as houses for your gods, you build them very big and impressive. You don’t give the god of thunder a small cottage or a rowhouse squeezed in between a couple of warehouses.

    • John Richards says:

      Orthodox Christians consider icons to be metaphysically different from idols.

  43. ejlflop says:

    The fact that some people don’t think in words (or more extreme versions of that statement) is a meme that’s been going round the internet for approx two years now. Iirc it’s part of the genesis of the “NPC” meme. A recent viral post in the genre is this video, “Q&A with a person who does not have an internal monologue”.

  44. Nav says:

    I’m so glad you reviewed this! I read this book several years ago, and it was the foundation of the intellectual path I’d follow for the next few years. I want to make a few comments, first about the book, and then seeing if I can take the review a little further.

    In particular, I feel like you omitted one of the most important sections of the text: Jaynes’ discussion specifically of metaphor as organ of consciousness. The post uses “metaphor” in a somewhat derogatory way, but Jaynes himself believed metaphor was the most essential aspect of developing a “theory of mind”. I want to highlight these passages:

    It is by metaphor that language grows. The common reply to the question “what is it?” is, when the reply is difficult or. the experience unique, “well, it is like —.” In laboratory studies, both children and adults describing nonsense objects (or metaphrands) to others who cannot see them use extended metaphiers that with repetition become contracted into labels. This is the major way in which the vocabulary of language is formed. The grand and vigorous function of metaphor is the generation of new language as it is needed, as human culture becomes more and more complex.

    This is language moving out synchronically (or without reference to time) into the space of the world to describe it and perceive it more and more definitively. But language also moves in another and more important way, diachronically, or through time, and behind our experiences on the basis of aptic structures in our nervous systems to create abstract concepts whose referents are not observables except in a metaphorical sense.

    Subjective conscious mind is an analog of what is called the real world. It is built up with a vocabulary or lexical field whose terms are all metaphors or analogs of behavior in the physical world. Its reality is of the same order as mathematics. It allows us to shortcut behavioral processes and arrive at more adequate decisions. Like mathematics, it is an operator rather than a thing or repository. And it is intimately bound up with volition and decision.

    What Jaynes does in this perhaps cryptic chapter is brilliant: those three paragraphs alone explain in simple terms much of “the linguistic turn” in philosophy (which began with Saussure who originated those terms “synchronic” and “diachronic”, and was also rooted in Hegel: subjective “law” as representation or “analog” of the world, grown via perception of difference). Connect this with Freudian theory and you’re at Lacan, famously the most mystifying psychoanalytic theorist.

    But it’s actually Freudianism that I want to return to for the rest of my comment, in particular your quote:

    It’s well-known that some other cultures rarely get depression and anxiety in the classical Western sense. Instead, in the situations where we would become depressed and anxious, they get psychosomatic complaints, especially stomach pain.

    Freud’s first “psychology” text, Studies on Hysteria (after he was finished with his Erowid-esque cocaine trip reports), is specifically about the treatment of patients with similar psychosomatic presentations. It is through talking with these “hysterical” patients that he invents the first pieces of his “theory of mind”.

    Freud uses a particular metaphor to describe “hysteria”: he sees “consciousness” (not in the sense of theory-of-mind, but in the sense of attention) as charge flowing along a sort of “electrical circuit” of memories. A “traumatic event” is when a piece of this circuit (a memory) becomes disconnected or “repressed” from consciousness, and cannot be accessed in regular states of consciousness. This “traumatic nucleus” however still develops associations with other memories, and becomes the seed for an entirely different “network” of consciousness.

    Freud then believed that, in some cases, one’s consciousness could “short circuit” over to a “traumatic” part, and you enter a sort of hypnotic or “hysterical” state, different from your usual consciousness, constructed from the memories accumulating around a traumatic nucleus. However, since the memory is unacceptable to consciousness, the “energy” gets “discharged” as a psychosomatic complaint. (Freud tried to cure his patients of this by hypnotizing them, or later by talking to them and using his hand to put pressure on their heads, and later still just by talking to them. All these methods had limited success, despite his claims of victory.)

    So, this was Freud’s definition of “hysteria” from 1895ish, and it seems similar to both the phenomena you and Jaynes describe, the idea of consciousness “leaping over” into a foreign zone, which feels somehow “separate” from our regular subjectivity. I think many people have these experiences, but we instead can invoke subtle psychological language to hide our shifts in consciousness (“anxiety attack” being a very common one), or else we simply don’t notice, when we’re speaking “on behalf of” an ideology (the more contemporary form of a Jaynesian God) vs “ourselves”.

    The more meta point is that all of Freud’s later theories still engage with his original theory of mind, which was written about most thoroughly in his never-published “Project for a Scientific Psychology”. His language and metaphors entered colloquial consciousness, as you noticed, and massively changed our cultural mechanisms for self-reference. But they’re still all rooted in the metaphorical “circuitry” of mind (hence why his ideas might clash with other thinkers who’ve updated to a “computational” theory of mind).

    I don’t have a firm conclusion here, but all of this back-and-forth makes me think that control of language is more important than many think, because it implies control of thought, by placing boundaries on what is thinkable and how. And I think, several years after reading it, that this is the most important lesson of Jaynes’ book.

    Oh also, I made this meme a while ago that might be relevant 🙂

  45. dark orchid says:

    There is a radical feminist blog called “culturally bound gender”, and it talks about exactly what the title says.

    • Calion says:

      Holy crap.

      If there’s one thing this post made me realize, it’s that you’ve got to take what people say seriously. The radical feminists have been saying for quite some time that truth is constructed, that science is merely a means of exercising power, that what is true and what is false are merely social constructs. I heard this, but I guess I thought that it was just some sort of cynical ploy to undermine the power structures they disliked. But if you take them seriously, then yes, they are capable of genuinely believing that the sexes, too, are cultural constructs, and if this post should teach us anything, it’s that people can be convinced of just about anything, whether or not it’s got any relation to reality whatsoever. So yes, their project is to actually convince us, as a society, that sex does not exist. As I said, holy crap.

      • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

        Not necessarily, because regardless of whether there was ever a stage where most or all humans didn’t posses a ToM it is generally accepted that most of us do posses one today and if you accept the thesis that a key use of a ToM is strategic deception you can still be suspicious of any and all of those arguments as being dialectical/rhetorical/performative at least to some degree.

      • Evan Þ says:

        I haven’t read the blog, but there’s a difference between saying “sex is a culturally-bound concept” and “gender is a culturally-bound concept.” I can imagine a different culture which doesn’t prescribe any different roles for men and women – it’s rather unlikely IMO, but it’s imaginable.

        • Simon_Jester says:

          To prove that gender is socially constructed, you wouldn’t even need to find a society that has no gender roles.

          You just need to find multiple societies that have different, largely incompatible gender roles. For example, societies where handling money is women’s work versus societies where women never handle money. Societies where women routinely go out on errands versus societies where women are kept in purdah. Societies where medical knowledge is treated as mostly special female knowledge versus societies where women are effectively forbidden from being doctors. And so on.

          Do enough of that and you can prove, if not that gender is FULLY socially constructed, at least that very large parts of any given society’s gender role must be socially constructed, because there are other societies doing literally the opposite.

          There’s no society that believes you should eat food by jamming it into your nostrils, because human anatomy and the mechanics of eating aren’t socially constructed at all.

          But there’s plenty of societies that eat food that would disgust the others, which proves that statements like “you shouldn’t eat bugs, ever” are socially constructed.

          • Aapje says:


            That is only true if the claim is that the behaviors themselves are not (partially) socially constructed, rather than that the behaviors are motivated and/or influenced by biological difference. In the latter case, social constructs can cause unnatural behavior, in the same way that a culture could demand that women’s feet be bound, to create unnatural feet.

            In a culturally neutral environment, women’s feet are going to be ‘normal’ and gendered behavior is going to match biological differences.

      • Ozy Frantz says:

        Culturally Bound Gender is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist website; their argument is that transness is a culturally bound condition. The people who believe that sex is a social construct are typically trans activists, whom Culturally Bound Gender strongly opposes.

        In general, modern-day self-identified radical feminists are trans-exclusionary and an entirely different group of people than the ones who say that sex is a social construct. (The situation was more complicated in the 1970s.)

        • Belisaurus Rex says:

          Well, sure, why not? If gender is a social construct, why would you ever change from one social construct to another? Throw the whole thing away!

        • No One In Particular says:

          The people who believe that sex is a social construct are typically trans activists activists

          Shouldn’t “typically trans activists” be replaced with “either using the word ‘sex’ in a manner completely at odds with how it is used in general to the point of not engaging in communication in a meaningful sense, or deeply confused about reality”?

          • Ozy Frantz says:

            That… does not seem like a very helpful way of explaining which feminist subgroups believe which things.

          • No One In Particular says:

            It seems to me that the original is not very helpful. What could it possibly mean to believe that sex is socially constructed? Are there seriously people who think that what genitals one has is determined by culture?

          • keaswaran says:

            “Are there seriously people who think that what genitals one has is determined by culture?”

            For most people, what pieces of meat you have attached to your body isn’t terribly hugely determined by culture (though there are varying cultural practices of cutting pieces of some of them off soon after birth). But categorizing those pieces of meat into exactly two types is at least culturally influenced, even if there are two distinctive clusters of types.

          • No One In Particular says:

            @keaswaran It’s not clear what point you’re trying to make. If you’re saying that the categorization of sex is socially constructed, that is quite different from sex itself being socially constructive, and it’s not conducive to constructive dialog to be equivocating between the two. Every categorization is socially constructive. It is not helpful to point that out.

            “Do you have much experience driving trucks?”
            “Well, the categorization of vehicles into ‘cars’ and ‘trucks’ is socially constructed.”

        • Ozy Frantz says:

          I am not a sex-is-a-social-construct person but in the absence of any other person to explain what they believe:

          I think the easiest way to get an understanding of what they believe is to think about intersex people. Given our current level of medical technology, it is easier to perform vaginoplasties that have an acceptable level of sexual function than it is to perform phalloplasties that have an acceptable level of sexual function. (“Acceptable level of sexual function” is itself a cultural thing. For example, it’s considered to be much more of an issue that intersex people who received phalloplasties as children often can’t ejaculate, than it is that intersex children who received vaginoplasties as children often can’t orgasm.) For this reason, intersex children historically tended to be assigned female, even if they have testes and XY chromosomes and found being female viscerally distressing. The judgment is not a scientific judgment based on objective, observable facts; it’s a judgment based on surgical technique and cultural values about sexuality.

          “Sex is a social construct” is also often applied when talking about trans issues. Trans people can be understood as a sort of medically induced intersex person. A trans woman who has been on estrogen for decades needs to have breast cancer screenings (because she has breasts) and prostate cancer screenings (because she has a prostate). Which sex is she?

          I hope that helps you understand where they’re coming from although, again, my purpose in the original comment was not to defend sex being a social construct but instead to explain that the people who run the blog Culturally Bound Gender feel as strongly about sex not being a social construct as you do.

      • Simon_Jester says:

        Feminists (radical or otherwise) tend to be distinguished by saying that truths or falsehood are constructed in the context of gender roles.

        There’s a big difference between saying “I think all truth is socially constructed” and saying “I think whether or not women can and should handle money is socially constructed,” for example.

        Feminism is, by nature, a political movement interested in the way society treats gender, particularly women. Hence the FEMIN-ism. No concept of ‘women,’ no concept of ‘feminism.’ No interest in discussing or changing or affecting how society treats ‘women,’ no interest in ‘feminism.’

        If you’ve just had a staggering realization about people who think that “truth is constructed, that science is merely a means of exercising power, that what is true and what is false are merely social constructs…”

        You need a name for them other than ‘radical feminists.’ Because radical feminists are perfectly capable of believing in non-constructed truths, and believers in ‘truth is constructed’ aren’t necessarily feminists.

      • keaswaran says:

        “The radical feminists have been saying …. So yes, their project is to actually convince us, as a society, that sex does not exist. As I said, holy crap.”

        Be careful not to assume that everyone who is radical and is a feminist considers themself a “radical feminist”, and most of them definitely *don’t* agree on all these things, or have this project.

      • Bugmaster says:

        I am a contrarian by nature, so I guess I can try and steelman the radfem position a bit.

        What we call “sex” is a social construct in the same way as what we call “heaviness” is a social construct. Is a brick heavy ? A small child would say “yes”; a burly construction worker might say “no”. That doesn’t mean that the brick is somehow changing its physical properties depending on who’s looking at it; rather, our interpretation of the evidence of our senses changes depending on our perspective. Since our perspective is heavily influenced by society and culture, our interpretations of reality will, on average, cluster along social lines. For example, most people in America would rate pig intestines as “disgusting”, whereas people in China would call them “delicious”.

        The concept of “sex” is no different from “weight” or “taste”. As a society, we’ve collectively decided to call certain clusters of biological characteristics “male”, and others “female”; but it’s just a social convention, and not even a very good one. Today, we know that many people don’t fit well into either of the two pre-determined categories; people who suffer if they are forced into the wrong category; etc.

        The concept of “sex” is somewhat useful, just as the concept of “heavy” is somewhat useful; but if you want to build a house or even just transport a pile of bricks, you need to measure their actual mass, tensile strength, water permeability, etc. Similarly, the modern society has grown too complex for simplistic concepts such as “sex” to be useful. Thus, it is time to either update them, or simply get rid of them, before all of our metaphorical houses fall apart.

        • dark orchid says:

          That’s a defensible position, but I’m not sure it’s radfem – and I’m sure it’s not something CBG would endorse. Their latest post “Can we have a word?” (Jan 2019) reads to me like they’re trying to show that there’s a non-socially-constructed meaning of “woman”.

      • No One In Particular says:

        What do you base this on?

  46. bullseye says:

    I sometimes think in words, which is useful when I’m planning on how to say something and I think also helps memory. I sometimes don’t think in words, which is helpful for things that I don’t know how to articulate. Sometimes it feels like I think in words, but when I try to write the thought down I find that I don’t know how to phrase it.

    Thinking in words doesn’t seem like a big mind-altering thing to me, but maybe that’s just because I don’t remember ever not being able to do it.

  47. Calion says:

    I hate that there are always enough comments on these posts that I cannot reasonably read them all before posting myself, but, regardless, here goes:

    First off, this book is available for free at

    Secondly, on how much this applies to uncontacted tribes and such: If these “voices in your head” were intercepted to be gods by Bronze Age ancients (and that makes so much sense; it explains why God doesn’t speak to us anymore, but often spoke to folks in Biblical times (I like and accept what Pandemic Shmandemic says about this above)), and that was an innovation that made things work better than in the past, what were Stone Age people like? Maybe they didn’t have “voices in their heads” at all! Maybe they only had physical sensations, and no ability to talk things out with themselves whatsoever? I think of the story of Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita; when he’s being exhorted to “fight the battle,” it lists all his physical sensations in response to his internal conflict. Now, how would anthropologists, coming into contact with Neolithic peoples, know that they didn’t have a theory of mind, or even voices in their heads? They would assume they did, so they wouldn’t even look for it. And no, I don’t necessarily think that the reaction would be “that couple-year period when we all stopped hallucinating gods and became conscious – that was a weird time,” first because they weren’t hallucinating gods—Amerinds, in any case, went to a lot of effort to evoke hallucinations, so presumably hallucinating wasn’t a daily occurrence—and second because, when you’re not “conscious,” you don’t even know that you’re lacking consciousness, and when you slowly gain it (or maybe they don’t and only their kids do!) after contact with Westerners, you don’t really realize what you didn’t have before. When young children learn something, they often believe they’ve always known it. And besides, are you really going to admit to the anthropologists (or whoever) that their way of looking at the world is so vastly superior to your old one, or are you just sort of going to go along, and do what others do, possibly without even realizing that there’s a difference, as in your “Universal Human Experiences” post?

    Perhaps all of human history is a struggle toward Mind. This all makes me wonder what mental turn occurred between the Paleolithic and the Neolithic!

  48. John Schilling says:

    Thanks for this, and particularly for the bit where you review the book Jaynes should have written rather than the one he did. That really helps my understanding.

    Regarding Aborigines, Inuit, etc, one critical difference is that the Bronze Age societies Jaynes writes about were literate in their own language at the time they went through the transition. That makes their inner experiences accessible to us in a way an uncontacted aboriginal tribe’s are not, unless you happen to be one of the first anthropologists to encounter them. Otherwise, as Jaynes notes, well-meaning attempts to translate into modern language can destroy key nuance, and by the time you realize this the original source is no longer available.

    To really test Jaynes’ theory by reference to recent or contemporary uncontacted stone-age tribes, you’d need an anthropologist who A: isn’t first and foremost a missionary trying to convert them the Christianity or whatnot, and B: learns their langauge without trying to teach them any modern language and C: asks the right questions and carefully records the answers, and D: gets there first, before anyone else contaminates the sample with their missionary work or whatnot. That’s a fairly tight set of requirements, but I suspect there might be examples scattered in the literature. Has anyone systematically looked?

    Alternately, there may still be wholly-uncontacted tribes that could be studied for this purpose, but not terribly many of them and mostly protected in ways that might complicate this sort of research.

  49. fluorocarbon says:

    I don’t know anything about Sumer but I do know a bit about Homer and I don’t find his analysis (at least as summarized in this review) of the Iliad convincing for a few reasons.

    1. The Odyssey and Iliad were both part of the same group of stories that were told, retold, combined, and recombined by bards over centuries. Both stories would have been circulating at the same time and told by the same people. The bards who told these stories were not literate so they would often mix one tale with another and no two tellings were ever alike; sometimes different tellings even had different endings. (Evidence of that is present in Athena’s speech to Achilles mentioned in the review.) An argument that is based on two contemporaneous oral poems expressing radically different human behavior because one is supposedly older seems really dubious.

    2. The Iliad expects the listeners to have a general background knowledge of what we would call Greek mythology. Many myths only make sense with some kind of kind of theory of mind. For example the story about Hephaestus in book VIII of the Odyssey: Ares sleeps with Aphrodite when her husband Hephaestus leaves; Hephaestus learns about this and sets a trap; he then pretends to leave; the device traps Aphrodite and Ares; Hephaestus, hopping mad, comes back and calls the gods down from Olympus; the gods find the whole thing funny and Hermes jokes with Apollo that he wouldn’t mind being in even stronger chains if it meant sleeping with Aphrodite. Or consider the whole story of the Trojan horse. Although it doesn’t happen in the Iliad, the reader is assumed to be familiar with it.

    3. Within the Iliad itself there are integral parts of the story that assume some kind of theory of mind: Patroclus dresses in Achilles’ armor in order to cause the Trojans to take flight. This whole plan requires understanding how other people see and understand the world.

    4. Building an argument on the use of words like φρήν is silly and I’m surprised someone who was a specialist in ancient languages would make it. One of the first things people learn when studying languages is that different languages express things startlingly differently but that this doesn’t really mean anything deeper. We say “I am hot” but many modern languages say “I have hot.” Does this mean the French perceive heat differently than we do? Do they have a bicamerality of temperature where their internal feelings are separate things that can be possessed instead of integrated in their personhood? The Ancient Greeks often said things like, “a god placed sadness in me” instead of “I am sad.” It’s exciting when you first come across it and you think you’ve discovered some Truth about how the ancients perceived the world, but after you read a few texts using the same turn of phrase it becomes clear there’s not really any deeper meaning there. Likewise I don’t see how the use of φρήν for mind means anything. In English we still say, “can I pick your brain” or, “she broke my heart.”

    5. The idea of having a voice in your head telling you what to do doesn’t imply having some different theory of mind or anything. In Plato’s Apology Socrates talks about having a δαιμόνιον (little spirit) that tells him what to do, but he very clearly has a well developed theory of mind. We still have this trope today. People say things like “my conscience told me” or “that little voice in the back of my head.”

    6. One of the major themes of the Iliad is that there are not always heroes and villains and we are all thrust into situations by the whim of the gods or fate. We don’t usually talk about gods doing it, but this is still a common theme in literature. Using this as evidence that the Greeks were controlled by left hemisphere hallucinations is I think a mistake.

    7. There are some parts of the Iliad that really don’t seem to fit Jaynes’ idea of the bicameral mind. I haven’t read Jaynes’ book so I don’t know if or how he addresses it. But let’s look at the very beginning of book I:

    Apollo is causing a plague among the Greeks so Achilles calls an assembly (how does an assembly where you discuss a problem with other rulers fit with the Pharaohs and god-kings Jaynes talks about?). In the assembly, Achilles summons Calchas, who is called “the best of the bird-diviners” (οἰωνοπόλων ὄχ’ ἄριστος). This word isn’t a mistranslation, it is a combination of the word for bird of prey (οἰωνός) and a word for doing work or being busy about something (πολέω). (How does this work with the idea that there was no need for omens and prophecies?) Calchas makes Achilles promise to protect him before speaking just in case someone (Agamemnon, hint, hint) doesn’t like what he has to say because “kings often swallow their wrath” and pretend not to be angry in front of the crowd only to get revenge later. Agamemnon of course does get angry and takes it out on Achilles which causes Achilles to sit out the battle and pout in his tent. (How does the constant squabbling of the Greeks fit in with a bronze age hive-mind?)

    In this passage, at the very beginning of the first book, there are seers, speaking in a circumspect way in order to have plausible deniability, understanding other people’s motives, and an assembly of rulers debating what to do. It all seems very regular-theory-of-mind human to me, albeit a mind very different from a modern one in other respects.

    • Aron Wall says:

      Yeah, and speaking as somebody who believes that there was most likely an actual historical Homer responsible for both poems, I take any claim of scholarship to sort different components of these poems to different centuries as, at best, total baseless speculation.

      So as for any theory which presupposes these already speculative datings… well, garbage in, garbage out.

  50. Jaskologist says:

    He has a similar explanation for idols. The Bronze Age loved idols. There were the giant idols, ones that made the statue of Zeus at Olympia look like a weak effort. But also, every family had their own individual idols.

    Then, around 1250 BC, this well-oiled system started to break down.

    This just seems false, without being extremely eurocentric. You can go to Asia today and find lots of places with giant idols and home idols. I’m pretty sure Hindus are conscious, and that Asians have been engaging in trade for a good long while.

    I don’t think this story is even true in the West. Idols go away as Christianity spreads, but that’s quite a bit after 1250 BC. The Ancient Jews were weird in rejecting idols, and even that was a hard-fought battle by the prophets (the ones who are actually claiming to hear God, and by this theory the most likely to be susceptible to idols) against the natural inclinations of the people, who kept turning back to idols.

    • aj says:

      Idols go away as Christianity spreads, but that’s quite a bit after 1250 BC.

      I don’t think that this is even really 100% true of Christians. Modern Catholic and Orthodox icons bear enough superficial similarity to ancient pagan idols in both their design and use (both Catholics and Orthodox pray before their images to the entities that the images represent,) that they that there has been a long standing debate in Christianity about whether they are in fact idols.

      • Jerden says:

        What with the icons, the veneration of saints bones, and the construction of cathedrals for people to pilgrimage to, I think you could argue that iconoclasm didn’t really take off until the Protestant reformation.

          • Protagoras says:

            I feel like one of the inspirations for Byzantine iconoclasm was some sort of desire to not be outdone in the purity department by the neighboring Moslems (who have always been hardcore iconoclasts, of course). Perhaps also contributed to the victory of the Iconodules; perhaps distinguishing themselves from Islam sold better in the marketplace of ideas than trying to outdo Islam on their own core issues. I suppose that doesn’t explain why nothing similar happened with Catholics in, say, Spain, though.

        • aj says:

          The history of iconoclasm in Christianity is comlpex (but don’t forget the Byzantines or the Lollards) and representational imagery has a long history and enduring appeal in Christianity but my point is that the existance of iconoclasm demonstrates that the veneration of icons and other images do bear a strong resemblence to idol worship. Catholics and Orthodox Christians dispute the similarities and draw theological distinctions, but I think it serves the same social purpose. Keep in mind, that even amongst Catholics, there is a debate about what constitutes a proper use of an image.

  51. alext says:

    Is it possible to conceive of trapping an animal, without a theory of mind? It requires understanding that the animal will see the bait, it will want to move towards the bait, but it will not know about the sharp spike that will skewer it. It seems likely to me that humans had a theory of mind since before the stone age, although maybe they didn’t have a theory of the theory of mind – they weren’t aware that they were doing it, but they were certainly doing it.

    Tangential to Bronze Age people talking to their gods, there’s this thing called Duck Programming. It involves explaining a difficult programming problem to a rubber duck. Expressing the problem in words lets the brain come up with new ideas. This means that normally, thought isn’t verbal – at least, programmers’ thoughts. As an anecdote, I often solve problems (mostly math and programming) by internalizing the available data and its correlations, then letting the answer “come to me”. Plan B is asking the Duck God.

    • Doctor Mist says:

      Lots of animals hunt other animals, and it often involves subterfuge at least in the sense of creeping up quietly, downwind of the prey, but their consciousness is rudimentary at best. I’m pretty sure that neither Jaynes nor Scott is saying that 5000 years ago humans were no more functional than my cat.

      Whenever the invention of the Theory of Mind that Scott describes happened, it was a revolutionary idea that made humans more functional, more flexible and versatile in their repertoire of behaviors, and it’s not absurd to me to suppose that it happened in near-historical times. The Scientific Method, by comparison, is only a few hundred years old.

      Edit: See also kai.teorn’s comment about the sentimental novel, which might be a better example than the Scientific Method.

  52. Alleged Wisdom says:

    I’d guess that the Bronze Age city-state ‘bicameral’ god-consciousness was a complex socially constructed thing rather than a natural way of being. So the transition from it to modern trader-consciousness could be more disruptive and noticeable than the transition from hunter-gather consciousness.

    It is possible that hunter-gatherers are more like us, (possibly due to the need to model and deal with the different personalities in the social band) that Bronze Age consciousness outcompeted it with the hive-mind thing, and modern consciousness is kind of a transition back but with a couple bonus features that are easy to pick up when exposed to.

    • Calion says:

      Nice. I like this.

    • DarkTigger says:

      It is possible that hunter-gatherers are more like us
      Yeah, thought so too. Hunter-Gatherers (espacially) the Hunter part, do need an theory of mind.
      What I see, is not what the rest of my hunting party sees. My prey does, and doesn’t know stuff. Just because the deers know something doesn’t mean the rabbits do, etc.
      Also nomadic hunter-gatherers probably do need a concept for “friendly stranger” and “unfriendly-stranger” quite regularly.

  53. AlexanderTheGrand says:

    I really doubt that people from 750BCE had an accurate idea of the mental state of those from 1000BCE. Especially given the shorter lifespan back then, and the illiteracy, that’s like a 10-generation gap where most people’s conception of their ancestors was passed down by word of mouth. Think about how hard it is for us to realistically put ourselves in the shoes of 18th century Americans, even though we actually know a lot about them, and we can read their biographies. So when people write that their ancestors had more spiritual experiences than they do, I really don’t trust their assessment.

  54. aj says:

    I’m not sure that I buy this notion of Bronze age religious practices differing from the present because early humans were cognitively different than modern humans. I actually don’t think that these practices have changed as much as is implied by the argument.

    For example, I grew up in an obscure religious cult called ‘Catholicism’ whereby once every year in spring we would parade an idol around our temple in a solemn but joyful procession and adorn it with flowers, not too dissimilar in form to ancient pagan practices. We had dozens of effigies of figures who were not physically present but with whom you could nevertheless converse and I knew many people who conversed and some who claimed to receive messages in return, not just in the form of vague feelings, but sometimes as visions or voices speaking to them. Once or twice, I even had that impression. If a future archaeologist were to uncover the homes of 21st century Catholics, they would be filled with ‘idols’ not dissimilar in form or function to those ancient Sumerian household gods.

    (Yes, I know that modern Catholicism differentiates the veneration of saints from ancient idol worship, but I think that the similarity is strong enough to warrant the comparison. Christian iconoclastic movements certainly think so.)

    I think that overall, more is being made here of the distinction between ancient and modern relationships with divinity. On the other hand, there is something to the notion that changes in culture can result in a sense of divinity leaving us. People often speak as if they feel ‘God’ has left them alone, referring to the fact that at one point they had a strong sense of a divine presence in every aspect of their lives and that at some point that sense faded away. This sense is in some contexts described as ‘faith’ and I can attest to what if feels like for that to disappear as you reassess your world view. It can be quite disconcerting depending on what your relationship with your sense of the divine was before.

    I think that the real differences between modern and ancient religion is that modern religion, starting in ancient times, has undergone a long process of rationalization and compartmentalization. That is, whereas ancient people didn’t really make a distinction between the reality of the storm and the reality of the storm gods, that is, between the natural and the supernatural, people have over time put religion into a smaller and smaller box and have endeavored to continuously refine their mental models of the natural world and the god’s roles in it.

  55. Antoine Borg says:

    “The mysterious Sea Peoples”

    Does anyone have more info about these guys? I’m collecting evidence about them right now. My working hypothesis is that they either (a) entrapped the population of the islands of Malta, or (b) took mercenaries from the islands of Malta, or (c) came from the islands of Malta.

    I keep finding fragments in historical texts and am trying to piece things together. Any info will help

    Thanks guys.

    • aj says:

      My understanding is that the only unambiguous reference to them in ancient texts comes from Egyptian descriptions of their invasion of Egypt. Other references to invaders at the same time exist but it’s hard to tell if they refer to the same people that invaded Egypt or different peoples who are being forced around by the general collapse.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      As AJ says, our main source is a stele of Ramesses, who writes (going off memory, not sure this is exactly right): “The foreign peoples made a conspiracy in their islands: the Ahkwesh, Sherdenesh, Shekelesh, Danyai, and Peleset.”

      Scholarship suspects Ahkwesh = Achaeans, Sherdenesh = Sardinians, Shekelesh = Sicilians, Danyai = Danaans, and Peleset = Philistines. The Philistines probably originated in Crete, so this would suggest at least Crete, Sicily, Sardinia, and Greece were involved. This would be really strange – Ramesses’ description sounds apt – a conspiracy of islands (Greece was considered kind of an island during this period) against all mainlanders. I don’t have a good explanation of how this would happen.

      But one thing I haven’t heard brought up is that we might kind of have a written confession from the Sea Peoples – the Epic Cycle (eg the myths of the Trojan War). These start with the Achaeans and Danaans saying “Let’s get a thousand ships together, call on our allies to join us, sail across the sea, and pillage the hell out of people we don’t like”. If the historical equivalent of Agamemnon was able to unite not just all of Greece (difficult enough!) but also add some Sardinians and Sicilians to the alliance (maybe early Greek colonies, idk?) this would be a pretty good match for the stele.

      The traditional date of the Trojan War is around 1200 BC. The traditional date of the Sea People invasion is also around 1200 BC. There are some apocryphal stories about various Iliad heroes going to Egypt. Odysseus ends up shipwrecked in Libya, which is kind of a weird thing to happen if you’re crossing the Aegean from Turkey to Greece. And would you really need a thousand ships (and all the warriors in Greece) to take one puny Anatolian town? I say Agamemnon got all the Greeks (and affiliated islanders) together to go pillage the entire rest of the world, and this merged with some other myth about Paris and Achilles and Hector and so on, and the expedition got retconned into just being about one city in Turkey.

      TLDR: The Sea Peoples were just really mad about Helen of Troy.

      [I am not a historian and this could all be garbage, idk]

      • John Schilling says:

        So, Agamemnon is the greatest villain in human history, for having destroyed basically all of human civilization? But, as an unintended consequence, he accidentally uplifted humanity to consciousness / having a theory of mind?

        My general prior for this sort of thing is, probably all garbage no matter how well it fits together. Same goes to Jaynes’ hypothesis in general, FWIW. But I love it when someone makes a good enough case for me to elevate it to “maybe not garbage”.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          It gives that old malapropism about how “civilization teeters on the brink of nuclear Agamemnon” a different ring, doesn’t it?

      • DarkTigger says:

        There was an German dude who told the storry exactly like this a few years ago.
        He was mostly debunked and than admitted that the thing he used as is source, was an forgery he fell for.

      • Simulated Knave says:

        Also explains what the besieging army did with its ten years – went raiding other places and burned them down for kicks while others watched the siege.

      • b_jonas says:

        This sounds like we’re reading different Homer’s epics.

        You say that in the Trojan war, the Sea Peoples, which are Agamemnōn’s allies, ransack the entire rest of the world, and spread the new theory of mind that the clever Odysseus has invented, in which people attribute all the voices they hear in their heads to a single mind of their own rather than to gods.

        The Odysseus I read is after the Trojan war. In it, Odysseus consults with the spirit of the dead oracle Teiresias in the underworld. This spirit orders him to now find the part of the world where people don’t know the sea and don’t build ships, which I assume is where the rest of the world other than Sea People live, and to sacrifice animals for the gods there.

      • fluorocarbon says:

        Two points about the Mycenaeans (Agamemnon et al.) being the Sea Peoples:

        1. The Mycenaeans collapsed at the same time as everyone else. If they were the Sea Peoples they would have needed to have conquered everything then immediately collapsed themselves or have collapsed and then conquered everyone.

        2. Stories of the heroes from the Epic Cycle visiting other places should be taken with at least a few grains of salt. The older and more famous (and less verifiable the biography of) a hero was, the more cities had stories about that hero visiting. You’ll find stories of Odysseus visiting pretty much everywhere in the Mediterranean. This isn’t exclusive to the ancient world either. Compare the claims from the High Middle Ages of Mary Magdalene having gone to France or the Mormon story of Jesus in America.

        • John Schilling says:

          If they were the Sea Peoples they would have needed to have conquered everything then immediately collapsed themselves or have collapsed and then conquered everyone.

          The Trojan war wasn’t really fought over the beauty of Helen. And one of the things that really does incentivize people to go out raiding and conquering, is the collapse of their domestic economy / agricultural base. Indeed, I think most scholarship on the Sea Peoples takes the view, “we’re not sure who they are, but probably some calamity left them starving at home and sent them out to start this whole chain reaction of civilizational collapse”

          Somewhere between reality and Homer, someone decided that lust and vengeance made for a better story than a Bronze Age barley blight.

          • MPG says:

            We would, of course, have to know that a Trojan War much like Homer’s was fought to begin with, and that Bronze Age warlords didn’t really care much for the honor a beautiful woman represents….

      • Eric Rall says:

        I say Agamemnon got all the Greeks (and affiliated islanders) together to go pillage the entire rest of the world, and this merged with some other myth about Paris and Achilles and Hector and so on, and the expedition got retconned into just being about one city in Turkey.

        Or maybe they had intended to just take Troy, but a bunch of them got lost on the way home.

        • Le Maistre Chat says:

          The Sea Peoples were a problem for Merneptah and then Ramesses III and some of the art they commissioned shows the Sea Peoples as armed refugees with wives and children. Very important to note here that when we talk about Ramesses II in this context, it’s only subduing “the unruly Sherden” in Year 2 of his 66-year reign: none of those other demonyms.
          There was very probably an element of agricultural desperation to the whole phenomenon even if it started as something else.
          The oral tradition is clear that the Achaeans/Danaans besieged Troy for ten years before winning, which is enough time for things to spiral out from “a conspiracy in the islands” to “emigrate or starve” if some big climate change happened during such a siege.

      • The original Mr. X says:

        Objection: stories tend to grow in the retelling, not shrink. If Agamemnon had really pillaged the entire rest of the world and brought about the collapse of Bronze-Age civilisation, it’s extremely unlikely that this would get retconned into just sacking one nearby city.

      • Antoine Borg says:

        Yes, Sicily was a Greek colony/settled by Greeks.

        Malta is only 90 miles south of Sicily so it would have been influenced/aware of this, if it wasn’t also colonised by the Greeks. There’s no evidence to suggest this but there are locations which are (according to verbal history) places where people like Ulysses ended up. There also are (remains of) some Greco-Roman temples but it’s more likely they came from the Roman Empire.

        The temple building civilisation on Malta mysteriously disappeared around 1200 BC. They didn’t do writing so we have no record of them other than the magnificent temples – aligned with the solstices and equinoxes, etc. Some of the temples there are older than the pyramids and I’m astonished they aren’t better known; clearly the Egyptians have better PR.

        I’m looking at/for a connection between these Sea Peoples and this lost civilisation

  56. Aftagley says:

    This guy thinks he “barely” had consciousness (in the Jaynesian sense), and it took him however many years to notice this about himself. It was just another universal human experience you can miss without realizing it! And notice how it was the culturally learned knowledge that other people worked differently which shifted him to the normal equilibrium. So maybe if there was some tribe like this somewhere, it would be easy to miss.

    This brings to mind this radiolab episode about someone who taught langauge to someone who was deaf-mute.

    The episode is framed around the idea that the individual needed to learn what language was… but listening to it again after reading this article; it does kinda track along the idea that he didn’t really have a theory of mind before being exposed to it. Basic googling reveals that this might not be a terrible uncommon thing for people born deaf mute, but it happens less frequently now since we’re better at early intervention.

  57. MVDZ says:

    I can highly recommend reading the Africa trilogy of Chinua Achebe for its incredible literary merit, but Things Fall Apart is especially interesting in relation to this post.
    All three books deal with the lives of people of the Igbo societies of southern Nigeria, each book being set during a different period of British colonization.
    TFA deals with the late 19th century. The Brits have been around for a while, but they are largely distant. In some villages they have built a church, and in the group of villages called Umuofia there is one where a local representative of the colonial government lives and tries to force colonial law on the Umuofians. It’s set up as a traditional tragedy about the main character, Okwonko.

    One of the things I found most interesting is how Achebe describes the spiritual life of the Umuofians. They have a very sophisticated society, with markets, trade, a meritocratic system of government where accomplished men buy titles of power and prestige, and a democratic system of decision making akin to ancient Athens. The spirituality is interwoven with ALL of this. You can’t harvest until a priest of a certain god has divined when the harvest feast should take place. When an oracle pronounces some solution to a problem, no matter how unpalatable (by their standards as well as ours), you carry it out or the gods will be angry. Everybody carries a personal spirit called a chi Snakes are animals, but the python is the Royal Python and should be treated with reverence.
    Interestingly, there seems to be a a kind of wilful dichotomy in the understanding of spirits and oracles. On the one hand, everybody understands that when people dress up in huge costumes for dances where they represent spirits called egwuwu, the costumes are animated by normal people. It’s considered rude to point this out, and to try and rip off a costume would be a terrible offense, not to mention cursing you in the process. It’s even pointed out in the second book that one of the main characters is sought after to don a costume as a funeral spirit, because he’s just really good in saying all the right phrases one after another. On the other hand, the egwuwu hold real power, and the people saying strange or wise things are doing so because they channel that particular spirit.
    Same goes for oracles: there are better and worse ones, and they often have day jobs as well to make ends meet, but when they are in a sacred cave and divining your future, you better listen or you’re going to be fucked. None of this was ever negotiable.
    Until, that is, the Brits bring Christianity. It’s not portrayed as a negative force per se, because it’s often kinder than the ancient traditions and rituals (for instance, a deformed baby would have to be ritually murdered and thrown in the woods to make sure the spirits don’t visit this misfortune again, since they don’t like being cut up and left to rot). On the other hand, it is a hugely disruptive thing, combined with the colonial administration and their force of arms. It creates rifts in society: how do we deal with it, should be outlaw it, should we outlaw the converts etc. It seems that all of this is completely congruent with having a theory of mind, however. Sure, the spirits can make someone do things, or a curse can. But people also have emotions, they can reflect, take advice from friends etc.
    Is this mutually exclusive with Jaynes’ theory? No, they could be somewhere on the halfway point. But it seems to me that the idea that there would be a sudden break where everyone is disoriented, as per the Aboriginal example above, is a bit of a stretch. The older people have a hard time adjusting, the younger people just think it’s all normal, and the people in between kind of try to make sense of it all.

    • DarkTigger says:

      I have two quibbles with that:
      1) In the late 19th century West Africa has had contact with North Africa for centuries, if not millenia.
      If the ToM is aquired, and it is advantage, it would have spread there by than.
      2) Chinua Achebe was only born in 1930 so if contact to outsiders leads to development of a ToM in societies, he would have had one, and probably would not be aware that there ever were people that did not. Most likely it would have been beyond living knowledge for him.

      • MVDZ says:

        1) Sure, but ‘West-Africa’ is a big place. The unit of organisation as described in the books went from household, to village, to grouping of villages. They seemed to stay slightly below ten villages, with perhaps several hundred people per village. People would regularly go to the group of villages next door, often for trade, sometimes war. But beyond that mostly counted as ‘far’, with some fixed locations like the British colonial capital. It’s well-known that the world is huge and full of different people, who all have their own customs and gods, but there is barely any specific knowledge. It seems society was narrow and deep, rather than shallow and wide.
        2) True, but I suspect he got a lot of knowledge from his grandparents and other elders who told him exactly how things went and how they changed. The second book takes place in the 1920s and deals with the tension of people upholding the old customs and beliefs, and Christianity. So there were definitely people around in his childhood who believed in spirits and such.

        What I want to stress here is not that people did not have a theory of mind. They clearly do. What strikes me about the society as portrayed in the book is that they seem to both have ToM and strongly believe in the power of gods, spirits and oracles. People often ascribe people’s actions to character (arrogance, pride etc. play a huge role) but also as much to a personal spirit or some external force exercising their power, both through language and events.
        This makes it seem ToM and a rich, real spiritual life including literal voices of the spirits are not mutually exclusive.

  58. FLWAB says:

    So the Bronze age civilizations could hear their gods clearly until sometime between 1200-1000 BC? And then the gods slowly abandoned them and they became obsessed with demons? Nobody can hear the gods anymore?

    By an interesting coincidence 1250 BC is roughly around when ancient Isrealites settled in Canaan, and by 1000 BC there was an established Kingdom, followed by the construction of the temple within the next hundred years.

    An alternative explanation makes itself evident: their gods were demons, and Jehovah chased them away.

    This also clearly explains why Roman oracles stopped working so well as Christianity spread, and by the time of Julian the Apostate finally ceased working altogether.

  59. S_J says:

    I’m also thinking of some cross-cultural psychiatry classes I had to take in residency. …This seems similar to Jaynes’ argument that the ancient Greeks talked about feelings in their stomachs when we would talk about thoughts in our minds. I’m not saying these people aren’t conscious or have no theory of mind. But it seems like their theory of mind must be…arranged…differently than ours is, somehow. Or that cultural expectations about how these issues express themselves are shaping the way these issues express themselves, powerfully enough that you can just have whole cultures where depression the way we experience it isn’t a thing. See also this list of culture-bound syndromes. Make sure to read the discussion of Western culture-bound syndromes on the bottom – and make sure to spend a few moments considering what a politically-incorrect person might add to the list.

    That page gives the example of anorexia nervosa as a culture-bound syndrome in the Western world.

    I suspect it would be possible to argue that body dysmorphia disorder is also a culture-bound syndrome. The problem underneath that disorder might present in different ways in another culture. If gender-dysmorphia is a subset of body dysmorphia, that might be a culture-bound syndrome as well.

    • Anthony says:

      I looked at the list, and thought that “running amok” seems to occur in the U.S., though the expression of the disorder in the US is usually nicknamed “going postal” or “suicide by cop”.

      When did Americans stop having “nervous breakdowns”? “Peanuts” refers to it as recently as 1978, and there’s a post on Psychology Today from 2013 titled Bring Back the Nervous Breakdown! Or are American “nervous breakdowns” not the same as Latin-american or Filipino ones?

      Is demonic possession culture-bound?

      • The original Mr. X says:

        “Nervous breakdown” is still a term used in the UK, so I’m surprised to hear that it’s apparently fallen out of use in the US.

  60. ec429 says:

    I’m generally pretty leery of attempts to infer someone else’s theory-of-mind, on account of Baron-Cohen’s attempt to explain autism as “lack of ToM”. (AFAICT, the Sally-Anne test measures “does your ToM make the correct prediction in this scenario”, not “how developed is your ToM” or “do you have a ToM at all”. Perhaps a more common autistic ToM is “other people’s minds are fundamentally unpredictable”; the autistic child has little confidence in the reasoning that seems to show Sally won’t know where the marble is, because in the past reasoning has failed to accurately predict what other minds will know (cf. autistics are rubbish liars).)

    However, let’s see how it connects:

    Children don’t have theory of mind, at least not very much of it, and more than half of them have imaginary friends.

    Autistic children are less likely to have imaginary friends, and tend to develop them later, though do pay attention to the limitations mentioned in the Discussion section (especially the problem of parental report). Nonetheless, this is the opposite of what the combination of Scott/Jaynes’ “children without ToM have imaginary friends” and Baron-Cohen’s “autistic children don’t have ToM” hypotheses predicts.

    Which I think reinforces my point that going around telling stories about other people’s theories of mind tends to put you on shaky ground.

    And yet I’m still inclined to believe that Bronze Age people interpreted their internal monologue as gods talking to them. Because that seems to explain the historical evidence just fine without needing theoretical elaborations about “consciousness” or “theory of mind”; it’s all just loss of the ‘self’ tag on one’s own thoughts. Which you can call “theory of mind” if you want, but that’s needlessly confusing because it’s usually taken to include “theory of other minds” (Sally-Anne again), which is a whole other ball game.

  61. HomarusSimpson says:

    Make sure to read the discussion of Western culture-bound syndromes on the bottom – and make sure to spend a few moments considering what a politically-incorrect person might add to the list.

    Which discussion specifically? Very keen to get politically incorrect

    • Ninety-Three says:

      I took a minute and couldn’t think of anything a politically-incorrect person might add. I’m sure there are some I’d agree with, but none are obvious to me. S_J above mentions gender dysphoria, but I think there’s reasonable evidence that something kind of like it exists in a lot of disparate cultures (evidence I find more convincing for the fact that its advocates are usually trying to argue that e.g. two-spirit is a totally different thing than being trans).

      • slovakmum says:

        I think trauma in adulthood related to some mild forms of sexual molestation of children would not exist without cultural influence. Then there is a depression after abortion, which I imagine might be less prevalent in China, where abortion was not generally perceived as a sin. I would not expect the post abortion syndrome in China to be zero, (hormones play a role too) but less frequent. (The forced abortions are a different matter).

    • MNH says:

      While I’m sure this won’t satisfy you, I’ve seen a solid case that whiplash is culturally bound

  62. Eli_Tyre says:

    My god has forsaken me and disappeared
    My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance
    The good angel who walked beside me has departed.


    One who has no god, as he walks along the street
    Headache envelops him like a garment

    Um, if the gods have departed, who’s saying this?

    The Iliad famously begins with “sing Goddess, through me.” And this story seems to posit (unless I’m missing something) that all verbal thought is attributed to the gods, instead of to one’s inner monologue.

    Or did people also say words, to each other, and I guess write write texts, that were not of the gods? How did people think about those words that were not of the gods, if they didn’t have theory of mind?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think those quotes are supposed to be from after the development of subjective consciousness.

    • keaswaran says:

      Uh, I was going to comment about the opening line of the Iliad, which is “Of wrath, sing, o goddess”. (Or is μῆνιν sometimes interpreted as “through me” rather than “of wrath”?) In any case, I don’t know of some bodily sensation that “μῆνιν” is often interpreted as.

  63. FLWAB says:

    I’ve experienced this. But I am more skeptical (or perhaps just more precise in my language) than others. I think I have heard God speaking to me. But I also wonder if it was really God, or just myself. And then I began to wonder what the difference really is: after all, I am made in the image of God. Perhaps the God in me is talking, whatever that might mean.

    But I would never ask for the cube root of 456,765,213. I probably wouldn’t get an answer and I wouldn’t expect one. God isn’t a magic box you stick queries in and get answers out of. The few times I believe God has talked to me have all been important, and most have been unexpected. Usually I didn’t even ask a question. I regularly ask Him for guidance and get no reply. Sadly that is the result I would expect in either case: if God really was talking to me, or if I was just talking to myself. Who ever said God had to answer every question?

    But for your sake I’ll ask….Nope, no reply. Though why should He? If He had given me the right answer it would not have convinced you since I could have just looked it up. And I do not need to be convinced.

  64. John Schilling says:

    I mean asking something that’s well known but that you, the asker, don’t happen to know, like the capital of Mali or the cube root of 456,765,213.

    The Gods are just going to babble on about universal love and transcendent joy.

  65. broblawsky says:

    There’s a lot of stuff about idolatry in the Old Testament, but one of the interesting things about the way it’s presented is how skeptical the Torah is about the practice. The gods they represent are almost never presented as being other, lesser gods or demons, but rather as simply being nonexistent. For example:

    Isaiah 45:20 – “Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save.”

    Jonah 2:8 – “Those who cling to worthless idols turn away from God’s love for them.”

    1 Kings 18:25-27 – “And Elijah said unto the prophets of Baal, “Choose you one bullock for yourselves and dress it first, for ye are many; and call on the name of your gods, but put no fire under it.” And they took the bullock which was given them, and they dressed it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even until noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!” But there was no voice, nor any that answered. And they leaped upon the altar which was made. And it came to pass at noon that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god! Either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he sleepeth and must be awakened.””

    Under Jaynes’ theory, the Hebrew faith (and similar religions like Zoroastrianism and Buddhism) might represent the first religion built around a more modern understanding of theory of mind. That might explain why it’s not just hostile to, but actively dismissive of idolatry – it was created for humans who no longer need idols to exalt their state of mind.

    • FLWAB says:

      More evidence for my theory that Jehovah scattered the gods of the bronze age Middle East!

      See also Isaiah 44 for another excellent example:

      Half of the wood he burns in the fire;
      over it he prepares his meal,
      he roasts his meat and eats his fill.
      He also warms himself and says,
      “Ah! I am warm; I see the fire.”
      From the rest he makes a god, his idol;
      he bows down to it and worships.
      He prays to it and says,
      “Save me! You are my god!”
      They know nothing, they understand nothing;
      their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see,
      and their minds closed so they cannot understand.
      No one stops to think,
      no one has the knowledge or understanding to say,
      “Half of it I used for fuel;
      I even baked bread over its coals,
      I roasted meat and I ate.
      Shall I make a detestable thing from what is left?
      Shall I bow down to a block of wood?”
      Such a person feeds on ashes; a deluded heart misleads him;
      he cannot save himself, or say,
      “Is not this thing in my right hand a lie?”

    • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

      Fun fact: The Hebrew word for “Theory” is “Torah” even today.

      Though there’s no shortage of examples in the Hebrew Bible where other deities can be read as real competitors and God being angry with Israel for choosing other gods over him rather believing in non-existent ones.

      But yeah early monotheism under an abstract quasi-personified God as a leap of consciousness rather than just a leap in political and social organization plays really well with Jaynes’ theory.

      It’s not obvious that it is the first such religion though unless we take biblical chronology at its word as by the time it was put to writing it was already under the influence of ideas from early Greek philosophy to Zoroastrianism.

      • Le Maistre Chat says:

        It’s not obvious that it is the first such religion though unless we take biblical chronology at its word as by the time it was put to writing it was already under the influence of ideas from early Greek philosophy to Zoroastrianism.

        Dating Zoroaster is a mine field; he could have been older than Moses even under the literal Biblical chronology.
        In a stunning reversal of the trend to date one’s religion to the deepest mists of antiquity, Zoroastrians traditionally claimed their prophet had only 258 years before Alexander the Great’s conquest… received his divine revelation or died, I forget the exact meaning of their calendar epoch.
        Modern – i.e. Western academic – dating puts him somewhere in the range 1700-1000 BC, just based on the language of the verses he left behind (the Gathas) being nearly the same language as the Rig Vedic chronolect of Sanskrit. Pre-Christian Greeks typically believed he existed 6,000 years before the Persian Empire.

        • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

          Dating Zoroaster is a mine field; he could have been older than Moses even under the literal Biblical chronology.

          Weirder slashfics have been written.


      • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

        Not really, you would be talking about “a torah of- ” vs “The Torah” although “theory” is also used.

    • Fred Dillon says:

      Under Jaynes’ theory, the Hebrew faith (and similar religions like Zoroastrianism and Buddhism)

      Buddhism is actually a really interesting case study. Gods or devas are basically taken for granted in the Buddist sutras with at least some fitting the Jaynesian conception pretty well. Mara is a demonic celestial king who tempts the Buddha on his night of awakening. Mara is also used to describe the very real, non-mythical psychological states of lust, anger, greed and doubt within all of us. Apparently, the conflation of these two distinct meanings of Mara (a literal demon king and internal psychological states) is not a recent invention and was present even in early Buddhism.

      I’m not an expert by any means but I believe you can find similar conflations throughout ancient Indian writings. I would love to know more about this.

  66. Simulated Knave says:

    Conveniently (and I say this as a Christian), God has commanded that you not put him to the test.

  67. greghb says:

    I vaguely recall a story about a European making first contact with a group in the Amazon, where at one point during the visit the locals say they can’t go down to the local river beach, because an angel is standing right on the path to the beach, blocking their way. The visiting westerner can’t see the angel, but asks several locals, and they all just sort of point, like, yeah, what’s wrong with you, he’s right there. We’ll have to wait until he leaves.

    I tried googling but couldn’t find it easily. Does anyone recall this story?

    Not that run-of-the-mill misunderstanding wouldn’t explain it just fine, but the Jaynesian analysis of a hallucinated god also seems to fit.

  68. Grantford says:

    There is evidence that some non-human animals might possess theory of mind, though apparently the question is still considered an open one. If other animals do have theory of mind, it seems less likely that humans only developed ToM as recently as a few thousand years ago.

  69. Alkatyn says:

    Related to the reddit post about the guy saying he wasn’t “conscious”, Helen Keller seems to have given a similar explanation of how it was for her before she learned language.

    So, in Jaynes’ model maybe she picked up theory of mind as a result of learning language. Or alternatively language is more fundamental to consciousness than previously believed. Or, possibly something about learning language changed the way her memories operated, so she was equally conscious before but remembering it differently. Maybe language gives some kind of coherent “narrative” to everything.

    • maintain says:

      Well TIL Hellen Keller was a p zombie.

      • John Schilling says:

        TIL that p-zombies can be cured. That’s a huge improvement over the more traditional sort of zombie. And perhaps a really important thing to know, if we’re going to wind up accidentally making AI p-zombies or the like.

      • John Richards says:

        A p-zombie is different, as I understand it, from someone simply operating on instinct. Helen Keller could still be a p-zombie, in the sense that she could have written or described the feelings of becoming conscious and aware of her own existence, her own mind, while not actually having that consciousness. In other words, she could be lying: she could just be saying the words “I have consciousness” in an automaton like way.
        The idea of a p-zombie is really very disturbing because if you take it seriously, it builds mistrust and skepticism of our fellow humans in a way that I find troublesome. But then, I am a p-zombie, so of course I would say that.

        • Bugmaster says:

          The idea of a p-zombie is really very disturbing because if you take it seriously, it builds mistrust and skepticism of our fellow humans

          Really ? It does the opposite for me (*). Sure, I know for a fact that I have consciousness, but I’m the only one who knows this. Other humans have to conclude whether I have it or not based on my behaviour; and I have to treat other humans the same way, out of necessity. Thus, the concept of “consciousness” as something deep and meaningful above and beyound “a system that causes the agent to behave a certain way” is really a philosophical red herring. Knowing this, I am empowered to treat anyone and anything that acts like it’s “conscious”, as though it was in fact “conscious”, without worrying whether or not they possess this mysterious ineffable quality that doesn’t actually do anything.

          Thus, I am now free to interact on equal footing not only with ordinary humans, but also with cyborgs (some humans have chips in their heads, even today), uploaded minds, robots, aliens, and whatever else may come my way. It gives me a lot more freedom, at leas hypothetically (given that most of those things probably don’t and/or can’t exist). Still, freedom is nice !

          (*) Though, admittedly, I’m fairly mistrustful and skeptical of my fellow humans, for less esoteric reasons.

  70. jeremylneufeld says:

    Kevin Simler also has a worthwhile four-part review of Jaynes here.

  71. It seems like Jaynes’s thesis fits in pretty well with what the Unmitigated Pedantry blog covers here about Greek and Roman polytheism. Although not fully “bicameral” by the time of these accounts, there’s clearly a lingering trace of an assumption that gods constantly and visibly interfere in the material world (which people would believe if they had an earlier tradition of perceiving routine contact with gods and other spirits and daemons and genii and whatnot). These elaborate rituals would clearly not be spelled out with such legalistic precision if there were a *wink* *wink* cynical shared understanding that it was all BS. (Of course, there might be exceptional individuals at the time who thought so, but they would have needed to keep their opinions on the down-low, lest everyone else think that they are offending the gods and bringing ruin upon the community).

    • MPG says:

      But all kinds of people, all over the world, still believe that gods or lesser spiritual powers, which are often not much different from Greco-Roman gods, do “constantly and visible interfere in the material world.” It’s not an especially ancient thing. The difference is just that it is no longer part of the generally accepted science. When theology was one of the generally accepted sciences (in fact, their queen), it was.

      To put it bluntly: do you think a genius of introspection like Augustine of Hippo–and whatever else he was, for good or ill, he was that–had not fully united the halves of his brain? The man believed demons could bring plagues, and that God most certainly worked wonders by his power and especially through the saints. Ditto for Martin Luther. (Well, not so much on the “saints” part. But he did believe that both God and the devil really did things.)

      I think this is just another way of saying that Jaynes is trying to describe something real–that people do experience gods–only with the shakiest of methodologies.

      • Maybe both Julian Jaynes and I are suffering from a bit too much inferential distance. I just can’t imagine believing in gods that are purported to visibly and materially interfere in the world in the here and now. The Christian god that judges people in the afterlife…well, I don’t see a reason to believe it, but I can see how others might. But gods whose purported actions in the real world contradict everything I see in the world? Wild.

        • DM says:

          I can’t vouch for how accurate it is (the book is well-regarded though), but the stuff on the “enchanted” Medieval world view at the beginning of Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age conveys a vivid picture of a world that people saw as filled with supernatural actors (not just God and Satan, but angels, demons, saints, fairies etc.) even on an everyday level.

  72. noyann says:

    And these people also seem to be able to strategically deceive others, another key consciousness innovation Jaynes says Bronze Agers lacked.

    Why would the ability to deceive get lost between our chimpanzee-like ancestors and the bronze agers? It would increase reproductive fitness, or would it?

    • There is an incident in Chimpanzee Politics which certainly sounds like a theory of mind.

      The chimps like grapefruit. While they are caged, some people go by carrying grapefruit, which they then bury in the area where the chimps are going to be free to go. The chimps, released from the cage, go out and search for the grapefruit, apparently without success. They go to sleep. One low status male gets up, goes to where a grapefruit is buried, digs it up and eats it. The obvious interpretation is that he knew if he found it when the others were awake one of the others would take it.

  73. broblawsky says:

    Also, I can’t believe that Bronze Age people lacked the ability to deceive others, when the Code of Hammurabi explicitly lists fraud as a crime. This hypothesis seems beyond the pale.

    • castilho says:

      I looked this up a bit and Jaynes’ claim (which does not seem very convincing to me) is that the relevant tablets are mistranslated, based on theory-of-mind-based assumptions.

      At times, Jaynes’ arguments seem circular. He often states that stuff that would imply a theory of mind cannot truly imply a theory of mind and only seems such because we have translated them assuming a theory of mind was at play. But to assume we have mistranslated, he has to assume that the people who wrote it had no theory of mind.

    • castilho says:

      However, I believe fraud can still occur without a theory of mind being at play. You’d just need your “god” to tell you to say one thing while doing another, wouldn’t you? Perhaps you might have the figurative “good angel” and “bad angel” telling you to do things and need to discern which one to follow.

      • bullseye says:

        Wouldn’t the “god” still need a theory of mind?

        • castilho says:

          In some more complex cases which involve having a conception of what another person believes, yes. But not having a theory of mind, i.e. assuming that other people are just entities which react to what you do with no reference to them having some sort of inner state, does not preclude observations such as “I will be jailed if I take this bread without paying for it”. It just precludes assuming anything about the mind-state of the merchant who sells the bread or the town guards who jail you.

  74. Thomas says:

    I developed a second personality in my early 20s, when I moved to a foreign country and had to learn the language. My Spanish personality was much more aggressive, confident and outgoing than my native English. It was enough different that I noticed that I acted differently depending on which language I was speaking. When I moved to Japan and learned that language, I used my Spanish personality.

    Now, 30 years later it has mostly integrated and I am pretty much the same person in all three languages, and a lot more like my Spanish personality than my original shy, introverted English.

    • C_B says:

      What features of this experience lead you to label it as a “second personality,” rather than the more prosaic experience I (and many others) have had, where I moved away for college, saw a new social circle as an opportunity to reinvent myself, and became much more confident and outgoing than I had been in high school?

      • Thomas says:

        It was a sharp divide that I noticed. Not a gradual learning process or maturation. Since then I did mature and became more outgoing generally, but at the time I felt that I had two distinct personalities.

    • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

      With language switching I wonder whether the switch is related to you being more direct in the language where following the complicated norms requires more effort.

      For myself I also feel that some words carry a stronger meaning or maybe stronger connotations if I know the language better. But I am closer to overconfident even in my native language so I cannot say if it could lead to the effects you describe.

  75. Ttar says:


    “A new research study contradicts the established view that so-called split-brain patients have a split consciousness. … researchers … found strong evidence showing that despite … no communication between the right and left brain hemispheres, split brain does not cause two independent conscious perceivers in one brain.”

    This strikes me as a tautological contradiction. How could cases where there is no communication between brain hemispheres not result in the two hemispheres being functionally rendered as independent observers, in a physical/literal sense? Maybe because they experience near identical experiences and are typically linked during formative years, they are nearly indistinguishably different, and maybe there is no such case where truly there is absolutely zero communication between hemispheres and the subject survives. But it seems to be a contradiction in terms to say that two completely non-communicative hemispheres, which otherwise functioned, wouldn’t represent two independent conscious perceivers.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Clearly the two completely seperate hemispheres are tapping into the same soul.

    • xsplat says:

      If the right and left hands are truly separately controlled, there can be communication by holding hands and doing Morse code.

      There was a guy with no corpus collosum who was an idiot savant, and could read both pages of a book at the same time. He had many other connections between his hemispheres.

      Those who undergo the splitting surgery have an adjustment period, in which they learn to integrate.

      These 3 ideas could lead us to imagine that new routes between hemispheres and between longer distance links in the body link the two hemispheres, such that there is enough co-ordination.

      I don’t think this answers the question of how many consciousnesses a brain has. One? Two? Thousands?

  76. gnunther says:

    Regarding thinking in language there’s an experience I’ve had that makes me curious if other people have had it too. It mostly happened when I was an adolescent, I think, and I can’t accurately say how much or how little I was generally thinking in words at that time. I do know that today I still can’t read things in specific peoples’ voices or have very strong mental images. The experience was this: sometimes, when I was alone and kinda tired, I found myself very conscious of myself thinking in words and finding the process to be very unpleasant, because it felt painfully slow. It felt like each whole sentence already existed somewhere but there was a compulsion to internally sound it out before being able to move on to something else. I don’t think the experience ever lasted long though.

    Has anyone had experiences similar to this?

    • Alkatyn says:

      I’ve never found it unpleasant, but I’ve felt myself “translating” thoughts into language in my head, and noticing how slow it is

    • xsplat says:

      Learning how to speed read is the opposite. After already having long been habituated to internally vocalizing, you learn to read chunks of text at a time. I was only able to chunk up two lines, on left and right sight of collumn. I learned that trick over a summer in summer camp, then later gave it up.

      I just read nice and slow nowadays.

      But reading large chunks of text at once without vocalizing is a real thing, that SOME (but not all) people can learn. Some much better than others.

      • Gon says:

        I also wondered about the connection between reading and inner monologue. In my teens I read without verbalising but it seems like I have lost that skill now; or maybe I don’t read enough in my native language anymore. I also lack an inner monologue but I have no recollection of whether this has always been the case. Maybe extensive reading (>10 hrs a day) makes you lose it?

  77. ana53294 says:

    I find it interesting that people would listen and do what the voice in their mind says. I usually try to make an effort to listen to what I and many other people call the “gut”.

    So, for example, when looking for a new apartment, if I find several that are close in rent, are suitably located and have slightly different pros and cons I make a list of, I make a list, see which one seems the best, and check if my gut agrees. Am I happy with this decision? If I change the logic a bit, weight the factors differently, making a different apartment stack the best, does this make me happier?

    I’ve frequently done that, and I find that these unconscious decisions are more likely to keep me content with the choice I made, whereas I’m more likely to regret decisions that I argued myself into consciously.

    I think of cards or coin flipping the same. If I have two things I have to choose between, and at first they seem co-equal, and then I assign them to a coin’s side, and I toss, and I’m unhappy – that means I actually value the other choice more highly. And if I’m happy, then I go with that decision.

  78. h547 says:

    That’s a fascinating theory. Not sure if I missed something though: does Jayne assume that pre-Bronze Age people did not have an inner voice at all, and it was replaced by gods/angels? Or that their inner voice was only one half of a dialogue with an alternate persona? Having your own inner voice is such a tremendous advantage when thinking complex thoughts that I fail to see how you’d do any intellectual work without it.

    Relevant personal anecdotes:
    – I consciously developed alternative personas as an adult to cultivate qualities I desired. Yet these personas have helped me realize things I wouldn’t have noticed without them and forced me to take actions I wouldn’t have taken. It takes a few months before a persona gets that level of autonomy though.
    – When I developed depression, I was completely convinced it was a somatic problem, so much so that my first action was to get blood tests – I was just feeling my stomach all the time. It took weeks to think it could be psychosomatic, not just a stomach issue that was incidentally making me tired all the time. Yet I’m as Western as you get.

    • Beans says:

      Having your own inner voice is such a tremendous advantage when thinking complex thoughts that I fail to see how you’d do any intellectual work without it.

      I have often had the experience of a pretty complex thought (generally an idea about some problem I’ve been thinking about lately) suddenly popping into my head all at once totally formed, despite there being no inner monologue preceding the thought’s arising at that time. The thought in such cases is generally not very verbal: I can just “see” the shape of the structure without bothering to assign phonological content to it. This suggests to me that the brain can do quite a lot of intellectual work without obviously verbalizing anything at all. In these cases I have been verbalizing about whatever the problem is at some prior time, though, so maybe that’s part of what gets the pieces organized enough for unconscious processing to later make something of them and present it to me.

      • h547 says:

        You’re right, I do have that experience too – medium- complexity thoughts without words. My wording was poor. What I meant was that without putting the thought into words, it 1. only stays as long as it’s at the forefront of my mind, 2. can’t be chained with other thoughts to make a high-complexity reasoning (at least not long and not with great mental effort).

        If you’ve had the experience of high-complexity reasoning with no words at all, I’d be interested in knowing it. It would let me update what I took as obvious.

        • demost says:

          If you’ve had the experience of high-complexity reasoning with no words at all, I’d be interested in knowing it. It would let me update what I took as obvious.

          I am a mathematical researcher, and I don’t use verbal reasoning for my research. At least not for the creative part. Of course, I do verbalise them (or express them in mathematical formalism) when I write up the results or explain them to others. But it takes considerable time and effort to put a mathematical insight or a new idea into words, and I don’t always suceed spontaneously.

          I think that I also don’t use verbal reasoning for most other parts of my daily life. Sometimes I use mental dialogues with other people, for example when I am preparing for a lecture. But that feels rather like an exception to me. Even when I write an email, then I first develop the non-verbal concept of what to write, and only afterwards translate it into words.

          • h547 says:

            Fascinating, thank you. Looks like my reliance of verbalisation for concepts to “stick” longterm is not as widespread as I imagined.

          • But it takes considerable time and effort to put a mathematical insight or a new idea into words

            One of the reasons to set up an economic argument as math is to check that the non-verbal reasoning in my head didn’t make a mistake.

    • MugaSofer says:

      Having your own inner voice is such a tremendous advantage when thinking complex thoughts that I fail to see how you’d do any intellectual work without it.

      I would be very surprised to learn that 100% of the many, many people who don’t experience an inner monolog – some posting in this very thread – don’t do intellectual work for a living.

      • h547 says:

        Note that by “inner voice”, I mean the ability to hear a voice in your head, aka to use words in order to process thoughts. Not necessarily a continuous inner voice commenting on everything around you. Not sure if what I call “inner voice” is what is tacitly considered an inner voice by most commenters here.

  79. StevieT says:

    I’ve always had a virtually continuous internal dialog. Many of my best ideas come out of an ongoing conversation that I have with myself. I have never had a strong visual imagination, my mental processes have always been based in sound and language. When it comes to visualization exercises I always struggle — I can imagine sounds without difficulty, but images, not really.

    I’ve always found it really helpful to have the other guy in my head to bounce stuff off.

  80. fishchisel says:

    I was very interested by that Reddit post. The post seems to suggest that it is normal to think in terms of a stream of words and language – like the internal monologue of a Film Noir detective. Is the claim that this is normal?

    My own thoughts do not work in this way – in the usual course of things I do not think using an internal monologue. Usually my thoughts are without language. When I do think in language, it is in terms of an imagined dialogue with another person – as if I am explaining my actions or thoughts to them. I often use an imagined 19th century academic for this purpose.

    I have not considered before whether this is normal or not. I suspect sometimes that I do not experience emotions as strongly as other people, particularly when outside of conversation, and that I lack empathy. But this is something that is hard to self-diagnose.

    I am interested as to others impression of their own internal thought process in this regard.

    • bullseye says:

      My internal monologue differs from a movie in that it usually has nothing at all to do with what I’m doing or what’s happening to me.

    • demost says:

      @fishchisel: Your post feels like a perfect description of my thought processes, too. I find it interesting that I also seem to feel less empathy than others, but I agree that this is hard to diagnose.

      There is another difference to others that I have noticed: I am really bad at recalling specific details from my memory. For example, for many of my co-workers I couldn’t tell their hair color. Even if I have worked with them for years. This doesn’t just mean that my memory is bad in general. I don’t forget things (not more than other people, as far as I can tell), it’s more like information about the hair color never entered my brain. I have talked to a few people about this, and the effect seems to be unusual.

      I wonder whether there is a connection. Verbal thoughts might be easier to remember than the “conceptual” thinking that we seem to use. In my mind, these non-verbal concepts seem blurrier and less easy to store in episodic memory than a word or sentence.

      Do you have a similar impression about your memory?

  81. cthulhubert says:

    First time commenter because I was so surprised to see something so echoing my own apparently odd experience. Unfortunately, for me it happened around age 10, so I can’t remember the details well to really think about them (of course, it’s also that the intrinsic nature of the affliction makes “before” and “after” very different). However, I had not previously described the difference as using words or not using words, rather, I’ve tentatively settled on “Around this age I finally developed the notion of a consistent ‘self’ that I am, as a thing persistent in time the same way the people around me were; I could and would make plans about things that were not immediate.”

    However, it’s also easy to imagine that another difference was the internal use of words to capture thoughts. “Capture” seems especially useful here, since some of the difference was definitely remembering internal states, as opposed to external actions. Even today, I actually have more of a sense of separation between words and concepts than I think is typical (but again, this might be because I have spent around 15 years actively practicing rationality, and one of the foundations of my practice of it is truly internalizing that words are just tools for communication, rather than being directly part of the concepts they could communicate).

    I’ve also hypothesized that this might just be a universal part of growing up, but people remember the same or very similar experiences differently than I do.

    Anyways, excellent review Scott. I especially like the explication of theory of mind, very useful pattern.

    Some of that bits near the end about cross-cultural psychiatry remind me a lot of How Emotions Are Made by Dr Lisa Feldman Barrett, which seems a lot like a book you would review.

  82. ovid75 says:

    Perhaps the internal monolog / voice is just the internalization of the prevailing external institutions and media. The modern person’s monolog is probably a combination of grade school teachers’ voices, childrens’ TV shows (Mr Rogers) and so forth. Modern people are much more ‘disciplined’ than people in 10,000 BC so an internalized ‘voice’ ‘monitors’ us in our regimented and complex daily activities (again, think the range of problems addressed even by Mr Rogers or Sesame Street). No such internalized disciplining voice would have been necessary for hunter gatherers, except at key places and points of crisis where voices shaped by ritual would speak from environmental features like water sources and so forth to give advice, and for Bronze age man it would have been the idols and public Gods.

    The ‘presentist’ illusion is that our modern internalized monolog is somehow ‘natural’ and not the product of internalized social media (in the broadest sense).

    • This. My wife and I notice that we react to so many situations (especially comedic ones) by recalling memes, as if we can hear the memes in our heads. And we are comfortable enough being silly around each other that a lot of the time we will blurt out our imitations of the memes. Like, if we see some weird SWPL (stuff white people like) phenomena on the Internet, we’ll blurt out, “Alright, white people…”* referencing this Key & Peele skit. How is that unlike Dionysus reminding you of a funny joke or conveying a jocular way of responding to some similar situation in Ancient Greece? “Alright, Persian wierdos…”

      Except my wife and I don’t mistake our recollections of the meme for Key & Peele’s character actually speaking to us in the moment…because we have a different theory of mind and realize that the reminiscence is in our brain and not coming from an external source.

      *Disclaimer: my wife and I are both white.

  83. mson says:

    Seeing comments talking about how they remember gaining a voice at a young age and that being a turning point. I don’t remember any turning point, but for years I’ve been able to remember that, in late middle school and high school, I had 3 voices in my head (one felt more like “me” than the other two), and at some point since then I’ve changed to have mostly just one. Sometimes another voice chimes it but it also feels like me. Maybe related – though I’ve never thought so till now – is I feel like I used to think a lot, but now feel like I don’t think very much. Maybe that feeling of “thinking a lot” had to do with having more internal dialogue than I do now. Overall I feel like I went from more wordy processing to less wordy processing somewhere between teenager and adult.

  84. onyomi says:

    Would be interested to hear your thoughts on McGilchrist’s “Master and his Emissary.” If you haven’t read it it makes similarly bold claims about hemispheric bias pervading certain times and places such that e.g. we can say things like “the ancient Greeks were melancholic and schizophrenic and the Romans sanguine and autistic” (not his words, my attempt to colloquially encapsulate one such claim) and actually mean it in a realer sense than just “Irish people developed a fashion for sad-sounding music for some reason.”

    As recent events have upped my priors on the possibility of mass psychological effects, it doesn’t seem out of the realm of possibility that whole times and places, though obviously not universally, could nonetheless get dominated by e.g. the memeplexes associated more with a particular brain region.

    • xsplat says:

      Yes, times and places affect what brain regions are used. The music of the 70s was LSD, Heroin, and Pot influenced, while todays music and culture seems to be stimulant influenced.

      The different classes of drugs enhancing more right or left brain, as McGilchrist uses the idea.

  85. alisabeth says:

    As you go about your day, you hear a voice that tells you what to do, praises you for your successes, criticizes you for your failures, and tells you what decisions to make in difficult situations. Modern theory-of-mind tells you that this is your own voice, thinking thoughts. It says this so consistently and convincingly that we never stop to question whether it might be anything else.”

    It seems that it’s not *just* theory of mind that tells you this, though. Phenomenologically, thinking feels like something one does, a kind of activity. When you perform a physical action (like raising your arm), this feels like something you do, not an event that happens to you. You don’t need any theory of mind (theory of action?) to know that you’re the author of your actions —it’s a phenomenological datum, or so it seems. People weren’t going around doubting they were the authors of their physical actions. Our inner thoughts seem active in the same way, and hence it seems obvious to us that we are their author.

    Maybe what all this suggests is that the feeling of something being an action or activity (something you do) is more malleable than we might have thought. This reminds me of the studies on free will (not sure if they’re replicable…) which purported to show that the feeling of authorship of bodily movements is possibly something that gets “added” to the memory of acting after the fact and is not tracking anything like real free will. Could the sense of being the author of one’s thoughts—one’s inner monologue—be even more malleable? This isn’t a crazy hypothesis, I guess. Our thoughts do feel more outside of our control than physical actions–people describe thoughts as “popping into their head” etc.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      But the phenomenological problem is that not ALL my thoughts seem to be under my control, nor all my actions for that matter. It’s not at all obvious that all the thoughts that occur to me originate in me, even if we are trying to pay close attention.

      The problem isn’t “can I choose to have particular thoughts”, but rather do all my thoughts originate in my self.

      • alisabeth says:

        yeah, that makes sense. I guess it doesn’t feel obvious that all our thoughts originate with us. Some do seem like they just pop into our head.

  86. MisterA says:

    It’s not exactly the same thing, but the idea of a tribe that appears to have a pretty fundamentally different conception of mind from everyone else that is extremely robust (as in, it has survived contact with outsiders) but does still appear to be culturally transmitted has a pretty interesting example I have read about in the past – the Piraha tribe in Brazil.

    The claims about them are somewhat controversial and different anthropologists make different arguments about it, but the largest claims are that their language does not include recursion (a trait so common it was believed universal in all human language until this claim was made about this tribe), and that their language includes no numbers, or even a concept of counting – they have a conception of one object, a small amount of objects, or many objects, and that’s all. The language is also far, far more simple than most other languages – it has one of the smallest sets of phonemes, and it appears possible that the addition of pronouns was only a recent adoption from a neighboring tribe.

    So it does at least seem plausible to have very different mental experience of the world due to cultural upbringing and language.

  87. deciusbrutus says:

    Why conclude that the thing that differs between the earlier, god-hearing, belly-feeling and the less ancient, explicit thinking, god-silenced people is a thing that the latter have and the former do not?

    There is strong evidence that people used to have a ba, and in the modern era the consensus is that nobody has one in other than a metaphorical sense. That seems to me to indicate that there used to be passenger pigeons, and now there aren’t anymore; they have gone the way of the ba.

    Considering how recently individuals have had experiences that they attribute to gods, spirits, or ghosts literally talking to them (2005, personally), but explain away as metaphorical, hallucinatory, or fictional, I don’t think a theory of how they became extinguished completely is necessary.

    The suppression in the modern era of reports to that effect is at least partly due to modern sensibilities in mental health. When a doctor asks “Do you see or hear people when they aren’t there?”, people with functioning theory of mind and cultural context to understand the situation know that they must say “No, I do not” in order to avoid being institutionalized. Adults without theory of mind or without cultural context will generally be diagnosed with something related to that.

    In the modern era, gods don’t talk to people because people don’t tell others about the conversation.

    I have no good explanation for why four consecutive generations of people expected gods to talk to them in a very perceptible manner, despite their parent and peers not reporting the gods talking to them in such a manner. It seems more likely, if anything, that the emergent behavior was that people who reported gods telling them the wrong things were killed, or even ostracized, for sharing their thoughts.

    Actually talking about hearing the gods (or hallucinating them, depending on your preference for phrasing) was always uncommon. It just became less acceptable, and thus more uncommon.

  88. syrrim says:

    In the Against the Grain system, we have that agriculture is a terrible way to live, only practiced by people because they are being forced. They would slowly run off into the wilderness to live an idyllic hunter gatherer lifestyle, until someone came around and conquested them again. At a certain point, this ceased to be the case, and the civilized lifestyle became preferable, such that someone living it would no longer feel the need to run off and live in the wilderness. We have to suppose that this was a profoundly transitional point in time. Picture the warlord prior to it: he is well off, but only due to his constant travails to keep his serfs in check; any slacking, and they’ll all disappear into the woods. Their population is therefore heavily limited as well; he can only keep around as many as he can subject. Then, at a certain point, things switch, and the civilized lifestyle becomes preferable. Likely he can still tax the people living in his city, but now they want to live there; there are more of them, and they want to be taxed.

    Scott* places the time that things switch as around 1600. This is derived from the point in time when the majority of people were civilized, rather than barbarians (intending no value judgment with either term). It doesn’t seem like this is the right time. For one, when civilization was undesirable, dynasties were particularly short lived, since they suffered constant attrition. But starting much earlier than 1600, there are a number of civilizations that were very long lived, even in terms of consistently levying taxes on large populations. We should also consider that when things switch, the limiting factor on the growth of civilization would also switch from the number of people, to the amount of land. Before, anyone who wanted to be a vassal (ie nobody) could be. Afterwards, we would imagine that everyone would pick up good, farmable land, and so it would quickly run out. The only barbarians left would be people living on unfarmable land; hilly areas, cold areas, and so on.

    * not sure which one, lol

    We should also suppose that the point when things switch would appear as a complete upheaval, as the mode of human existence is upended. But I don’t think we really observe this in middle of the last millennia. The mode of existence seems to mostly stay the same, with mere details changing to account for new technology. On the other hand, “the origin of consciousness” seems like it contains sufficient change to go alongside a complete upheaval of human existence. Before, people had a consciousness suited for living like animals in the forest, or maybe a transitional consciousness suited for toiling as a slave for their god-king. Afterwards, they developed consciousnesses suited for living as rational beings in a civilization.

    I think “trade” as the precipatory event causing all this is too weak. Clearly, trade occurred since the dawn of human existence, and didn’t cause much change. A more likely candidate is trade as a separate occupation. Before, a person would trade, but they did it as part of their role as a producer, or possibly as a political or social ritual. At a certain point, someone had to come up with the idea of trading as a job unto itself, of buying from one person and selling to another. This is a radically different role. I took the following note while reading Taleb’s Skin in the Game:

    The Jewish scholars determined that one should never trade on information asymmetries, including asymmetries in your feelings deep down. A case is related regarding a merchant who was made an offer in the midst of praying, and failed to respond immediately, such that the offer was increased. If the trader was open to the initial price, is he still allowed to take the increased offer? Taleb points out that the buyer might talk to a friend who received the product at a lower price, and feel he was short changed in not being accepted at that price.

    Taleb qualifies that this sort of behaviour can only be performed among your in-group, “The Swiss” in his terminology. Before trade as an occupation, people could trade according to rules of niceness: if I do something nice for him, he’ll surely do something nice for me later. This is untenable when trading overseas, you are unlikely ever to trade with the same exact person again. A solid theory of mind is only really necessary in large, mobile, societies. In a small society, if someone screws you over, they’ll still be around to receive their comeuppance. Not so in a larger one.

    This is also sufficient to alter civilization from being a way for warlords to more easily tax, to being a better place for a person to live. One recalls the humourous question in The Life of Brian: “What have the Romans ever done for us?” A great deal, actually – likely more than would have been received from an Egyptian pharaoh. Before trade was a separate occupation, it merely filled in gaps. As in Sturgeon*, “When the markets are high, there’s money, when the markets are low, there’s food”. If trade was optimizing for niceness, and not efficiency, there likely would never be particularly high markets. A person would primarily subsist on what they grew, using expensive purchases only to fill in things they couldn’t make themselves. Trade as an occupation allows it to be done efficiently, because buyers can be matched up with a much wider field of sellers (and vice versa). Now, the price to buy something would roughly match the amount of labour it would take you to do it yourself. Specialization becomes viable, efficiency goes up, and now the price of an object falls below the labour it would take to produce it yourself. Suddenly, civilization makes a better offering than hunter-gathering does.

    *More Than Human, quote may not be exact

    This becomes a viable thesis in a way that I don’t feel the original is. Originally, we had to suppose that the ancient greeks and sumerians and so on lived in a society much like ours, but had minds that acted very differently. We couldn’t really imagine that, since it seems like someone living in the same world as us would tend to act the same way as we do. The argument is that the world they lived in was fundamentally different, so they adopted very different strategies to cope with it. Duty and honour for us are mostly pastiches. I don’t steal from my neighbour because I might go to jail, I say hello to him because it gives me a warm feeling, otherwise I treat him at best as a means to an end. Yet from recalling the Greek practice regarding hospitality, one gets the idea that this was not how things were done in ancient society. According to Scott*, agriculture had far less security than foraging did, so that one would heavily rely on one’s community to get by. Further, the Against the Grain argument is that this lowered security only benefited the state, not the individual. We know that virtue amounts to preferencing your role in society over your own wants, so that a society that emphasizes it must be interested in individuals ceding their own security and happiness for the benefit of the institution. Gods become a reification of that institution: you are working in order to produce better sacrifices for the gods. This creates a world where if people begin to hallucinate that these gods are real and present, we shouldn’t be altogether too surprised.


  89. Mark Dominus says:

    I haven’t read The Origin of Consciousness in about twenty-five years, but I remember that it has a very long, detailed, and specific explanation of just what Jaynes thinks he means by the term “consciousness”. So I think it’s unfair for you to say:

    Consciousness means so many different things to so many different people, and none of them realize they’re talking past each other…

    Okay, people disagree with what it means, and you could disagree with Jaynes, but he says up front that a theory about the origin of consciousness has to have a definition of consciousness, and he presents one.

    As I said I haven’t read the book in a long time, but I remember that for Jaynes consciousness was tied up with use of metaphoric language and thought, and especially with the spatial metaphor for time. There is a discussion of the way post-Bronze Age people decide what to do next: instead of hallucinating the voice of a god, they imagine a fictitious space, with an imaginary copy of themselves, who then tries out a hypothetical course of action, and they observe the consequences to the imaginary copy in the imaginary world.

    There is a lot to criticize about this book. (Jaynes was well aware of it, and describes his own theory as “preposterous”.) But I don’t think it’s a fair criticism to say that the idea of consciousness is vague or ill-defined. You might say he got it completely wrong, but your review doesn’t do this. And even if you disagree that the thing Jaynes is talking about should be identified as “consciousness”, it’s a theory of the origin of something important, whether or not you want to call that something “theory of mind” or “consciousness” or whatever. Jaynes does take a lot of trouble to explain what it is he is talking about, and why he thinks it is important, and your review completely ignored that long and essential section of the book.

  90. Mark Dominus says:

    You said:

    what about Australian Aborigines… or American Indians?

    Jaynes does discuss Mesoamericans, and he claims that they were preconscious at the time of the European invasion. He thinks this explains how small forces of Spaniards could conquer large and powerful empires: their advanced mental technology permitted better planning and coordination. And he says that the Aztecs and Incas who didn’t quickly adopt the new ways of thinking all died, long before any anthropologists came to study them.

    I remember finding this part of the book speculative and not very persuasive, but Jaynes certainly does recognize and try to address the issue.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yes, I read what he wrote about Aztecs and Inca. What about eg the Algonquin?

      • Mark Dominus says:

        Sure, a comprehensive treatment of aboriginal peoples all over the world would have made a great book. But The Origin of Consciousness is already too long and diffuse, and a great deal of it is speculation about matters that Jaynes wasn’t expert in. Adding a discussion of the Algonquin, Polynesians, and so forth wouldn’t have made it a better book, it would have made it a worse one.

        You wrote:

        What about Australian Aborigines? … or any other human group presumably isolated from second-millennium-BC Assyrians … ?

        I take this to imply that Jaynes didn’t discuss any other human group isolated from Assyrians. Had he actually made this mistake, that would have been an acute flaw.
        But, as you said in your comment, he was aware of the issue and did try to address it.

        A lot of The Origin of Consciousness reads to me as a sketch of directions that future research might take, not as a complete theory. I think Jaynes thought of it this way too. He wasn’t an expert on aboriginal peoples. The examination of bicamerality in aboriginal cultures would have required another book (or many books), written by someone else.

  91. sustrik says:

    I remember how quiet my mind used to be before Internet. There were my thoughts, the stuff I’ve seen around me, then maybe some things I’ve read in books. Now it’s all sorts of voices all over the place. The age of gods may be coming back.

  92. Lotus says:

    And these people also seem to be able to strategically deceive others, another key consciousness innovation Jaynes says Bronze Agers lacked.

    What?? Odysseus very famously ends the Trojan war by strategically deceiving others, and nobody’s thumos is reported to have instructed them to say “what are we doing in this horse, this makes no sense”.

    EDIT – I see people have also brought this up, possibly worth mentioning too that Patroclus wearing Achilles’ armor into battle is intended as a strategic deception and also not remarked on as unusual for that reason, and that Odysseus himself frequently sees and hears the gods.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      If Troy know about strategic deception, the Trojan Horse would have been a pyre.

      • Pandemic Shmandemic says:

        Wasn’t there something about Helen suspecting it and trying to lure out the soldiers she thought were inside by pretending to be one of their wives ?

  93. onyomi says:

    Questions for both the people who claim to have no inner monologue/can remember a time of no inner monologue and also a question for the people who find the former group incomprehensible:

    For the “no inner monologue people” do you literally mean “I never hear words in my head when I am e.g. thinking about how I might like to explain something to someone” or do you just mean “I don’t have some kind of running commentary going on all the time in my head while going about daily activities unrelated to communicating”?

    The latter applies to me but the former definitely does not and is hard for me to comprehend. My subjective experience is that my thoughts all exist in a pre-verbal form but putting them into words is a prerequisite for figuring out exactly what my opinion is on more complex topics, especially of a more humanistic nature. And writing is even better than just thinking verbally because I can go back and look at what I wrote and see if it makes sense from more of an outsider perspective than when it existed in a more inchoate state in my head. At the same time, I don’t need to hear in my head the words “now seems like a good time to go to Costco” to have the thought “now seems like a good time to go to Costco.” If I don’t need to inform anyone about my desired trip to Costco I can have the thought and proceed to my car, begin driving etc. without ever literally hearing the words in my head “now I’m going to Costco because I need bread, milk, eggs…” Of course, if the list gets long I’m again better off putting into words or writing down to avoid forgetting something.

    I’m not great at math or visual thinking but I can do something like rotate a visual image of an object in my head without words entering the picture in any way. Someone I know once said she was such a visual thinker that even when thinking about words she would see the words in her head running along kind of like a ticker at the bottom of a sports channel. That is definitely foreign to me; words for me exist as sounds first and letters on a page second. I’ve also realized that numbers for me tend to exist more as words in that if I have to recall a phone number, say, I’m recalling the words, not the actual digits.

    For the “can’t comprehend how you can think without inner monologue” people: do you hear some kind of narrative or conversation going on in your head all the time while doing daily activities and/or do you feel like some of your thoughts don’t exist but as words, or are you merely describing a situation like what I experience where internal verbalization is a frequent and natural way to transform more vague, inchoate notions into the sort of thought you can express to others?

    • Relenzo says:

      I don’t know if my experience is the data point you’re looking for, but:

      I think that as I’ve gotten older, I think *without* an inner monologue…less? I know that I’ll read, and sometimes work, faster if I’m able to shut it off, but often it doesn’t go away unless I really get into a flow state, and I’ll notice its absence only after the fact.

      I think?

    • Thegnskald says:

      Personally I fall into the “No running commentary, I may be able to invoke an inner ‘voice’ when I’m considering how to phrase things” camp.

      If I’m considering how to talk to somebody or explain something, my thoughts shift to a more “vocal” style, in a certain sense – but that may be entirely illusory, as when I actually start trying to say whatever it is, I often discover one of the “words” I was using in the internal monologue wasn’t, in fact, a word, and has no immediate translation into words.

      So I’m hesitant to say with certainty I even have an inner voice, given how often it “says” things that can’t actually be said.

      There’s more to it than this, but it’s another kind of issue – I know what words I could use to convey this, but I’m also quite aware they’re misleading. Which is that even the words that do have translations are incomplete or misleading communications of the internal narrative; if I examine a “word” used there, it’s multiple paragraphs of information, if I were to try to communicate it in depth, and many of the “words” in those “paragraphs” are back to the “no actual translation into language” problem.

      Indeed, this entire comment, in my internal narrative, started off as around seven “words”, and this is maybe 20% of the actual meaning contained in that sentence. A lot of it just can’t be communicated.

      As for rotating objects: I can’t “rotate” an object in my head. I can run a “video” of the object rotating, but that’s not the same thing; that’s strictly a two-dimensional representation of a three dimensional concept. Rather, my concept of the object… “includes” the rotations*? Honestly, I don’t understand this “rotation” thing. If you can rotate it, you already know what it would look like rotated; you already have all the information. What does the mental act of rotation do?

      *However, my internal sense of objects notably lacks chirality. Which is to say, I have trouble distinguishing between a thing, and its mirror image. So if I’m, say, doing a multiple choice for a rotated object, I have a second process I run to verify chirality once I’ve eliminated other options. It also isn’t rotation, exactly, but it’s not not rotation, either.

      • Spookykou says:

        This is exactly what I was curious about, but it is still deeply strange to me. I enjoy expanding my vocabulary because I need to bound concepts with words for ease of use. It sounds like what you are trying to get at is that you think non-linguistically, which is why it is not translatable. I can’t ‘picture’ what that means, because as far as I can tell all my thoughts are linguistic or visual.

        For example, the phrase ‘typical minding’ is useful to my cognition, I had a vague idea of the abstract concept, but if I came across an example of it I would think through the definition basically. Then I learn the phrase, I see an example of it, and I simply think, ‘ ah, typical minding’. When I hear people say their thoughts are non-verbal, my only other recourse is visual, maybe they imagine a person with a blue brain looking at other people and imagining that the other people have blue brains also, or something, but this is really just switching English for homemade pictographs, it is still ‘linguistic’. If you see someone who is typical minding, and you think, ‘this person is typical minding’ do you do that in a non-linguistic way? Do you not use a symbol to represent a collection of other symbols that you have built up over time? I understand the fundamental difficulty of asking someone to explain what I think is a non-linguistic process linguistically, but I am curious.

        I am not totally blind to the idea of thinking non-verbally, when I enter a state of flow, for example, playing a fast paced game or something, my monologue turns off, and it is harder for me to reflect on the thoughts I have during that time, but as much as I am able to remember it I feel like the process is still fundamentally best described as thinking in a kind of language. If I was to try and describe the architecture of my thoughts, it feels like layers upon layers of metaphor stacked on top of my visual and physical experiences.

    • 6jfvkd8lu7cc says:

      I normally have an inner monologue. More or less constantly

      I do sometimes work with it off. I definitely remember I that write some texts that I prefer to have written but do not really want to be writing with it off, including no internal verbalisation of the text I write. So I guess it almost counts as writing a text without internally thinking in language?

      Switching it off often includes wearing myself out a bit. There are things I do better at 2AM not because I am more alert than before, but because it is easier to dull some kinds of repulsion.

      I remember once deciding to switch off the internal monologue and half the preference system to do something that I have decided to do. It worked, and I think that it actually increased my tolerance of writing that boring text, but doing it by brute force and in completely uncompromised unalertness felt somewhat uncomfortable (hmmm, as a non-drinker I have literally just now realised that I might have treated the notion of the optimal amount of alcohol to write code wrong… maybe it is not to balance «I don’t care let’s try», maybe it is to dull the repulsion? There are kinds of code where dulling the repulsion _is_ useful…) Of course, _normal_ uncomfortable is also tied to the internal monologue for me, so it was a special type of uncomfortable.

      I guess I can also tell about another experiment with restricting internal monologue. I often have a monologue happennning on two layers at once, I internally follow word by word a phrase that I also … perceive knowing as a whole? I tried not to go word by word. In one sense, it allowed going through the phrases faster. On the other hand, it allowed me to … perceive the phrases faster than I generate them maybe? I am not sure how to describe this, maybe you could say it is mind getting ahead of itself and then not knowing where to go further? So maybe this internal word-by-word speech is a useful pacing mechanism for me. Also maybe a GPT-like mode of text generation (what words fit well after the words I have already accepted as fine?) is an important parts of some modes of my thinking.

  94. Spookykou says:

    I am not sure if someone else mentioned it, but speaking of thinking in language and such topics. It was my understanding that a key part of speed reading was to stop saying the words in your head as you read. That this would be needed advice seems to imply that saying words in your head while you read is a pretty normal part of reading, if students didn’t do it by default, it seems that random elementary school speed readers would be more common, but both during my time in elementary school, and my time as an elementary school teacher, I have never encountered one. Is the best explanation just that you can read at a totally average/slow pace while not saying each word in your head?

  95. Relenzo says:

    Here’s that content that keeps me coming back!

    I’ve been looking forward to your review of Jaynes, and was not disappointed. I always thought he was a fascinating read just for expanding your imagination–because who else would imagine such a theory?

    But to think how much more sense it makes if you recast it as about theory of mind…when I read Jaynes, I was, possibly through my own biases, substituting my understanding of ‘consciousness’, involving all the qualia and everything that came with them. I thought the theory was more likely to be false than true. But now, I’m amazed that no one has ever suggested I re-interpret it in this way before! Frame it as an invented idea rather than the rise of subjective experience and the whole thing just–holds together a lot more. You still have to assume Jaynes was right about all the Sumerian writings, which I think is a big ask, and it would be cool if we had some third-party linguist somewhere who could examine that evidence for cherry-picking but–it’s a lot more plausible on whole.

    I mean, I suppose this idea must have been hit on before. I think Jaynes has his own convention. But I’m still glad I got to read about it here.

  96. bsrk says:

    I think it should be possible (to ask the capital of Mali or the cube root of 456,765,213), but you have to make an appropriate sacrifice first.

    That is, you will need to forswear the other sources of information. Hmm.. I’ll do it.

    • With that experiment, I would be worried that some part of my mind, call it the subconscious, already knew the capital of Mali and that was why it proposed that test.

      The cube root is less likely.

  97. MPG says:

    Be really, really careful about trusting Julian Jaynes as an “expert on ancient languages.” He clearly has read some of the key books about Greek and about Homer, but cites so little that it’s virtually impossible to tell how much he really knows. What’s absolutely clear is that he has a tin ear, and that his book was ignored by Classicists. The main field-specific database, L’Année philologique, lists only one review, in the 1980 volume of Hephaistos: Kritische Zeitschrift zu Theorie und Praxis der Archäologie und angrenzender Gebiete (not a journal I know, but I’m not a Homerist, either, and archeological interest is natural). It’s not online (only a table of contents here), and, though I’d ordinarily just walk over to the library that holds the hard copy, unfortunately all the libraries are closed around here. I can’t find any other review in a non-psychological discipline, except in a journal or two devoted to history or science or the more “scientific” branch of religious studies.

    Academic fields are generally resistant to outside interference. That Classicists ignored him doesn’t mean he’s wrong, therefore, but it should give one immediate pause. The people who’ve actually spent years, or decades, studying Homer and the Bronze Age Greece and Near East found his speculations useless. (That he doesn’t cite even a shred of linguistics–not even a humble Homeric lexicon–for his pronouncements on etymology can’t help.) If one thing is clear, it is that Homer (yes, I’m eliding some complicated problems) had an acute sense of the human mind and human society. It is equally clear that the bardic tradition he represents had preserved only fragmentary knowledge of the Mycenaean situation.

    By what method could we possibly justify isolating the experience of the characters in the Iliad out from their poetic frame and treat that–but not the frame–as a genuine reflection of human mentalities in the 12th century B.C.? A bit of handwaving toward the Linear B tablets–which show “the actual world of the Trojan War … in historical fact much closer to the rigid theocracy which the theory predicts than to the free individuality of the poem” (p. 80)–risks exploding the whole structure Jaynes has built. The “individuality” is arbitrarily removed, the rigidity left in. Send your returns to the IRS on clay tablets, and we could do the same thing to the modern world, anyway, just with more corporations and fewer gods. What happens to survive does not exhaust ancient experience, and ancient polytheism isn’t all that different from modern polytheism. People still believe in demons, gods, spirits, and all that.

    Sooner or later, we’re going to get entangled in the ancient question of the unity of the Iliad and Odyssey and all sorts of stuff to do with oral vs. literate cultures. Still, can anyone who reads the Iliad actually believe that “The Trojan War was directed by hallucinations. And the soldiers who were so directed were not at all like us. They were noble automatons who knew not what they did” (p. 75)? Can anyone who reads poetry really think it is an analogue to the rhyming of schizophrenics, meant “to drive the electrical activity of the brain” (p. 74)? Has Jaynes established himself to be a remotely credible reader of books? Bluster won’t cut it: “The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history, webbed into the Mycenaean Aegean, to be examined by psychohistorical scientists” (p. 76). Why on earth, I wonder, do the gods argue amongst themselves? They do all kinds of stuff the human characters don’t even see, and the divine characters are consistent from one “hallucination” to another on up to the debates on Olympus.

    Jaynes may refuse to think that people really do believe in non-human powers, but they did and they still do. Whatever psychological insights it might hold, I’m inclined to think the book the humanistic equivalent of flat-Earther tract. Take a few ideas you haven’t understood, take everything else in an impossibly wooden way, and make nonsense on stilts. Then, to head off opposition, pronounce that the people who actually study this stuff aren’t fit to pass judgment.

    • DM says:

      ‘The Iliad is not imaginative creative literature and hence not a matter for literary discussion. It is history, webbed into the Mycenaean Aegean, to be examined by psychohistorical scientists’

      Wait is that a genuine quote? Seriously?

  98. Basil Marte says:

    It would be remiss not to quote HPMOR.

    “Is there some amazing rational thing you do when your mind’s running in all different directions?” she managed.

    “My own approach is usually to identify the different desires, give them names, conceive of them as separate individuals, and let them argue it out inside my head. So far the main persistent ones are my Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, Gryffindor, and Slytherin sides, my Inner Critic, and my simulated copies of you, Neville, Draco, Professor McGonagall, Professor Flitwick, Professor Quirrell, Dad, Mum, Richard Feynman, and Douglas Hofstadter.”

    Hermione considered trying this before her Common Sense warned that it might be a dangerous sort of thing to pretend. “There’s a copy of me inside your head?”

    “Of course there is!” Harry said. The boy suddenly looked a bit more vulnerable. “You mean there isn’t a copy of me living in your head?”

    There was, she realized; and not only that, it talked in Harry’s exact voice.

    “It’s rather unnerving now that I think about it,” said Hermione. “I do have a copy of you living in my head. It’s talking to me right now using your voice, arguing how this is perfectly normal.”

    • Loriot says:

      There were a lot of things like that in HPMOR that I found very strange, and wondered whether they actually represented some people’s experiences.

  99. The Big Red Scary says:

    No idea what Jaynes is up to, but don’t even (small, hairy) monkeys have some kind of theory of mind? I remember some simple experiments on cooperation and reciprocity that went something like this. There are two monkeys in adjacent cages, who are given various tasks, success in which results in a bowl of cucumbers (welcome) or a bowl of grapes (preferred).

    1) The monkeys must each individually pull a pole to get a bowl of the same food. Both monkeys perform the task.

    1′) Same task, but monkeys are separated by a barrier, and one is offered cucumbers while the other is offered cucumbers. The monkey receiving cucumbers pouts and refuses to accept. Simius Economicus be damned.

    2) The monkeys must cooperate to pull in a heavy board, with a bowl on only one end. They do in fact cooperate and the monkey receiving the bowl shares the contents with his cooperative partner.

    2′) Same task, but now with a barrier between cages preventing sharing. Now the monkey with no chance of receiving the contents of the bowl refuses to cooperate. What’s in it for me?!

    • No One In Particular says:

      “Same task, but monkeys are separated by a barrier, and one is offered cucumbers while the other is offered cucumbers.” I take it the word “grapes” was intended at some point?

      • The Big Red Scary says:

        Yes, indeed. Thanks. The monkey receiving cucumbers is apparently jealous of the other receiving grapes, and pouts.

  100. bullseye says:

    If part of my mind perceives another part as a god and does whatever the second part says, what’s the point of even having the first part? Why not just make the “god” part the entire mind?

  101. Wency says:

    A lot of these notes about the way people used to write seem to ignore the possibility of style and taboo.

    Writing without describing thoughts or feelings seems to be the default way that boys, at least, want to write. I recall, as a tween/early teen who aspired to write sci-fi/fantasy, I liked to fill my writings with a lot of “I threw down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside” sorts of lines that I viewed as Totally Badass. And then my (female) teachers would always come around with “OK, but you should include more about how smiting his enemy’s ruin made this character *feel*.” To which my response was basically “Ugh.”

    Take a look at that famous, humorous tandem writing assignment that’s been bouncing around the Internet for 20+ years.

    I just read it again and noticed that “Carl’s” section makes almost zero reference to mental processes, aside from mentioning he doesn’t have time to think about “Laurie”. “Rebecca”, meanwhile, writes almost exclusively about mental processes.

    And I don’t find it hard to imagine that writers in early civilizations, with very little literary development, were inclined to write more like young me, or like “Carl”. Especially at a time and place where writing stuff down, copying it, and preserving it was a costly procedure, thus favoring a more terse style, focused on facts and action.

  102. Irenist says:

    Turn on what Terry Pratchett called “first sight and second thoughts” and try to look at the Bronze Age with fresh eyes. It was really weird.

    Maybe it was weirder than that. There’s precious little evidence that people ever weren’t conscious. But there’s tons of ancient testimony that interactions with gods were really common until around the first century AD.

    One possible take on this is that maybe premodern people weren’t idiots, and they just really were interacting with gods. For Christians, the traditional explanation for the drop off around the first century is that Christ’s Incarnation bound the demons back in hell, where they couldn’t impersonate gods anymore. That’s Eusebius’ view of Plutarch’s account of the decline of the Greek oracles, for example.

    This fits a few other facts. It allows us to take the various divine portents in ancient historians as possible rather than assuming Livy or whomever was stupid or mendacious. It allows us to explain why even after all the prior miracles they had witnessed, people in the Old Testament keep abandoning the God of Israel for other gods, in a way that seems psychologically unrealistic unless you assume that the currency of supernatural events was far more inflated back then, and didn’t buy any particular god as much long term loyalty as a miracle would now.

    On this interpretation, the Incarnation moved us from what the old D&D manuals would call a “high magic world” to a “low magic” um, campaign setting for the battle between God and the devil.

    Of course, I wouldn’t expect such supernatural interventions to leave archeological traces, so it’s non-falsifiable, and shouldn’t be taken as a Christian apologetic or anything. It’s just fun to think about, and provides an account of the weirdness of the past that doesn’t require us to infantilize ancient and primitive peoples like Jaynes’ theory.

    • Wency says:

      I too sort of fancy this interpretation, but it’s already compatible with my worldview, and I agree it’s basically unfalsifiable.

      I suppose I always viewed it as Satan changing his strategy in response to the Incarnation, rather than being compelled to (“the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he doesn’t exist”). I think the Screwtape Letters basically advocated for that. So that remark from Eusebius is interesting. Truth be told, I’ve pored over the analyses of his quotes of Papias to an obsessive degree, but I haven’t read much of anything the man himself wrote. Which is funny, I suppose, because he didn’t seem to think much of Papias.

      • Irenist says:

        I think the binding of the demons is the more traditional Christian account. In that regard, it’s [merely] suggestive that the relative decline in interaction with gods Jaynes discusses roughly aligns with the traditional dates for Abraham & Moses, while the complete failure of oracles is a product of the Christian Era. It’s also interesting that Christ is the Logos (Word), and the fellow Scott quotes who “woke up” in later life from a Jaynesean stupor did it by learning to think in words.

        As for Lewis’ idea that the demons are hiding, I don’t think it contradicts the other idea so much as complements it: if they’re low powered now, they’ll want to restrict themselves to possessions (especially in primitive animist areas with little capacity for documentation) and hide any evidence of earlier larger scale activity to make materialism more attractive. We could switch nerdy analogies from D&D to the old “Vampire: The Masquerade” LARP game’s vampires hiding their existence from mortals.

        Of course, such speculation could carry one all the way to Creationist nonsense about the Devil planting dinosaur bones to trick us. So where science offers an adequate explanation for something, it should of course be preferred. (Readily preferred—there’s no need to defend any “god of the gaps.”) Jaynes correctly identified the issues, but his explanation seems off.

    • The original Mr. X says:

      A similar interpretation I’ve been toying with is that it’s the sign of the Cross that drives the demons away. The idea that it does so is attested amongst the Church Fathers (Athanasius even uses the fact that making the sign could drive away demons as an argument for Christianity, IIRC), and it would explain why reports of miracles, oracular utterances, etc., became less and less common during the first few centuries AD, as Christianity — and hence Christian symbols — became more and more widespread. Nowadays we tend to think of claims of demonic possession as mostly associated with (as you put it) primitive animist communities, which of course tend to have little exposure to Christianity.

      Of course, if the Cross drives off demons, we should expect reports of demonic activity to increase as Christianity and Christian expression declines. Which, interesting, is exactly what seems to be happening.

  103. BBenzon says:

    Jaynes has obviously thought a lot about this, and he’s a psychology professor so I’m sure he’s heard of theory of mind.

    I don’t think so. Perhaps someone else has already said this, but Jaynes couldn’t have thought in terms of theory of mind because the term and the idea hadn’t developed by the time he wrote the book in the mid-1960s. It was first published in 1967.

  104. kai.teorn says:

    Seems relevant: in “Better angels of our nature”, Pinker suggests that a major transition in the late 18th century was caused by the spread of sentimental novels which for the first time gave people detailed and well-written insights into what others think and feel. He attributes to that the movement to abolish public executions and, in some countries, even death penalty altogether, as well as a decline in torture (and probably a rise of abolitionism).

    If true, this sounds like another and much more recent shift in how our theory of mind is formed.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      The counter-revolutionary philosopher Joseph de Maistre briefly discusses the effects of sentimental novels in the St. Petersburg Dialogues he wrote at the Czar’s court during the Napoleonic Wars.

      you find the decree of violent death written on the very frontiers of life. Even in the vegetable kingdom, this law can be perceived: from the huge catalpa to the smallest of grasses, how many plants die and how many are killed! But once you enter the animal kingdom, the law suddenly becomes frighteningly obvious. A power at once hidden and palpable appears constantly occupied in bringing to light the principle of life by violent means. In each great division of the animal world, it has chosen a certain number of animals charged with devouring the others; so there are insects of prey, reptiles of prey, birds of prey, fish of prey, and quadrupeds of prey. There is not an instant of time when some living creature is not devoured by another.

      Above all these numerous animal species is placed man, whose destructive hand spares no living thing; he kills to eat, he kills for clothing, he kills for adornment, he kills to attack, he kills to defend himself, he kills for instruction, he kills for amusement, he kills for killing’s sake: a proud and terrible king, he needs everything, and nothing can withstand him. He knows how many barrels of oil he can get from the head of a shark or a whale; in his museums, he mounts with his sharp pins elegant butterflies he has caught in flight on the top of Mount Blanc or Chimborazo; he stuffs the crocodile and embalms the hummingbird; on his command, the rattlesnake dies in preserving fluids to keep it intact for a long line of observers. The horse carrying its master to the tiger hunt struts about covered by the skin of this same animal. At one and the same time, man takes from the lamb its entrails for harp strings, from the whale its bones to stiffen the corsets of the young girl, from the wolf its most murderous tooth to polish frivolous manufactures, from the elephant its tusks to make a child’s toy: his dining table is covered with corpses. The philosopher can even discern how this permanent carnage is provided for and ordained in the whole scheme of things. But without doubt this law will not stop at man. Yet what being is to destroy him who destroys all else? Man! It is man himself who is charged with butchering man.

      But how is he to accomplish this law who is a moral and merciful being, who is born to love, who cries for others as for himself, who finds pleasure in weeping to the extent of creating fictions to make himself weep, to whom finally it has been said that whoever sheds blood unjustly will redeem it with the last drop of his own?[Genesis 9:6.]

      He then says this much empathy doesn’t stop wars. Of course there’s an intentional layer of irony here in the best French prose tradition that he says humans are deeply empathetic only after talking in painstaking detail about how many animals we cheerfully kill for trivial reasons.

  105. abookofashes says:

    This book falls into one of my favourite categories of books: Absolutely fascinating, gripping and detailed explanations of a phenomenon….that are completely false or untrue. Another good entry in this genre is The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.

  106. JohnBuridan says:

    “Ethiopians say that their gods are flat-nosed and dark.
    Thacians that their gods are blue-eyed and red-haired.”


    There are other weird quirks too in humans. We tend to think it is obvious now that our thoughts are part of us, but really how obvious is that? It certainly isn’t obvious that they reside in the head. They don’t feel like they reside in the head. When I pay close attention thought seems to have to do with the mouth when I’m thinking hard, with my eyes and face muscles when I’m sad, and with my fists and blood when I’m angry.

    Allegedly, Western/Near-Easterners didn’t think to read without moving the mouth until after 400? Augustine gives this famous account of defending himself muttering quietly while he read so that people wouldn’t be influenced by the pagan or heretical ideas he was reading. It’s weird to think of reading as something that HAS to be done out loud. But phonetic alphabets are designed for this purpose! To capture sounds with symbols. If you don’t make the sounds, then you aren’t reading, I suppose.

    Furthermore, when I realized that I would think more clearly and logically if tried to hold conversations in my head, my intellectual life also became a lot more about taking implicit things and trying to making them explicit. It’s very hard…

    Imagine you are Socrates. Today we think it is a cute analogy, that Socrates called himself a midwife bringing out the knowledge that was already inside you. We tend to neither believe that the knowledge is inside, nor that a good teacher is a midwife. But maybe he’s largely right. Maybe the senses are filled with latent knowledge, and it takes some bizarre event, some life-rattling insight, some incessant gadfly to get us to go into labor and start drawing out the knowledge that could be.

  107. entropy says:

    Just wanted to put it out there that there is a particularly interesting modern example of revelation from a god. Ramanujan received many of his equations from his god Namagiri. Now, it’s important to keep in mind that he was a savant but not an idiot savant: he himself worked tirelessly on mathematics. But some of it came from Namagiri. The article mentions physical stress as perhaps enabling this sort of thing. That applies in this case, as Ramanujan spent his life on the edge of starvation. His might be a special case though. As far as I know there was only one Ramanujan in all of human history.

    • Le Maistre Chat says:

      That’s an interesting challenge to the other theory that the gods haven’t done anything big for the past 2,000 years, because they were evil or at least not pure Good and the Good (in its Incarnation as Christ) took away their power.

  108. I think about this book at random sometimes.

    I feel like even the weak claim where the switch is from no ToM to ToM rather than aconsciousness to consciousness doesn’t really check out to me, as someone who has the sorts of experiences it’s claiming denote lack of [ToM]/[consciousness]. In reality, the oscillation seems to be between a weaker and “interesting if you haven’t considered it, but honestly a little trivial*” claim of “ancient peoples were more plural” and a much stronger claim of “this plurality denotes a lack of actual independent existence”. I am currently in the state of having part of my consciousness experience himself as a semi-separate entity that presents as the far end of a continuum between ‘myself’ and ‘not quite myself’; this isn’t strictly my baseline state, and it comes with more general psychological strangeness than usual (lockdown blues), but it doesn’t come with impaired theory of mind.

    In fact, developing theory of mind was super weird for me and sent me down some absolutely psychotic avenues! I did develop it late and strangely, and the best conclusion I could come to as a teenager out of locking myself in permanent sonder, realizing every individual person out of seven billion was a mind just like me, was “Oh, the reason they don’t act like that is they’re all being mind-controlled by shadow monsters”.

    *Being trivial doesn’t mean it’s unworthy of discussion! The entire reason I blog now is that I realized what I think is trivial and what other people have never even considered the existence of is a Venn diagram with overlap. Discussing plurality in the ratsphere is still more likely to get “lol wut” than “oh yeah, that’s a thing human experience includes”.

  109. tzam says:

    what about Australian Aborigines?

    A google search on ‘Aborigines’ and ‘Jaynes’ turns up a health survey of Australian Aborigines from the 90s: “Aboriginal Health And History: Power and Prejudice in Remote Australia”

    One section looked at psychiatric issues in remote communities, including auditory and visual hallucinations.
    Some members of these communities describe what the author calls culturally informed paranormal experiences, which included:

    having ‘seen’ a deceased relative in clear consciousness; having extra-corporeal experiences in the course of performing healing activities; and similar experiences or visions
    in the context of religious ceremonies

    These sort of experiences were much more common in older people, and much rarer for younger ones. The cutoff seemed to be around 50 years old. Since this survey was published in 1993 that suggests that Aborigines born before the 1940s commonly had these experiences, while those born afterwards did not.

    This sort of ties in with some of the history of Australian Aboriginal peoples – around the beginning of the 20th Century was the period later called the ‘Stolen Generations’, where the government forcibly took Aboriginal children from their parents to integrate in white Australian society. If you had to pick a period where Aboriginal culture and theories of mind came crashing into western ones, this would be a decent candidate.

    Another thing the survey noted was that while younger Aborigines had far fewer paranormal experiences, they had more “severe psychological reactions”, which reads to me like
    more familiar symptoms of schizophrenia, including visual and auditory hallucinations, paranoid ideation etc. The difference seems to be the lack of cultural integration.

    The author of this survey is aware of Jaynes, and draws a parallel with bicameralism, saying of these experiences:

    While this is highly speculative, many older Aborigines had clearly experienced such culturally meaningful phenomena, which were socially integrated in the context of their tradition. These are less common among younger Aborigines, for whom there is an increase in culturally meaningless and frighten-ing ego-alien experiences.

    Which all sounds to me like it ties in pretty well with Jaynes theory! You could tell a story where Australian Aborigines without much exposure to western culture commonly heard god voices, just like ancient Greeks, but colonists and settlers don’t particularly take note of it (at the time they didn’t even think of Aboriginal people as fully human). By the time Aboriginal peoples get any sort of voice in contemporary Australian society they have already been through a generation of forced cultural integration, and have taken on much of the theory of mind of white colonials. If the topic ever comes up it never gets popularised, and the only reason it came up in this particular survey was because the author had heard of Jaynes and his theories, and thought was worth an ask.

    • keaswaran says:

      This is interesting. I spent a year in Australia, and one notable feature there was that television broadcasts and rented movies often began with a disclaimer, “this program includes recorded images of deceased individuals”. I’ve heard that this is taboo for many aboriginal Australians, and it might be related to this idea of seeing dead people.

    • bullseye says:

      The older ones have paranormal experiences, and the younger ones have hallucinations. That sounds like they’re experiencing the same thing and interpreting it differently, which I don’t think is Jaynes’ theory at all.

  110. Phil H says:

    Scott Alexander on Julian Jaynes is pretty much my best case scenario! Very glad that you reviewed this book. I loved it (without necessarily agreeing with it, I just love a well-argued, bold hypothesis).

    I think there are a couple of other relevant claims that I think should be thrown up here. Harold Bloom makes the claim that Shakespeare “invented” humans – or more specifically, the modern idea of personality.
    “Personality, in our sense, is a Shakespearean invention, and is not only Shakespeare’s greatest originality but also the authentic cause of his perpetual pervasiveness. Insofar as we ourselves value, and deplore, our own personalities, we are the heirs of Falstaff and of Hamlet…”

    And a critic called Yu Qiuyu (declaration of interest: I translated this book) writes:
    “Tang poetry is an entire dimension of existence…knocks on the doors of our minds…and we are shown a wonderful version of ourselves.”

    These episodes are thousands of years after Jaynes’s, but if we take them seriously, then could it not be that advances in history, society, technology and language do expand how we are able to understand ourselves? Rather than seeing Jaynes’s episode as the 0-1 of consciousness, could we see it as the 0.2-0.4? And then subsequent eras adding incrementally to it?

    The diversity of experience thing does make me think that it’s possible there was a significant shift from a society in which everyone happily believed the gods were talking to them because that’s the way everyone talked about their minds to a society in which that wasn’t the case. That could happen in just a few generations, I think, and could easily leave poets, who know the poetry of a few generations back, struggling to explain what’s happened.

  111. wonderer says:

    I think this book is quite obviously ridiculous.

    And these people also seem to be able to strategically deceive others, another key consciousness innovation Jaynes says Bronze Agers lacked.

    Take a look at the Odyssey. It has strategic deception out the wazoo. Odysseus’ epithet is “wily” and “cunning”–aka good at deception–and this is literally his main character trait throughout the poem. Odysseus pretends to be a sheep so that the cyclops wouldn’t eat him. Penelope dupes the suitors by working on her stitching by day and undoing the stitches by night (she promised to marry one of the suitors after completing her masterpiece). Penelope verifies Odysseus’ identity by asking him to move their bed, knowing full well that it was immovable and that the real Odysseus would know this. Odysseus pretends to be a beggar after finally returning to Ithaca so that his enemies wouldn’t kill him immediately. Penelope and Odysseus lure the suitors into an archery competition to make them easy for Odysseus to kill.

    Sorry, but saying the Odyssey doesn’t have deception is like saying Romeo and Juliet doesn’t have love, or that 1984 doesn’t have authoritarianism. It’s literally the main character trait of the main character.

    For Jaynes, the Iliad starts “Sing, O Muse…” because the poet was expecting a hallucinatory Muse to actually appear beside him and start singing, after which he would repeat the song to his listeners as a sort of echolalia.

    In Greek, the beginning of the Iliad is not “Sing, O muse”. It is actually “rage!”: “Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles, which brought so many men to their doom.” The whole poem is about how Achilles got angry that Agamemnon took his sex slave, sulked around refusing to help the Greeks, and then finally entered into a rage when his friend Patroclus got killed, killing many Trojans in the process. One of them is Hector, whose body Achilles abuses until Hector’s father sneaks into Achilles’ camp at night and begs for his son’s body.

    Does this sound like someone with no consciousness, or who only obeys the gods? Achilles sounds like a fully fleshed out character to me, capable of anger, love, vengefulness, pity, and mercy every bit as much as a modern person.

    My god has forsaken me and disappeared
    My goddess has failed me and keeps at a distance
    The good angel who walked beside me has departed.

    Here’s the full poem. It’s short and pretty good, so I suggest reading it in full. The poem has lines like:

    His heart is enraged with me, and cannot be appeased.
    The courtiers plot hostile action against me,
    They assemble themselves and give utterance to impious words. . . .
    They combine against me in slander and lies.
    Dread has enfeebled my robust heart. . . .
    If I walk the street, ears are pricked;
    If I enter the palace, eyes blink.
    My city frowns on me as an enemy;
    Indeed my land is savage and hostile.
    My friend has become foe,
    My companion has become a wretch and a devil. . . .

    Notice the strategic deception: the courtiers are combining to plot lies against him. Also, his king is angry, his city hates him, and he feels dread at the situation. This sounds like someone who knows full well that other people have minds, goals, and feelings that are different from his own.

    Then, around 1250 BC, this well-oiled system started to break down. Jaynes blames trade.

    The timeline is seriously off. The Iliad and Odyssey were written down c. 800 BC, but they circulated as oral poems starting from the age of Mycenaean Greece (1600 BC–1100 BC), with extensive modifications during the Greek Dark Ages (1100–800 BC). The Trojan War happened around 1260–1180 BC. The Mycenaeans were a trading empire, with Mycenaean artifacts found as far afield as Egypt, Cyprus, the Black Sea, southern Italy, and even southern Spain. The Greek Dark Ages was definitely not a golden age of trade–to the extent that pottery existed at all, it was very crappy and the style only existed in one locality, indicating very little economy and even less trade.

    Most of the Iliad and Odyssey are from the Dark Ages. We know this because the societies they depict seem like those of the Dark Ages. There is no sign of reading or writing in either epic. The “king of kings” Agamemnon doesn’t seem to have much authority–when Achilles refuses to fight, all he can do is beg and plead, not order someone to chop his head off. The gifts that the people give to each other are very basic, essentially tripods and cauldrons, and not anything we’d consider luxury goods. The kings engage in agriculture, and the queens sew–hardly the kind of activity the king of a great and wealthy empire would do. So in order for the trade -> consciousness/theory of mind idea to make sense, we’d have to posit that the people of Greece gained the theory of mind during the Mycenean Empire, but lost it during the Dark Ages, only to regain it when Greece re-emerged into civilization 300 years later. It doesn’t seem like this is what Jaynes is proposing, nor does it make any sense.

    • JohnBuridan says:

      It is fairly *common* for academic commentary on the Iliad and Odyssey to question the degree to which characters have internal experience. One of the joys of these works, frequently noted among classicists, is that these are some of the earliest works in which something like individual experience starts to poke its head out. I think it is obtuse and totally normie to ignore that the “Rage of Achilles” can be read as a separate character. Similarly, the many-wiled Odysseus seems to get his wiles from Athena!

      In fact, we have pretty good documentary evidence that people thought Odysseus got his wiles from Athena, and not the other way around, because centuries later in Plato’s works, he discusses the way the works of Homer influence people’s views of the gods. Consider the Euthyphro and the famous question which is now pretty stupid to us: “Is a man pious because he is beloved by the gods, or is he beloved by the gods because he is pious?”

      Which of our attributes comes from the gods? Notice that Presocratics/Socrates/Plato start breaking down this view of the human, but never totally. In Aristotle, and his Byzantine, Muslim, and Christian commentators we still have one aspect of man that is divinely caused: the intellect! Don’t forget the highly disputed but extremely important questiones we all sat through in college about the Active Intellect, a single, immaterial (sometimes divine?) mind which acts upon the knower when he/she knows something. It is this same Active Intellect which allows us to communicate truths to each other, because once we are primed by our individual processes the Active Intellect can then descend and give us knowledge. Trippy and weird and totally new way of interpreting what is going on Greek literary history.

      This is so cool! Don’t miss out on this reading of these texts. And don’t underestimate how hard it is to shed modern presuppositions.

      • bullseye says:

        Consider the Euthyphro and the famous question which is now pretty stupid to us: “Is a man pious because he is beloved by the gods, or is he beloved by the gods because he is pious?”

        That doesn’t sound stupid to me. Those favored by the gods prosper, so we can ask if a man prospers as a reward for piety, or whether he is pious in gratitude for his prosperity.

      • Quixote says:

        Haveing read the Iliad and Odyssey at a fairly young age, the thing that real stood out to me was how much Odysseus felt out of place. He seemed like a time traveler to me almost, he seemed like a modern person with plans concerns and thought processes that felt familiar. Everyone else felt so different, I couldn’t imagine taking the actions they did or making the choices they did.

      • wonderer says:

        It is fairly *common* for academic commentary on the Iliad and Odyssey to question the degree to which characters have internal experience.

        Which papers question this?

        Similarly, the many-wiled Odysseus seems to get his wiles from Athena!

        Sometimes he does, but usually he doesn’t. The same is true for Penelope. Let’s look at the examples I cited:

        1. Odysseus pretends to be a sheep so that the cyclops wouldn’t eat him.

        Nowhere in Odysseus’ narration of his plan did he mention a god coming to tell him what to do. In fact, he says “now this seemed to my mind the best plan.” The closest he comes to crediting Athena is this: “Then with loud whistling the Cyclops turned his fat flocks toward the mountain, and I was left there, devising evil in the deep of my heart, if in any way I might take vengeance on him, and Athena grant me glory.” So Odysseus was the one devising the evil plan, but it would be up to Athena if the plan succeeds or not–just like how modern Christians attribute the success or failure of their plans to God.

        2. Penelope tricks the suitors

        Here is an instance of her trickery:
        she had her great loom standing in the hall
        So every day she wove on the great loom—
        but every night by torchlight she unwove it;
        and so for three years she deceived the Akhaians.

        Maybe Penelope decided to trick the suitors because a god told her to, but that’s not what the suitor accused her of. The suitor said she, Penelope, keeps tricking them. He says that she, Penelope, deceived the Akhaians. Later, she relates the story to Odysseus, and again there’s no sign of gods:

        Ruses served my turn
        to draw the time out
        So every day I wove on the great loom,
        but every night by torchlight I unwove it;
        and so for three years I deceived the Akhaians.

        2. Odysseus pretends to be a beggar after finally returning to Ithaca so that his enemies wouldn’t kill him immediately.

        It was indeed Athena’s idea to dress him like a beggar. But the clothing isn’t all there is to being a beggar; Odysseus has to play the part well. He spins fantastic stories about how came to be a beggar. He even craftily tests his swineherd Eumaeus’ hospitality by pretending he wanted to go beg in the city:

        Listen,” he said, “Eumaios; listen, lads.
        At daybreak I must go and try my luck
        around the port. I burden you too long.

        3. Penelope tests Odysseus’ identity. No sign of a god here:

        Penelope spoke to Odysseus now. She said: “ Strange man,
        if man you are . . . This is no pride on my part
        nor scorn for you—not even wonder, merely.
        I know so well how you—how he—appeared
        boarding the ship for Troy. But all the same . . .
        Make up his bed for him, Eurykleia.
        Place it outside the bedchamber my lord
        built with his own hands. Pile the big bed
        with fleeces, rugs, and sheets of purest linen.”

        4. Penelope and Odysseus lure the suitors into an archery competition to make them easy for Odysseus to kill.

        This is the only clear example in my list of Athena orchestrating the whole thing:

        Upon Penélopê, most worn in love and thought,
        Athena cast a glance like a grey sea
        lifting her. Now to bring the tough bow out and bring
        the iron blades. Now try those dogs at archery
        to usher bloody slaughter in.

        Consider the Euthyphro and the famous question which is now pretty stupid to us: “Is a man pious because he is beloved by the gods, or is he beloved by the gods because he is pious?”

        Far from being stupid, the Euthyphro dilemma was illuminating and profound when it was proposed, and remains so today. First, Euthyphro wasn’t referring to the piety of men, but of abstract principles. He actually said: “is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” Let’s replace “pious” with a word that secular societies understand more intuitively: morally good. Let’s also replace polytheism with monotheism. We get:

        Is a moral principle (i.e. “refrain from murder”) good because God says so? Or does God command it because it’s good?

        If the principle is good because God says so, that seems to imply an arbitrariness to morality that violates our intuitions. Morality would be nothing but God’s whim. On Tuesday, God might say murder is bad, and it would be bad; on Wednesday, God might say murder is good, and it would be good. It seems implausible that morality is this insubstantial. On the other hand, if God tells us not to murder because refraining from murder is inherently good, that implies that morality is independent of God. The wrongness of murder would then be a fact about the universe, capable of being deduced, like Newton’s laws, without any reference to religion at all. The implications of this on religious moral codes are easy to see.

        Which of our attributes comes from the gods? Notice that Presocratics/Socrates/Plato start breaking down this view of the human, but never totally. In Aristotle, and his Byzantine, Muslim, and Christian commentators we still have one aspect of man that is divinely caused: the intellect!

        Most of the world’s population probably believe this even today. They believe in the soul, an entity separate from the body that encompasses the intellect. That doesn’t mean Christians/Muslims/others aren’t conscious or don’t have a theory of mind.

        • JohnBuridan says:

          I’m sorry, but you are bringing in all the baggage of interpretation that any modern person would. I personally agree with your reading. But I also think it possible, likely even, that at least some in Homer’s audience thought of whatever happened in the mind as deposited by the gods.

          Bruno Snell, German philologist denied the unity of Archaic Greek conceptions of body and soul. Bernard Knox refutes the “no unity of body claim” here.

          You also may notice that in the account of this academic article the author *assumes* that reading the text as though the gods act upon he intellect, making what is bestial in us divine. Unreason and folly (ate’) is the natural state intelligence/ self-restraint/ consideration (Litae are the daughter of Zeus).

          Page 5 of this article – from a modern perspective “the gods are an externalization of interior experience.”

          In a much longer article discussing the historical nature of the gods B. Dietrich points out the staggering diversity of scholarly opinion for understanding who or what the gods are in the Homeric epics.

          These articles are just the first four articles (minus one which was irrelevant) which appeared when I searched “Gods” AND “Homer” AND “Individual” in JSTOR and opened up about 20 tabs. But I got tired and didn’t go through them. And just these first few prove my point, that the relationship between the gods and the mind is at least up for dispute and MULTIPLE LEGITIMATE READINGS ARE POSSIBLE.

          Edit: as I was closing tabs I found this great article on the process of the word daimon transitioning from a force external to a person to one internal in Greek language.

          Edit 2: and another article talking about heroic insights as epiphanies from the gods. And this is the strongest statement I could find on the gods being internal projections from our perspective, but extrinsic realities from the Greek perspective [Content warning: psychoanalysis].

      • DM says:

        The Euthyphro question is so far from meaningless that it’s the basis for the major objection to divine command theories of ethics taught standardly in introductory philosophy courses in the English-speaking world. The point (at least of the argument that now uses Socrates’ statement as a jumping off point) is something like this: if we say that the will of God/the gods makes what is moral moral, then it seems as though morality is arbitrary, based simply on whim (the gods can’t base their willing on morality if it doesn’t exist until the will it into existence.) So we’d better reject the view that being moral and being divinely commanded are just the same thing. (Note: this is compatible with us having a moral duty to do what God commands and with everything that God says about morality is true. It’s not an argument against Christian theism.) On the other hand, if we say the gods love what is pious because it is pious, we can’t then explain what constitutes being pious (good/moral etc.) by saying it just consists in being loved by the gods. Bertrand Russell put the point by saying ‘Theologians have always told us that God is good, *and that this is not a tautology*’; it logically follows that goodness is independent of God’s commands.’

        • Doctor Mist says:

          Though an atheist and occasional amateur moral nihilist, I always sort of assumed that an anthropic viewpoint got you out of this. God has a conception of good, and so he created a universe in which that stuff really was good. So we can recognize good as good because it is good — we can observe that it is good without having to take God’s word for it. If God had had a different idea, He’d have created a different universe.

  112. elspeth artemis says:

    thank you for the translation. if i had read consciousness instead of theory-of-mind, the review would have been much less useful.

  113. dogeofwar says:

    Regarding other civilizations around the globe, like Aboriginal Australians, having or not having TOM (theory of mind)… one could claim that generally projecting your own thoughts onto hallucinatory entities isn’t enough to be as “TOMless” as the bronze age peoples of the western world.
    Remember all that talk about the populations being centered around ziggurats and having their lives revolve around a pharaoh? Maybe this is a cultural strategy that enhances “hallucinatory dialogue” to the point of it being a part of daily life, and this doesn’t just happen without putting strong educational/cultural emphasis on entities (like building super huge statues, or literally every household having a personal idol). Hunter-gatherer civs, as far as I know, didn’t have the means to indoctrinate hallucinatory dialogue as powerfully as post-agriculture ones did, which could explain native peoples not being as weird as bronze age westerners.

    Also, if trade is the catalyst to developing TOM, it could have emerged more than once on our planet. Trade is generally very profitable, so a converging evolutionary outlook could explain TOM developing from scratch in several different places and eras just the same.

    To test what I’m saying – and I’m not at all an expert historian of any culture, let alone native american or australian ones – one should find a native culture that went from being tribal to being a centralized kingdom and adoring their gods aggressively. Mayan-like cultures with huge stair pyramids and sacrifices thrown into volcanoes spring to mind.
    If such a culture – prior to engaging in massive trade, and prior to putting tons of material and effort into celebrating godly entities (thus indoctrinating hallucinatory dialogue) – had less writings/stories/memes utilizing TOM terms than they did after, then Jame’s theory checks out.
    Otherwise, his claim might be problematic.

  114. even_wrong says:

    Is it interesting/relevant that Jordan Peterson talks about viewing addiction as involving the development of an additional “1-Dimensional Personality” that overwhelms everything else? He also talks about (I don’t trust him on this, I should do some fact checking) how people viewed drinking alcohol as literally imbibing a foreign spirit. I feel like this has parallels here.

    As a side note, as someone who grew up in a not-so-freudian-as-the-US culture, I find self-analysis in terms of trauma and ego/etc. to be not more obviously “correcter” theories of self than constructions of internal families – it still comes across very ritualistic/culturally contingent/a kind of storytelling technique to me. (This is not me saying anything about its therapeutic value – I am not a medical professional).

    edit: I’ve also been thinking about other autonomous processes that can end up getting spun up in the brain – falling in love with someone once, I ended up developing basically a parallel thread that would always keep the other person in mind, even many years after the break up, the process is still running away merrily…

    • Doesntliketocomment says:

      Many posts ago there was a comment that was very enlightening to me: Someone conjectured therapy as not an attempt to determine truth, but the creation of a new narrative that engenders the behaviors leading to a desired outcome. In that sense, any theory of self is valid as long as the results are positive for the individual and society.

  115. Doesntliketocomment says:

    One of my concerns with the way this theory as stated is the way personal gods is an individual experience, but somehow tapers off over hundreds of years. If this is really the result of some groundbreaking memetic change in thought, one would expect it to come in a matter of two to three generations at most. People wouldn’t write about the “Gods abandoning us” because the youth would have either never really experienced the everpresent gods as a phenomenon, and the old still would. It can’t be chalked up to gradual changes in the belief environment, because we don’t see those. As an example, the Romans continued to make offerings to household gods until the 4th century, at least.

    On a separate note, Scott if you read this: What do you define as having a “Poor theory of mind”? Asking for a friend. Who may or may not be in my head.

    • castilho says:

      That’s why Jaynes’ theory is not about a “gradual memetic change” – he believes there was an actual change in brain structure that spread through the population. Hence the “breakdown of the bicameral mind”.

      I think the specific way he believes this breakdown happened doesn’t mesh too well with current research, but the general idea doesn’t seem too far-fetched.

  116. ridewinter says:

    There’s an old book called The Culture of the Teutons where the author makes a similar observation about the pre-Christianized Norse.

  117. Irein says:

    You might be interested in the book Divination and Human Nature: A Cognitive History of Intuition in Classical Antiquity. Some of the arguments about divination are quite similar to what you point out here.

  118. siduri says:

    On the question of indigenous groups’ experience of the world pre-contact (and specifically whether they were “hallucinating gods all the time”)–I don’t know if I am particularly convinced by Jaynes’ theory, but it is interesting, and I immediately flashed to a few narratives from members of different tribes who did in fact claim that they had a much more direct, unmediated relationship with a spiritual or divine aspect of the world, including literal communication with animals or spirits, before their contact with European civilization.

    For instance “Pretty-Shield: Medicine Woman of the Crows” is a record made by an anthropologist in 1931 with a Crow grandmother. Over the course of narrating her life story she includes a number of times when she literally spoke with animals or animal spirits, and heard them speaking back; it seems this was considered quite common by everyone in her tribe. At one point she asks the interviewer directly: “Did any of the animal-people ever talk to you?” He reports that “When I told her that I had often understood what my horse or my dog wanted me to know, she did not appear to be satisfied. As though pondering, she stared at the blank wall over my head, disappointment in her eyes.” Later she says that the animals used to talk, but they’ve stopped.

    There’s a similar narrative in “The Chukchi Bible” though it’s from a very different part of the world–the Chukchi are a Siberian native group. In that text a kind of easy and literal ongoing conversation with the spirit world is reported, and it’s also reported that communications of this type (which for the Chukchi were restricted to shamans) were lost when the Bolsheviks murdered their shamans.

    I think this description of normalized communications with the spirit world which have since been lost is a fairly common feature of narratives from tribal people who were raised traditionally: not proof of anything, just interesting. (Oh and it’s maybe worth noting that Pretty-Shield started getting more communications from animal spirits after suffering a traumatic head injury!)

  119. bullseye says:

    I think our minds have worked in basically the same since before recorded history. So why do visits from gods seem less common than they used to be?

    1) Because we’re mistaken about the past. Extraordinary things get told and retold more than ordinary things, so the past appears to be mostly extraordinary things. Some people read the Bible and get the impression that everybody back then was having religious visions, but I think it’s just that the Bible focuses on the rare people who have visions. Also tales grow in the telling, so an event might be more overtly supernatural in a story that it actually was.

    2) Because we interpret the same experiences differently. I’ve had, and I think most people have had, experiences where I inexplicably know something that I later find to be true; I chalk it up to intuition or coincidence, but someone with different religious beliefs could easily perceive it as a message from a god or angel. A few people actually see supernatural beings, which are interpreted as gods, demons, or mental illness depending on when and where they happen.

    Another point: I don’t see what hearing the voice of a god has to do with consciousness or theory of mind. Why should understanding other people’s minds make the voices go away?

    • The original Mr. X says:

      1) Because we’re mistaken about the past. Extraordinary things get told and retold more than ordinary things, so the past appears to be mostly extraordinary things. Some people read the Bible and get the impression that everybody back then was having religious visions, but I think it’s just that the Bible focuses on the rare people who have visions.

      That’s a good point. I remember one of my friends had a book of testimonies from people who claimed to have met angels in some capacity. If for some reason you knew very little about the modern west and most of your information came from this and similar books, you could easily get the impression that (claims of) supernatural interactions were a common and widespread occurrence; and yet, as we all know, this isn’t really the case.

  120. LadyJane says:

    Clearly Jaynes is referring to the time before Clotho broke the Loom of Fate and scattered its pieces across the multiverse, thus granting humans free will and ending the reign of the gods over our lives.

  121. Pandemic Shmandemic says:

    Proverbs 12:10 is translated in King James as “A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel. ”

    This is a very unfortunate translation – the original Hebrew phrasing is “A righteous man knows the mind of his beast” (the word used for mind is “Nefesh”)

    This proverb is usually exegized as being not just about actual beasts but about all household dependants, disciples and subordinates. The righteous man is contrasted with the wicked who fullfils the needs of those around him by merely “going through the motions” without genuine regard for their wellbeing which is denounced as cruel.

    The Book of Proverbs is traditionally attributed to King Solomon but the Talmud notes it as being written down during the time of Judean King Hezkiah.
    Hezkiah is said to have reigned circa 750BC-680BC and his reign is said to have been marked by an aggressive campaign against a rampant resurgence of idolatry among Judeans.

    Does any of this support Jaynes ? Could go both ways really – it shows that at the time of the writing a theory of mind was very much a known and appreciated thing but there’s no particular indication that it was appreciated as some sort of a novel mental superpower rather than a common virtue.

  122. MalcolmOcean says:

    As a few other commenters have mentioned, there’s a more updated big-picture brain lateralization theory by Iain McGilchrist. McGilchrist worked directly with many schizophrenic patients in his practice as a psychiatrist, and notes that in addition to whatever non-replicable Gazzaniga work, Jaynes was also working with a now-outdated understanding of schizophrenia.

    It occurs to me that Iain has a lot in common with you, Scott, in that he wrote this book in his spare time out of intense curiosity, while working his psychiatry dayjob. (Contrast this with an academic researcher and their incentives, who would have had trouble spending 20 years digging through as many sources as he did before publishing anything.)

    Here’s an excerpt of what McGilchrist says in The Master and his Emissary on Jaynes’ work:

    Putting it at its simplest, where Jaynes interprets the voices of the gods as being due to the disconcerting effects of the opening of a door between the hemispheres, so that the voices could for the first time be heard, I see them as being due to the closing of the door, so that the voices of intuition now appear distant, “other”; familiar but alien, wise but uncanny – in a word, divine.

    It’s kind of a conclusion to a bunch of other things he says; to see it in context, check out the images in this tweet

    And here’s a link to the book:
    The Master and his Emissary on Amazon

  123. Wolpertinger says:

    Did he literally believe that the Sumerians, Homeric Greeks, etc were p-zombies? That there was nothing that it was like to be them? That they took in photons and emitted actions but experienced no “mysterious redness of red”?

    What is so mysterious about redness? Photons go in, the brain maps them into some fuzzy bins which are used to categorize things because nobody is trained to distinguish colors on a fine-grained level (not to mention the visual system’s quirks and inconsistent lighting making that difficult) which we then use to communicate.

    • Fred Dillon says:

      The “mysterious redness of red” refers to the purely qualitative experience of what it is like to see the colour red (or any colour, there’s nothing particularly important about red). The process you described does not distinguish a conscious human from a p-zombie.

      • Wolpertinger says:

        But what’s mysterious about it? It is simply a map-territory correspondence. Sure, the map is a bit inaccurate in everyone but what more would there be to it that would make the “experience” be more than an inaccurate projection of the underlying physical phenomenon?

        • Fred Dillon says:

          So, I agree that it is not very mysterious once you posit the primacy of consciousness or consciousness as a fundamental law of nature or something. However, many people think consciousness should be reducible to physics.

          The process of categorising detected photons based on their frequency can be done by a computer following laws seemingly completely reducible to the laws of physics. Not many people think that such a computer needs to have the qualitative experience of colour to do such a task. The mystery is why (or probably better, how) we do when doing the same sort of task.

          • Wolpertinger says:

            I’m not sure we are agreeing. And even if we did wouldn’t it be circular reasoning (redness of red as example of consciousness, explained by primacy of consciousness)?

            Not many people think that such a computer needs to have the qualitative experience of colour to do such a task. The mystery is why (or probably better, how) we do when doing the same sort of task.

            Take an analogue computer, one that is not calibrated, has to deal with changing lighting conditions that make colors appear differently all the time and a vision system that operates with 3 band filters so you can’t even get the orginal spectral distribution out (it’s injective) so a lossy representation of the underlying physics.

            Then every time you make a new one of those computers you need to calibrate its color categorization function from scratch. If you don’t teach it teal
            then it’ll just know blue and green. And the boundary isn’t sharp because you’re not training it under lab conditions.

            We don’t present children with a cube of 255 x 255 x 255 colors and label
            each of them and train them to distinguish each color under different lighting conditions.

            Of course results will vary.

            But I don’t see anything mysterious or relating to “consciousness” in that.
            It’s just a poorly calibrated photon sampler and categorizer.
            Different uncalibrated instruments will give different results.

          • Fred Dillon says:

            We’re still talking past each other. You keep describing the assumed functional purpose of conscious states (what Chalmers describes as an easy problem of consciousness) but this is precisely not what the mystery is about. The mystery (or so-called “hard problem”) is why and how a human has a conscious experience of colour at all when it is performing colour discrimination but a computer does not. It is notoriously hard to talk about because we conflate these two aspects of conscious experience (the function and the actual qualitative experience) in our language all the time.

            But I don’t see anything mysterious or relating to “consciousness” in that.
            It’s just a poorly calibrated photon sampler and categorizer.
            Different uncalibrated instruments will give different results.

            Just to reiterate: The photon sampling and categorisation is the functional purpose of conscious colour discrimination in humans. This is not the mystery. The mystery is the actual experience of what it is like to do the sampling and categorisation “from the inside”. The subjective, 1st person experience. This is something humans have but we assume that a computer doing the same task does not have. The very fact that we can conceive of a computer doing the fuctional task of human vision without the accompanying conscious experience raises the question of what is it doing there in the human and how did it get there? For example, it seems very difficult to see how such a thing could arise from the objective, 3rd person laws of physics. The laws of physics explain how stuff moves and what it is made of, it doesn’t say anything about what it is like for some stuff to experience other stuff and it doesn’t seem that any such explanation could possibly be built up from the laws about how stuff moves and what it is made of. Also, if the actual conscious experience in humans plays a necessary role in the function of sampling and categorisation of photons, which it certainly appears to, doesn’t that mean that it has a causal effect on the physical behaviour of humans? i.e. that at least some physical causation can’t be properly described without a purely mental, conscious component?

          • Wolpertinger says:

            The mystery is the actual experience of what it is like to do the sampling and categorisation “from the inside”. The subjective, 1st person experience. This is something humans have but we assume that a computer doing the same task does not have.

            There is a presumption that what the human is doing is different from what a computer is doing. When I am cycling through a city and there’s a red stop sign, then there is no conscious process that I would ascribe any special status to that elevates me above an animal or a computer. The red is just an object property that aids categorization of the object and allows me to react appropriately.

            Sure, I could introspect, think about the red, wonder if it’s not really a shade of orange, especially under the current sunlight and how a different human might disagree on the particular color label. But that doesn’t have anything to do with red itself, it’s more of a higher-level corrective layer that provides global context and cross-checks the lower-level findings.

            The laws of physics explain how stuff moves and what it is made of, it doesn’t say anything about what it is like for some stuff to experience other stuff and it doesn’t seem that any such explanation could possibly be built up from the laws about how stuff moves and what it is made of.

            You’re asking a grain of sand about the architecture of skyscrapers. Sand is important to skyscrapers (in concrete) but a skyscraper is a complex structure several abstraction layers above a grain of sand.

            It’s the same with the data processing our brains do, they operate on physical principles but are many layers removed from it. So in a way physics does tell us how all this works, but in an extremely mechanical, low-level way that is useless to humans. Given enough computing power a computer could in theory take a physical model and emulate a brain on that.

            Physics → Chemistry → Biology → many layers of neuroscience → thoughts

            Of course each of those layers in itself is a work in progress and there’s lots of uncharted territory. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything magical about it.

            So I still do not understand what’s mysterious about red and how that’s supposed to distinguish me from automatons.

          • Fred Dillon says:

            There is a presumption that what the human is doing is different from what a computer is doing.

            Well, no, the presumption is simply that the human is conscious and the computer is not. What they are doing is not the mystery. It’s the qualitative experience (or lack thereof.)

            When I am cycling through a city and there’s a red stop sign, then there is no conscious process that I would ascribe any special status to that elevates me above an animal or a computer.

            It’s not meant to elevate you in any way or allow you to transcend the laws of nature or anything like that. The mere fact that it is present at all is the mystery.

            The red is just an object property that aids categorization of the object and allows me to react appropriately.

            Except the red, as it is experienced, is a conscious property. It’s not a physical property like mass or charge or velocity or position or size. Furthermore, the conscious property (qualia) of red is nothing like these properties of physics and it is very difficult to see how such a property could possibly be reducible to physics.

            You’re asking a grain of sand about the architecture of skyscrapers. Sand is important to skyscrapers (in concrete) but a skyscraper is a complex structure several abstraction layers above a grain of sand.

            Yes, but a skyscraper is still structure. Sand is structure, a skyscraper is structure, the difference is in degree, not in kind.

            It’s the same with the data processing our brains do, they operate on physical principles but are many layers removed from it. So in a way physics does tell us how all this works, but in an extremely mechanical, low-level way that is useless to humans. Given enough computing power a computer could in theory take a physical model and emulate a brain on that.

            The computer that does the non-conscious information processing of a brain will be difficult to describe properly with fundamental physics but it is not nearly the same conceptual challenge. Without consciousness it is still a matter of structure and dynamics. The simple addition of consciousness to the situation adds an entirely new kind of property.

            So I still do not understand what’s mysterious about red and how that’s supposed to distinguish me from automatons.

            I’m not sure I understand what you mean here. “Red” is supposed to refer to the actual conscious experience of red, not the photon of a particular wavelength or whatever. By definition, “red” (or any other conscious experience) distinguishes you from an automaton precisely because it is a conscious experience. It’s just a tautology.

            I don’t think there is much more I can say to convince you but this is a real philosophical problem that a significant proportion of philosophers take very seriously. It is also notoriously hard to get people to appreciate the problem who have not been exposed to it before. Your reaction and responses are quite common and it took me a while to appreciate the problem myself after not getting it for a long time. I have at least one friend who was as incredulous as you are now who has completely changed his tune.

            I don’t know what else to do other than recommend you read up on it. There are plenty of good resources online. Here is a good start

          • Wolpertinger says:

            That link is somewhat helpful. I think the philosophers simply have an issue with the magnitudes of complexity between what we can achieve with symbolic reasoning vs. all the things the trillion synapses in a brain do. This is kind of obvious since a computer cannot fully emulate itself (without simplification) since the emulation will necessarily have less information capacity than the host system itself since some of that capacity is consumed with the emulation process instead of the emulated process. In computers we can make this overhead very small (mostly paying with speed, not size), in the brain we cannot do this because our higher reasoning abilities are only a small fraction of what the brain does.

            Take the Mary the super-scientist example which posits limitless logical acumen. But that thought-experiment does not exploit this assumption to its fullest. If her reasoning capability truly had no limits then she should be able to run a physical model of the visual cortex in her mind and take the results of stimulating that with monochromatic light instead of black-white as input for higher reasoning (i.e. daydreaming her room in color indistinguishably from real experience).

            Similarly a physically identical copy of a conscious human will be conscious.
            What is conceivable is a modified copy that is not conscious but still wakeful. But we could also achieve that by sticking electrodes into a brain to suppress some regions (which in fact already has been done). Asking for an identical copy that behaves differently is just intentionally creating a paradox and then wondering why you’re getting nonsensical answers.

            I would say I am firmly in the reductionist camp.

            So going back to the greek p-zombies, I think the answer might be that if they lack a theory of mind they would also lack the idea that color categorization (light in, categories out) might be somewhat subjective and people could disagree on them. But this would result in observable behavioral differences (similar to the sally-anne test) while the hypothetical p-zombies are supposed to be indistinguishable.

          • Fred Dillon says:

            I think the philosophers simply have an issue with the magnitudes of complexity between what we can achieve with symbolic reasoning vs. all the things the trillion synapses in a brain do.

            This is true but I still come back to the idea that it’s not just a problem of degree, it’s a problem of kind. Physical properties: mass, charge, position, size, velocity, acceleration, etc. are all properties pertaining to structure and dynamics – the stuff of physics. Conscious properties (qualia, redness, subjectivity, whatever you want to call it), on the other hand, seem to be of a completely different kind. They don’t seem to pertain directly or indirectly to structure and dynamics at all. They are certainly instantiated in states of particular structure and dynamics (e.g. neural configurations of particular electrochemical firings) but they themselves (the qualia) are just not of the same kind of thing.

            In other complex physical structures, like supercomputers, there’s still symbolic reasoning involved and very complicated abstraction from the fundamental laws of physics but the properties that fully explain a supercomputer (i.e. information processing, logic gates) are still ultimately properties of structure and dynamics.

            So going back to the greek p-zombies, I think the answer might be that if they lack a theory of mind they would also lack the idea that color categorization (light in, categories out) might be somewhat subjective and people could disagree on them. But this would result in observable behavioral differences (similar to the sally-anne test) while the hypothetical p-zombies are supposed to be indistinguishable.

            FWIW, I’ve never understood the appeal of p-zombie arguments. Putting the ancient Greeks aside, modern humans are conscious and we refer to our conscious states all the time (e.g. “I feel hungry”, “I wonder if the way I see red is different to the way you do”, etc). For an equivalent p-zombie to make such statements they must be either lying or deluded. Both seem completely ridiculous. It doesn’t seem conceivable that they could possibly be deluded since, as Searl puts it: ‘if it consciously seems to you that you are conscious, you are conscious’. Lying is similarly ridiculous since it necessarily involves a whole bunch of thinking about the lie, intending to lie, etc. and as soon as you add these things you are no longer identical. Besides, even Achilles in the example from Scott’s post was not a true p-zombie since he felt the tension as a physical sensation in his belly. He experienced the qualia of physical sensation. As soon as you can feel anything you are conscious.

            PS. I highly recommend the essay I linked above to the Searl quote. i does a better a job than me of making the case I am trying to.

          • Wolpertinger says:

            This is true but I still come back to the idea that it’s not just a problem of degree, it’s a problem of kind. Physical properties: mass, charge, position, size, velocity, acceleration, etc. are all properties pertaining to structure and dynamics – the stuff of physics. Conscious properties (qualia, redness, subjectivity, whatever you want to call it), on the other hand, seem to be of a completely different kind. They don’t seem to pertain directly or indirectly to structure and dynamics at all. They are certainly instantiated in states of particular structure and dynamics (e.g. neural configurations of particular electrochemical firings) but they themselves (the qualia) are just not of the same kind of thing.

            I fail to grasp this entire paragraph. It reads like mysticism or religious text to me. The whole point of emergence and layers of complexity is that you get something vastly different, qualitatively different from simple building blocks. Quantity has a quality all its own.
            Inert rocks run on the same schrödinger equation as living tissues and yet we consider living and inert things qualitatively different.

            And the comparison to supercomputers is insufficient since supercomputers have not yet achieved brain-level complexity. And yet they can already produce difficult to scrutinize results that no human would come up with. To introspect deep neural networks dedicated tools have to be built to figure out what they’re even doing. But they’re still within our grasp. The difference is that the brain as a whole is not completely understood and thus there are some high level properties which we cannot precisely connect to the underlying physical processes yet, but this disconnect in knowledge does not mean that they’re factually disconnected from the physics. Only that there are several abstraction layers in between that we have yet to pierce.

            Lightning is not divine will. It took a while to figure that one out, but it has been done. I see no reason why this should be any different.

            For an equivalent p-zombie to make such statements they must be either lying or deluded. Both seem completely ridiculous. It doesn’t seem conceivable that they could possibly be deluded since, as Searl puts it

            Not necessarily. A p-zombie could in principle be an automaton that responds to the need for fuel with the contextually appropriate phrase “I feel hungry” even without any thought processes. You could make a tamagotchi do this.

            If such routines were sufficiently complex they could pass a lot of everyday situations, similar to a chatbot passing a lax turing test. The point I was making earlier is that a p-zombie only wouldn’t pass in the fully generalized situation of attempting to replicate an entire, existing human because you could talk to the existing human about his experience and try to come up with novel questions that any fixed model short of the fidelity matching the original wouldn’t cover.
            I.e. attempting to create a sufficiently realistic simulacrum of a human with subjective experience/self-reflection/meta-cognition or however you would call it would grow every more complex to cover corner-cases to the point where the least-complex model that still gets it right is one simulating the experience itself. So again, it’s just a matter of complexity.

            As for the article you have linked, it seems to dismissive about opportunities for progress.

            Even if Markram’s Blue Brain manages to produce fleeting moments of ratty consciousness (which I accept it might), we still wouldn’t know how consciousness works. Saying we understand consciousness because this is what it does is like saying we understand how the Starship Enterprise flies between the stars because we know it has a warp drive. We are writing labels, not answers.

            This ignores the part that inspecting and analyzing a simulation is much much much easier than analyzing organic tissue.
            If we flash freeze and digitize rat brain slices then we only get a snapshot of the physical layout of the brain, we’re not seeing it actually working.
            Putting that layout into software, hooking it up to some simulated stimuli and running that simulation in small time steps, forwards, backwards, tracing signal cascades and so on would allow researchers to gain new insights into how the intermediate abstraction layers between “neurons firing” and “thoughts”.

          • Fred Dillon says:

            I fail to grasp this entire paragraph. It reads like mysticism or religious text to me. The whole point of emergence and layers of complexity is that you get something vastly different, qualitatively different from simple building blocks. Quantity has a quality all its own.

            So perhaps the difference is that you see the properties of a cyclone or non-conscious computer as being vastly different to the fundamental physical properties of an electron and I don’t. I don’t think this is it though because you seem insistent on the idea that everything really is reducible to physics. The reason I have any confidence that a cyclone is completely reducible to physics is precisely because the properties that fully explain a cyclone are properties that explain its structure and dynamics. Once you’ve explained everything about where the cyclone is in space and time you’ve explained the cyclone completely. The same is true of a p-zombie. The same is very, almost true of a conscious human. You explain exactly where the atoms of a human are and explain the time evolution of those atoms you’ve explained the behaviour of a human perfectly. The only thing you haven’t explained is the accompanying conscious experience – i.e. what it is like to be the human.

            Inert rocks run on the same schrödinger equation as living tissues and yet we consider living and inert things qualitatively different.

            I disagree, not in the same way as consciousness anyway. You describe the schrödinger equation time evolution of all of a rocks constituent atoms and you’ve described everything there is to know about the rock – what its structure is like and how that structure will evolve in time. The same is true of a plant. The same is true of a conscious animal….almost. You describe the schrödinger equation time evolution of all the animal’s constituent atoms and you’ve described almost everything there is to know about the animal- what its structure is like and how that structure will evolve in time. You’ve described it’s behaviour perfectly. The only thing you haven’t explained at all is the conscious experience of the animal. Therefore, unlike the rock or the plant, you still have an explanatory gap

            Not necessarily. A p-zombie could in principle be an automaton that responds to the need for fuel with the contextually appropriate phrase “I feel hungry” even without any thought processes. You could make a tamagotchi do this.

            Sure but this is not really a p-zombie. The tamagotchi that has been programmed to say “I feel hungry” based on particular physical stimuli has had a necessary physical change. Namely, the physical programming required to get it to say “I feel hungry”. A true human p-zombie needs to say “I feel hungry” the same way that a normal human does with no physical change to its brain/body state whatsoever. It seems fairly straightforward to me that the instantiation of the qualia of mental hunger in a human is dependent on the physical brain/body state of the human. Making this assumption then the only really plausible way to get a p-zombie to say “I feel hungry” without it actually feeling hungry is to actually change it’s physical neuronal structure in some way. As soon as you do this it’s no longer a true p-zombie.

            Putting that layout into software, hooking it up to some simulated stimuli and running that simulation in small time steps, forwards, backwards, tracing signal cascades and so on would allow researchers to gain new insights into how the intermediate abstraction layers between “neurons firing” and “thoughts”.

            Sure, but this is still missing the point. Replicating the rat brain perfectly would probably reproduce any consciousness the rat had but it wouldn’t be any sort of satisfactory explanation in the sense we are looking for. You would simply be mapping the physical states (“neurons firing”) with the mental states (“thoughts”). There is nothing that explains how those mental states are reducible to the physical states. You could have a theory that says with 100% precision: as soon as you have this arrangement of physical matter and time evolution you automatically instantiate this particular conscious state. This still doesn’t make a dent in the hard problem whatsoever.

  124. Quixote says:

    If people not from the Asia / Europe / Africa connected area of trading had a fundamentally different theory of mind and a different way of being than the transition to the new way of being might hit especially hard. In such a situation you might see the widespread mental malaise, significant substance use issues that had previously not been a problem. You might see people just despairing or giving up.

    On the other hand. Theory of mind or no, being invaded and conquered could also cause dislocation and substance abuse. Hard to isolate a cause, but history does not seem totally incompatible with people having widely different theories of mind.

  125. TheRadicalModerate says:

    I am poorly read in both psychology and the classics, so this was utterly delightful and fascinating.

    I’m going to indulge in a vaguely harebrained idea that I’ve kicked around for a while. Please treat this as a stab at getting it out in an understandable form, which may fail. I promise this is eventually going to be on-topic, but it’s going to take a moment to get there.

    I’ve long thought that the way to think about consciousness is to consider it an interaction between five kinds of computational elements:

    1) A “sensor”, which is a big bag of ways for an organism to gather information about the external world.

    2) A “recognizer”, which is a big bag of neural networks that learn to organize the sensor’s input into patterns that are useful to the organism.

    3) A “sequencer”, which is a big bag of slightly different neural nets that are capable of ordering behaviors useful to the organism.

    4) An “actor”, which is the way that the organism affects the external world, via movement and/or secreting stuff.

    5) An “attender”, which allocates attention, getting in between the recognizer and the sequencer, allowing the organism to prioritize which sequencers should be triggered.

    Very primitive organisms only have sensors and actors. The environment trips a sensor, and the sensor causes an action back to the environment.

    Once sensory data is complex enough, the organism needs a recognizer, which can learn meaningful correlations between different patterns of stimuli. Similarly, an organism that’s complex enough to move under its own power needs sequencers to coordinate its actions. So now we have stimuli that lead to recognition, which triggers sequences of actions.

    Actions are energetically expensive, as are completing recognition tasks that aren’t relevant at the moment. So the next step is to insert an attender into the system. The attender basically mediates between the recognizers and the sequencers, and blocks the sequencers from acting when they’re not needed.

    Note that an attender is a sort of meta-recognizer. Its job starts out as, “Nope, don’t worry about that right now,” but it’s rapidly going to repurpose hunks of the recognizer space to create more complex patterns, so it can learn to decide when a pattern of otherwise-disparate recognitions that usually don’t correlate very well needs to be acted upon in more complex circumstances. But at this point, the data flow is all unidirectional, from the sensors to the recognizers to the attender, which then gates stuff out to sequencers if needed.

    Once the attender gets good at synthesizing and remembering new patterns from disparate recognizers, it’s a fairly modest step for the attender to start triggering the recognizers itself, instead of waiting for the sensor to trigger them. Triggering of patterns is then recursive: a sensor triggers recognition of something, which the attender notices and amplifies, triggering still more recognitions, which move attention elsewhere, and so on. This sounds an awful lot like “dreaming” and/or “thinking” to me. The organism can be quite passive and still be responding to its own internal state.

    If you have the attender doing this sort of not-quite-open-loop walking of the network of recognizers, it’s now a very short jump to “concepts”, which are just shorthand for the attender to deal with patterns of patterns without having to spend the energy to stimulate the whole network associated with them. From here, now all you need for language is some syntax in your sequencer system and the ability to make distinctive actions that others will interpret as stimuli that mean something.

    But note that there’s a transition up above where recognizers go from being triggered solely by sensors to being triggered by both sensors and the attender. That sounds a bit like what Jaynes is calling bicamerality. (See, I told you I’d get there…)

    It seems to me that a perfectly functional, complex, thinking organism like a bronze-age human could be engaged in all the correlates of thought and language but still have an attender that hadn’t quite tumbled to the fact that it was driving its own pattern recognizers. In other words, it wouldn’t be able to distinguish between recognizers being triggered by sensors and those being triggered by the attender itself. It would indeed experience this as some sort of external entity “talking” to it.

    How does the attender learn what’s really happening? Is it simply a particularly useful pattern that becomes enough of a concept to get turned into language, and then spread throughout the culture? Or does it require some architectural tweak in the attender before it’s possible to distinguish between external and internal stimuli? If it’s the former, then the Jaynes theory holds water. If it’s the latter, then there’s an evolutionary step that’s required. It seems unlikely but not impossible that that evolutionary step occurred about 2700 years ago.

    • Wolpertinger says:

      It seems unlikely to be an evolutionary step since that trait would have to spread through the entire world population within a few hundred years. Memes spread faster than genes.

  126. Leisureguy says:

    Your comment on Internal Family Systems reminded me strong of Psychosynthesis, a discipline established by